By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA — After nine years of neglect under former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, expectations among overseas Filipino workers were high when the Aquino administration was installed.
Arroyo’s nine year rule left some 7,000 Filipino migrant workers jailed, more than 10,000 stranded in the Middle East alone, 108 in death row and six beheaded. Arroyo’s waning months as president could have provided President Benigno S. Aquino III a bird’s eye view of the hardships that OFWs went through.
In January, a death sentence imposed on an OFW was upheld by Kuwait’s highest court. Jakatia Pawa, 34, was accused of killing her employer’s daughter on May 14, 2007. She repeatedly pleaded for innocence, saying that the knife that claimed the victim’s life did not even bear her fingerprints. But because of the lack of legal assistance, the decision was upheld by Kuwait’s highest court. Her family, meanwhile, were left in a blind spot, without receiving any significant update on their kin’s case.
Relatives, too, of Joselito Zapanta have expressed the same sentiment. Zapanta was sentenced to die last year after trying to defend himself and ended up killing his Sudanese landlord who was beating him up. The family began contacting the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) for updates but received very little and insignificant details that could help them know what Zapanta was going through. When the family had the chance to talk to Zapanta, the OFW said that no lawyer or embassy official had visited him since he was sent to jail.
Labor disputes have also been reported early this year. In February, 43 women workers of Annasban were repatriated. They were victims of contract substitution, delayed salaries, illegal deductions, poor working conditions and non-provision of medical insurance by their employer. They went to various government agencies to ask for help but were ignored, compelling them to stage a camp-out outside the office of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) in Pasay City. On the third day of their protest, OWWA administrator Carmelito Dimzon finally agreed to sit down with the workers and was forced to give them P10,000 ($228) financial assistance each, free medical check-ups, transportation fees to enable them to return to their respective provinces and P20,000 ($456) burial benefit for their co-worker Elsie Pelayo who died several days after being repatriated.
Some 200 Filipino employees of Al Arab company, on the other hand, staged a strike in Saudi Arabia for the company’s alleged labor malpractice in February. Four days prior to their strike, they submitted to the company’s human resources manager a formal letter of complaint for delayed salaries, contract substitution, and non-payment of their overtime work. Though their strike lasted only for a day, the company agreed to sit down with the Filipino workers, look into their demands and draw a win-win solution on their case.
These were just some of the cases of abuse and neglect that OFWs experienced. Thus, when the Arroyo administration stepped down from power, OFWs hoped that under the Aquino administration, they would be treated well and not as mere government’s milking cows. In his inaugural speech, Aquino ordered all relevant government agencies to be more responsive to the needs of OFWs while working toward the goal of creating more jobs at home “so there will be no need to look for employment abroad.”
But as the days and months unfolded, the hopes of OFWs that there would be a change in the way they are being treated by the government became dimmer. “You [President Aquino] embraced us face-to-face but stabbed us behind our backs,” Garry Martinez, chairperson of Migrante International, the largest OFW group, told Bulatlat.com in an interview, referring to Aquino.
Since Aquino became president, he has not made any significant policy that would alleviate the conditions of OFWs. Instead, his administration has allowed anti-migrant policies to continue.
Migrante International estimates that a prospective OFW needs to pay around P20,000 ($456) in fees to the government, excluding placement fees. Martinez said that even before a job-seeker is deployed abroad, the government is already earning from him or her through exorbitant fees collected by the different government agencies processing his or her papers.
For one, the OWWA membership is mandatory for all OFWs as stipulated in the OWWA Omnibus Code. Each OFW must pay $25 yearly to be used purportedly to assist distressed OFWs.
The government has also proposed to make membership to Pag-ibig, a government housing fund agency, mandatory. Though the idea might initially seem helpful to OFWs, Migrante International said this would only become another financial burden to migrant workers and another form by which the government could earn from OFWs.
The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), in its Memorandum Circular 06-2010, requires OFWs to pay, upon deployment, a membership contribution of P600 ( $13.70) every month for six months. The memorandum is in pursuance to Republic Act 9679 or the Home Development Mutual Fund Law of 2009, placing informal sectors under mandatory coverage. The law stipulates that employers should cover the mandatory contribution. But Migrante International said the law “became muddled and misleading” when its implementing rules and regulations stipulated that foreign employers are not subject to mandatory coverage.
The recently amended Republic Act 10022 or the Migrants Workers Act, on the other hand, stipulates that mandatory health insurance shall be imposed on OFWs. John Monterona, Migrante Middle East coordinator, said the health insurance would compensate OFWs for injuries suffered because of an accident, maltreatment, or physical abuse. “But no amount of money could compensate for the loss of the life of an OFW, for the violation of his or her rights, and for the degradation of his or her well-being,” Monterona said.
Martinez added that mandatory insurance is also another way for the government to escape their responsibility to OFWs, especially those who have suffered abuses. For one, Martinez said it takes five complaints from OFWs to serve as basis for the suspension of an erring recruitment agency. With the insurance, it would be the insuring company that would compensate the OFW.
But the insurance company would have to investigate first before any compensation would be given. “Experience tells us that OFWs are almost always on the losing end in a legal battle,” Martinez said, citing cases of runaway OFWs who escaped from their erring employers because of abuses and delayed salaries. “They would be charged with breach of contract, so they would not get anything from the insurance company.”