“The power to send or not to send remittances rests on Filipino im/migrants and OFWs alone. By not remitting for one day, Filipinos all over the world will use their economic power to make a stand against corruption, patronage politics and social injustice.” – Migrante International
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – Overseas Filipino workers are calling for a Zero Remittance Day on Sept. 19 as a form of protest action against the pork barrel scam.
“On this day, Filipino im/migrants from all over the world will once again send a united message against the pork barrel system. Our remittances that keep the economy afloat are being plundered by greedy officials. Through the ZRD, we will make our voices heard in the call to abolish the pork barrel and re-channel funds for the people’s interest, including more efficient services and welfare assistance to overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in distress,” Migrante International, the country’s biggest OFW group, said in its statement.
Members of the House of Representatives and senators have been recently linked to the scam, on the alleged misuse of their Priority Development Assistance Fund, or more known as pork barrel, allocations. Legislators, according to reports, channeled the money to “fake” non-government agencies, purportedly for projects for their poor constituents. Legislators, together with businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles, were able to siphon some P10 billion ($238.1 million).
On Aug. 26, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos gathered in Luneta to call for the abolition of the pork barrel system, not just a change in the name of an essentially the same discretionary fund allocation as President Aquino announced earlier. In solidarity with those who attended the Luneta rally, dubbed as the Million People March, overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) held their own protest in their worksites and in Philippine embassies and consulates and posted their photos online.
Migrante International is calling again on all overseas Filipino workers to participate in a Zero Remittance Day on Sept. 19, which marks the implementation of the omnibus policy of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration. The said omnibus policy paved the way for the mandatory $25 contribution of Filipinos leaving the country to work abroad.
The OFW group deemed the mandatory contribution as anti-migrant worker and as a form of taxation. Migrante International added that the government earns about P14 billion ($333.33 million) from OFWs’ contributions alone. But despite their persistent call for its full audit, the group said, the government has “kept OFWs in the dark on how their hard-earned contributions are being utilized” in the face of poor services and assistance for Filipino migrant workers in distress abroad.
“The power to send or not to send remittances rests on Filipino im/migrants and OFWs alone. By not remitting for one day, Filipinos all over the world will use their economic power to make a stand against corruption, patronage politics and social injustice,” Migrante International said in a statement.
Among the calls for the Sept. 19 Zero Remittance Day include: scrapping of both the presidential and congressional pork barrel system, investigation of involved agencies, prosecution of all officials involved and to re-channel funds to basic social services, especially for OFWs.
This is not the first time that Migrante International called for a Zero Remittance Day. The first Zero Remittance Day was held on Oct. 29, 2008 to protest against the then Global Forum on Migration and Development, which they criticized as a way to promote the government’s notion of “modern-day slavery through the labor export policy.”
Migrante International said 112 Filipino migrants group joined the 2008 protest worldwide, which resulted in hundreds of millions lost in remittances, according to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas.
The group also held a Zero Remittance Day during former president Gloria Arroyo’s attempt to implement charter change in July 26, 2009.
“While we are hardly surviving by the day due to the global crisis combined with the onslaught of price hikes, to learn that our hard-earned money is being plundered for patronage politics and self-serving interests of a privileged few is a huge injustice. We are more than ready to take the lead in the international indignation against corruption and the plunder of our hard-earned money,” the group said.
Where ‘pork’ allocations should go
In a separate statement, Migrante International called on the government to re-channel the money allotted to the pork barrel to assist Filipino migrant workers in distress.
“Most of the time, costs of plane fare and other fees are the reasons for the slow repatriation process of OFWs in distress. Stranded OFWs in Saudi, for instance, had to pitch in what little money they had to buy tickets for those who were able to return,” Migrante International chair Garry Martinez said.
According to the biggest OFW group, Aquino’s pork barrel, amounting to P1 trillion ($23.81 billion), is “more than enough to cover repatriation costs for stranded OFWs, as well as emergency assistance for returned and returning OFWs.”
Martinez said that instead of these funds going to the pockets of a few people, “it would be better if this would be re-channeled to OFWs in need.”
As of press time, the government has yet to repatriate Filipino workers from now strife-torn Egypt, following its announcement of Alert Level 4 or mandatory evacuation for all Filipinos. In 2011, when violence and civil war first erupted in Egypt, only 26 out of the then 6,500 OFWs were evacuated.
Migrante International chairperson Garry Martinez attributed the low number not only to the Philippine government’s inefficiency in the evacuation process but also because of lack of job options and livelihood in the event of their return to the Philippines.
Martinez said that as in previous cases of evacuation from conflict-ridden countries, most OFWs would opt to risk danger and death instead of job insecurity when they return to the Philippines. “This is the saddest reality for our OFWs, especially now in light of soaring prices of basic commodities and utilities,” he said.
“The Aquino government should announce concrete plans for returning OFWs after its failure to provide emergency assistance and employment to hundreds of OFWs from Saudi Arabia, Japan and South Korea who were repatriated in the last few months. They were obviously unprepared. Concerned government agencies were pointing fingers at each other for the returned OFWs’ immediate needs. No provisions for shelter, medical assistance and other emergency benefits were in place,” Martinez said.
As of press time, there remain roughly 5,000 OFWs who are still waiting for their repatriation. The crackdown on undocumented migrant workers, which was already postponed a few months ago, will reportedly resume on Nov. 3. Aside from Saudi Arabia, Migrante International said crackdowns are also happening in other countries that are implementing stricter immigration policies.
The distressful situation of OFWs who could not be repatriated because of lack of funds, Martinez said, make them more vulnerable to abuse. A Philippine labor attaché in Saudi Arabia is under investigation after three stranded Filipino women exposed his attempts to pimp them in exchange for plane tickets back to Manila.
“Instead of allowing few people to pocket funds, the pork barrel allocations should be used for the welfare of OFWs who are in need,” Martinez said.