By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
The plan of the Benigno Aquino III administration to close a number of foreign posts is impractical and insensitive to the plight of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).
This was the stand of Migrante International, a global alliance of OFWs and their families, in the wake of the Department of Foreign Affairs’ (DFA) announcement that it will to close down 12 Philippine embassies and consulates by the end of 2012.
Garry Martinez, Migrante International chairperson, said the planned closures were highly impractical and goes against the best interests of OFWs.
“We already have a shortage of Philippine posts abroad as it is. It is unfortunate that the Aquino administration is attacking embassies and consulates as part of its austerity measures. These same posts, despite their weaknesses and frequent failure to protect OFWs, are still what consists of a support system for OFWs abroad,” he said.
Martinez said instead of closing the doors of Philippine posts abroad, the government should even establish more embassies and consulates in other countries and ensure that its officials provide efficient and sufficient services to Filipinos living abroad.
There are currently 66 Philippine embassies, 23 consulates and four diplomatic missions worldwide. In the meantime, overseas Filipinos are deployed and are living in at least 239 countries.
Martinez said there are countries where there are many OFWs but with no Philippine posts.
“In Tanzania, for example, where hundreds of Filipino seafarers are in jail for illegal fishing, there is no Philippine post. The closest embassy OFWs in distress could run to in Tanzania is the Philippine embassy in Kenya. The embassy in Kenya, on the other hand, covers 12 other African countries. In Saudi Arabia, where there is an estimated 1.8 million OFWs, there are only two Philippine posts: an embassy in Riyadh and a consulate in Jeddah,” he said.
Martinez said most cases of human and labor rights abuses, mysterious deaths, jailed OFWs and OFWs in death row that have been reported to Migrante International are in Saudi Arabia. Posts in Saudi Arabia have also been reported as “not accessible” to Filipinos in the country’s provinces. Hong Kong and Singapore, with more than 150,000 OFWs each, only have one embassy.
“The list goes on and on. The point is, we cannot afford to have less Philippine posts when more than 10 percent of our population is abroad,” Martinez said.
He also said even the logic behind calls to close down embassies and consulates is twisted. Sen. Franklin Drilon said that the government will be able to save P100 million ($2,325,581) to P150 million ($3,488,372) from the closure of 12 embassies and consulates. He said the DFA should close down some of its 92 embassies and consulates such as those in Romania, Czech Republic, and Hungary, countries which the Philippines does little trade with.
Martinez, however, said the 93 existing Philippine posts around the world only get an average annual budget of P1.07 million ($23,255. ) to P1.6 million ($ 23,255) each.
“The DFA and the Aquino administration plan to close down posts that are already operating on very low funds. Compared to other agencies that enjoy immensely huge budgets but are still breeding grounds for corruption and graft, these embassies and consulates provide immediate and concrete assistance to OFWs. There is no sense in this proposal,” he pointed out.
According to the labor leader, this latest anti-OFW proposal is consistent with the Aquino government’s track of decreasing funds intended for direct services for OFWs. Since July this year, Migrante International has been campaigning against budget cuts on direct services for OFWs in concerned agencies, including the DFA. In the proposed 2012 budget, direct services for OFWs in concerned government agencies will only amount to not more than P3.14 billion ($73,023,255) or only 0.17 percent of the total budget, or a per capita spending of P261.83. ($6.09). The fund for direct services for OFWs in concerned agencies was slashed by approximately P792 million ($18,418,604)
POEA’s poor performance in helping OFWS
In a related development, Migrante International’s chapter in the Middle East slammed the Aquino government anew for its failure to run after illegal recruitment activities.
Migrante – Middle East coordinator John Leonard Monterona said Migrante receives pleas of assistance from an average of 10 victims of illegal recruitment per day. He also said if the definition of illegal recruitment activities, as defined by law (RA 10022), is to be strictly used, the average number of OFWs who become victims of illegal recruitment will surge.
Illegal recruitment has been fully defined in the newly amended Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act or RA 10022. The amended law enumerates more or less 21 illegal recruitment activities that fall within the category of either syndicated or large scale illegal recruitment.
Monterona said the charging of excessive placement fees by a recruitment agency is considered an illegal recruitment activity –a crime that is punishable by law. Contract tampering and substitution are also illegal recruitment activities. These are generally committed by recruitment agencies in cahoots with its counterpart agencies in the host country.
In the meantime, the 2010 report of the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA) revealed that the said agency handled 1,648 cases of illegal recruitment but it only acted on and resolved 283 cases for a 17.2 percent disposition rate. Some 1,365 cases were pending by the end of 2010.
“In 2004, only 12 persons were arrested and six recruitment agencies were closed, out of the 1,648 cases of illegal recruitment handled by the POEA,” Monterona noted.
The disposition of illegal recruitment cases recorded by the POEA was at its highest rate in 2004 with 44.5 percent or 650 out of the 1,462 illegal recruitment cases.
“The low incidence of illegal recruitment and trafficking cases officially recorded by the government is due to the reluctance of government agencies and labor offices to aid OFWs in pursuing cases against illegal recruiters,” Monterona said. According to the Migrante coordinator, instead of providing support to victims of illegal recruitment, labor officials, Monterona said, often discourage OFWs to file cases in the host country’s labor court or in the POEA or in the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC).