By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
Manila — If President Benigno Aquino III has a list proving that he has not been “noynoying” or being idle and lazy in Malacanang as what progressive peoples’ organizations have been asserting, the alliance of migrant organizations and overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) also has their own list proving Aquino wrong.
Migrante International said there are at least five issues that Aquino has been “noynoying big time.”
OFWs on death row
Migrante International chairman Garry Martinez said that in his less than two years in office, four Filipinos were executed in China because the Aquino administration’s best efforts to rescue them were actually done at the last possible moment.
Martinez said the deaths of OFWs Ramon Credo, Sally Ordinario-Villanueva and Elizabeth Batain on March 30, 2011 and of an unnamed OFW on December 11 were results of the lack of legal assistance and support from the Philippine government. He said the Aquino government failed to go to the rescue of the OFWs from the time they were first arrested and until the legal process that led to their execution winded down.
“At the time these OFWs were making their appeals, the government slashed the budget of the legal assistance fund (LAF) of OFWs by 50 percent — from P50 million ($ 1.162 million) in 2010, to P27 million ($ 627 thousand) in 2011. It’s clearly stated in the law that the LAF should be at least P100 million S$2.325 million),” he pointed out.
The government’s neglect is also seen in how it fails to attend to the legal needs of OFWs in the Middle East who are embroiled in legal difficulties.
“For instance, an estimated $20,000 is needed to hire a Sharia lawyer for OFWs in jail or in death row. According to data from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), there are at least 27 OFWs on death row in the Middle East, six in Malaysia, one in Indonesia and 78 in China, all mostly on murder and drug charges,” he said.
Slow repatriation efforts in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) crisis.
Migrante International is also dragging President Aquino across coals for having been caught off-guard and unprepared when conflicts erupted in the Middle East-Northern Africa (MENA) region, particularly in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria.
According to Martinez, of the estimated 32,000 OFWs in Libya, only 14,000 were evacuated and repatriated back to the Philippines. These OFWs returned to the Philippines not through the help of the Philippine government but with the help of their respective agencies and employers.
“There were even reports from repatriated OFWs from Libya who complained over how the Philippine government was ‘invisible’ in exit points and borders. The OFWs were left to fend for themselves. In Syria where the conflict continues to escalate, the government still has no clear response on criticisms of slow and passive repatriation efforts. Of the 17,000 OFWs in Syria, only 1,000 have been repatriated. The DFA and Philippine government, in some forums and statements in the media, attribute the low number to ‘helplessness, lack of funds and a deadlock on negotiations with Syrian employers.’ Aquino, on the other hand, has issued no position on the plans of the United States government and the Northern Alliance Treaty Organization’s (NATO) plans to conduct air strikes on Syria which will greatly endanger OFWs,” he said.
Last February 24, an OFW was killed in Homs in Syria during an ambush attack. Twenty-three-year-old Meran Prieira Montezor, a native of Camarines Sur, died along with her employer’s child when unidentified gunmen opened fire on the car they were riding.
Martinez said their group will continue to call for more active and systematic repatriation efforts and to demand that President Aquino take a position condemning the impending US-NATO military intervention in Syria.
“Our government’s support for US wars of aggression and deployment of US troops continues to endanger the lives of thousands and thousands of Filipinos in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Iraq and wherever else they wound want to strike,” he said.
Closure of embassies as austerity measure
Despite the growing number of OFWs in distress and corresponding lack of action by Philippine officials, the Aquino administration continues with its plan to permanently shut the doors of at least 12 Philippine posts all over the world as part of its “austerity measures.”
DFA will close the Philippine Embassies in Koror, Palau; Caracas, Venezuela; Dublin, Ireland; Stockholm, Sweden; Havana, Cuba; Bucharest, Romania and Helsinki, Finland, as well as the Consulates General in Barcelona, Spain, Frankfurt, Germany, and Saipan. In a recent hearing at the Senate on the controversial closure proposal, it was noted that there are some 40,000 Filipinos in Frankfurt; 30,000 in Barcelona, more than 8,000 OFWs in Palau and Saipan. In the meantime, an estimated one thousand Filipinos live and work in Dublin, Stockholm, Bucharest, Helsinki, Caracas and Havana.
According to the DFA, the Philippine embassy offices in Barcelona and Palau will be closed in July later this year. In a report by Interkasyon.com however, it was revealed that OFWs in Barcelona have been caught by surprise by the news.
Daniel Infante Tuaño, an OFW in Barcelona, said consulate officials did not consult the Filipino community regarding the pending closure.
Tuaño told Interkasyon.com that Ambassador Carlos Salinas visited the Filipino community in Barcelona and announced the closure. The official reportedly told the OFWs that the decision was already final.
“The Filipino community in Barcelona mobilized and petitioned for the establishment of a full Consulate but now they decided to close it down without even consulting us. They were just informing us because the decision has already been taken,” he said.
In the same Interaksyon.com report, it was also said that OFWs in Palau were also taken aback. The Filipino Community in Palau (TFCP) told the news outlet that they “were very surprised, worried and concerned.
“We don’t understand the reasons. We cannot think how our government decided without even consulting us Filipinos in Palau,” the group said.
Still no jobs, no genuine reintegration program at home
In his inaugural speech, Aquino explicitly stated that his administration’s thrust was to “create more jobs at home so that OFWs will not have to seek employment abroad.” Migrante International said that statistics belie the president’s claims.
“The recent rise in local unemployment will push the Aquino government to further intensify and implement a more aggressive labor export policy,” Martinez said.
According to the 2011 Social Weather Survey, unemployment rose to 24 percent, or an estimated 9.7 million, signifying an additional 1.5 million jobless Filipinos by the fourth quarter of 2011. This figure is expected to rise as millions are expected to join the labor force come graduation season this March.
“There are already some 12 million overseas Filipino workers around the world. An estimated 4,500 OFWs leave daily to work abroad. Of late, all the Aquino government, through the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), has to offer are job openings for more nurses and doctors in Saudi Arabia, while no genuine and sustainable reintegration program is in place for returned and displaced OFWs.
The Aquino administration’s so-called reintegration program consists mainly of loan packages and livelihood trainings that are still at the expense of returned OFWs,” Martinez argued.
“For as long as no domestic jobs are available, the government’s main recourse is to once again seek markets abroad despite the ongoing global economic crisis that continues to displace thousands of OFWs or place them in imminent danger or war. It’s a never-ending vicious cycle that will only end if fundamental reforms are in place,” Martinez said.
Philhealth premium hike
For its part, Migrante’s Middle East chapter also said that Aquino’s indifference to the economic plight of OFWs is also proof of his “noynoying.” Migrante Middle East said the hike in premium charges the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (Philhealth) recently implemented is still under protest.
Late last year, the Philhealth Board issued Circular No.022 imposing a 150 percent hike in health yearly premiums of OFWs from the current P900 ($21) to become P2,400 ($56). OFW groups protest against the hike saying that it violates the Migrant Workers Act of 2010 or RA 10022 and there were no consultations conducted among various OFWs groups abroad.
In January this year, Migrante-Middle East kicked off an online signature drive, which gathered wide support from OFWs and their families.
Due to OFWs strong opposition, the Philhealth Board issued Circular 007, S.2012 on Feb.21 amending Circular 022. It said that the annual premium contributions of OFWs will be increased to P1,200 ($28) effective January 1, 2012 and P2,400 (US$54) effective January 1, 2013. Reacting to this, MME’s coordinator John Leonard Monterona noted that there is still an increase, and that premiums will be ($56) by January 1, 2013.
“Every time the government or any of its welfare agencies say that it wants to improve its services to stakeholders, there is always a corresponding increase on premium payments. Eventually we discover that no improvements actually happen,” he said.
Monterona also scored the Philhealth for requiring Balik Mangagawa or vacationing OFWs to sign a policy contract in the issuance of their Overseas Employment Certificate (OEC) to avail the special “lock-in” rate of P1,200 $28) premium per year which will expire by next year and automatically will become P2,400 ($54) by January 2013.
“Because we are required to get an OEC and the payment of our Philhealth premium is attached to it, we are forced now to pay P1,200 ($28) for our health premiums,” he said.