“There were lots of posts circulating in Facebook. Why just one day? They said it would be better if we do it for a week or a month.” – Migrante International
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – If the planned Zero Remittance Day elicited strong reactions from Malacañang, what more if overseas Filipino workers withhold their remittances for a week or a month? What would be the effect on the economy that is dependent on remittances, which far exceeds the country’s export earnings? Overseas Filipino workers and migrants’ rights advocates warned that they might be forced to do so if the Aquino administration will not undertake immediate and significant steps toward the abolition of the pork barrel system.
“When OFWs see that there is no change happening, it is possible that they would call for another Zero Remittance protest action. This time, it might be for a longer period,” Lito Soriano of the LBS Recruitment Solutions Corporation and a former Filipino migrant worker himself, said in a press conference during the launch of Depork, an alliance of Filipino migrant workers and immigrants against the pork barrel system.
Last week, Migrante International, the biggest OFW group in the country, called on its fellow Filipino migrant workers to participate in a Zero Remittance Day to press the Aquino government to abolish the pork barrel system.
The recent pork barrel scam linked members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate to the misuse of their lump sum discretionary fund the Priority Development Assistance Fund. Both media and Commission on Audit reports showed how legislators rechanneled public funds for projects to fake non-government agencies, the most infamous of which involved businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles.
OFWs, in solidarity with Filipinos who joined the Million People March in Luneta last Aug. 26, held their own protest actions in their worksites and offices of the Philippine embassies and consulates. They posted the photos online.
Migrante International said a Zero Remittance Day would enable OFWs to “use their economic power to make a stand against corruption, patronage politics and social justice.”
During the launch of Depork, Garry Martinez, chairperson of Migrante International, said that as soon as they sent out invitations to Filipino migrants groups abroad to participate in the Zero Remittance Day, many asked why they are going to hold it for just a day.
“There were lots of posts circulating in Facebook. Why just one day? They said it would be better if we do it for a week or a month.” Martinez said.
Migrante Sectoral Party chairperson Connie Bragas-Regalado said the reaction of their partner organizations abroad shows the sacrifices that they are willing to give for the betterment of the country.
As of this writing, the alliance Depork said there are already 142 Filipino organizations in 23 countries who have responded to their call to participate in the Zero Remittance Day on Sept. 19.
Include Aquino’s pork
During the launch of Depork, OFW groups and migrant rights advocates emphasized that the call for the abolition of the pork barrel do not only pertain to funds allotted to legislators. Each member of the House of Representatives reportedly receives P70 million ($1.6 million) per fiscal year while senators get P200 million ($4.55 million).
President Aquino, however, receives no less than P1 trillion ($23.81 million) pork barrel annually, as estimated by progressive groups. Aquino’s spokesperson defended the president’s pork barrel saying that it did not come from taxpayers’ money but from government owned and controlled institutions such as the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office and the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation.
But progressive groups, including migrant rights advocates, have included the president’s pork barrel in their calls to abolish the system.
Soriano, for his part, said it is frustrating to know that despite the big role that OFW remittances play in keeping the economy afloat, a big chunk of public funds are in the hands of very few people while Filipino migrant workers are not given due services and assistance. He added that the scarce resources available to OFWs are not even provided to them by the government but also from the pockets of Filipino migrant workers themselves. The Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, for one, is funded by the $25 mandatory contribution of every Filipino who wants to leave and work abroad per contract, Soriano added.
“The government has no stake for the welfare of OFWs,” he said during the press conference.
In Depork’s unity statement, the alliance said more OFWs are sentenced to die abroad, thousands are languishing in jail, and, still, thousands are waiting for repatriation.
Carlos Cao Jr., a lawyer and former administrator of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, said the budget to provide services for Filipino migrant workers is so scarce his agency could not even provide air-conditioning for the comfort of those who are going to their office every day.
Cao estimated that there are about 3,000 Filipinos transacting with POEA every day and that the number would spike as high as 5,000 during March or December, in time for attending graduation ceremonies and the Christmas season, respectively.
The budget for Capital Outlay of POEA, he added, was only P26 million in 2011. During the budget deliberation for 2012, they got an increase of P13 million. Cao said it was too small and drew a stark difference to the contribution of Filipino migrant workers in keeping the economy afloat through the millions of remittances they send to their loved ones every day.
“And now we will be informed that the money are just being pocketed by a few people,” Cao said, adding that it was unacceptable.
Rev. Marie Sol Sioco-Villalon, head of the Migrants Ministry of the United Methodist Church, said that for a long time, everyone knows that pork barrel is a source of corruption. She said that the bible tells the people that God is against shepherds who live lavishly at the expense of others and that the same applies to government officials involved in the scam.
“We are angry towards a government that is not concerned with the welfare of its people. We want a government who is like a shepherd to its citizen,” Villalon said, adding that he wishes that OFWs could go home and enjoy their contributions to the economy.
Villalon added that the funds allotted to the pork barrel should not just be re-channeled to basic social services but should also be used to gear the country toward national industrialization.
“OFWs send their children to school. As soon as they graduate, they cannot find jobs. Nurse graduates are even the ones paying the hospitals to hire them,” Soriano said, “It is the dream of every OFW that they are the last in the family to leave and work abroad.”
More pain for gov’t than families
Contrary to government claims, migrant rights advocates stressed during the launch of Depork that it is not the families of OFWs who would suffer from the Zero Remittance Day but the government.
Cao said that government earnings from OFWs comprise about 10 to 15 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, which is bigger than manufacturing or agriculture.
In a previous statement of Migrante International, Martinez said the government earns at least 0.15 percent for every P200 ($4.55) remittance. Government data shows, he added, that the government earns about $1.4 million monthly from documentary stamp tax of OFW remittances. In 2012, OFW remittances amounted to $21 billion.
Martinez said these earnings do not yet include cuts generated by government from bank transactions.
Soriano, for his part, added that OFWs also pay taxes whenever their loved ones spend the remittances they send to buy food, among other needs. “Everything that the family buys has tax on it,” he added.
He added that Filipinos abroad, especially those in Middle East countries who have witnessed the Arab Spring uprisings, know that they can do something for the country.
Martinez said, “It is just going to happen for a day. It is better than be terrorized for the rest of our lives.”