2013 was no different for OFWs as they continue to face government neglect. But the year also showed what OFWs could accomplish through their concerted action.
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA — Over the years, remittances sent by overseas Filipino workers have kept the country’s economy afloat. But time and again, migrant rights advocacy groups have pointed out that despite the major contribution of OFWs to the economy, they experience utter neglect from the government.
From January to October 2013, Filipino migrant workers have sent $18,542,112,000, compared to $17,498,550,000 during the same period last year. The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas noted in its report that dollar remittances of OFWs have increased by 5.96 percent.
Garry Martinez, chairperson of Migrante International, told Bulatlat.com that despite being touted by the government as modern day heroes for their contribution to the economy, overseas Filipino workers have received no government assistance. The Aquino government’s response, or non-response, to the plight of OFWs who were affected by the Saudization policy – a labor scheme mandating companies to hire Saudi nationals to comprise at least 10 percent of their total workforce – Martinez said, stripped it of any pretense that it is looking after the welfare of OFWs in distress.
If there was a positive outcome to what happened to OFWs in Saudi Arabia, Martinez added, it is that OFWs learned to flex their political muscle to demand for services that are due to them. OFWs were also able to take the Aquino government to task for its failure to fulfill President Benigno Aquino III’s promise, during his inaugural speech back in 2010, to provide local jobs in the country so that Filipinos would no longer be forced to look for work abroad.
Below are three major issues that OFWs faced in 2013, which showed government neglect and what OFWs could accomplish through concerted action.
1. Saudization policy
Saudization has led to arrest of undocumented migrant workers, including Filipinos who mostly escaped abusive employers or dire working conditions. Earlier, the Philippine government claimed that the Saudi government’s new policy would not affect Filipinos despite the fact that the country remains as one of the top destinations for OFWs.
As early as 1982, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration reported that Saudi Arabia at that time hired 210,972 or 62.5 percent of Filipinos who sought work abroad. From 2008 to 2012, Saudi Arabia remains as top destination for OFWs, according to POEA.
The deadline set by the Saudi government for migrant workers to either put their status in order or be repatriated by their respective governments was extended twice to provide ample time to fix the tedious paperwork involved in the repatriation. Philippine consul general Uriel Normal Garibay confirmed in media reports that there were 6,000 undocumented Filipino workers who wanted to return to the country.
Stranded Filipinos, in order to show their unity and to pressure the Philippine government to speed up their repatriation, put up tent cities in front of the Philippine embassy in Riyadh and the consulate office in Jeddah. They also held protest actions to demand for free and mass repatriation.
Back in the Philippines, their relatives also held protest actions in front of offices of concerned government agencies.
The Saudization policy and the apparent slow government response also exposed another controversy, the sex-for-flight scandal. Stranded women Filipino workers were reportedly pimped or sexually harassed by embassy officials, who, later on claimed in a Senate hearing, that it was just a joke.
“One of the highlights of cases of overseas Filipino workers is the Saudization policy. We were able to engage a lot of people and even government officials. Imagine, the three kings went out of their offices to meet us during our protest action outside their office,” Martinez said.
Martinez was referring to the top officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs namely Assistant secretary Raul Hernandez, Undersecretary Rafael Seguis and Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto del Rosario who met relatives of the stranded undocumented Filipinos in Saudi who were staging a camp out protest on April 29, 2013.
2. Caught in crisis abroad
Lives of thousands of Filipino workers were also put in danger when they were stranded in strife torn countries.
“Filipinos were in danger because they were at the mercy of their employers,” Martinez said, adding that 90 percent of Filipino workers in strife-torn areas are undocumented and are victims of state-sponsored human trafficking.
Just before the year ended, the Philippine government said 95 Filipino workers in South Sudan needed to be repatriated due to an armed crisis that erupted.
There were seven Filipinos who died in a recent bombing attack in Sana, capital of Yemen last Dec. 5, 2013, prompting the Philippine government to put the said country in alert crisis level 3, which bans deployment of Filipino workers and repatriation of those who are already there.
Of the 1,000 Filipino workers in Yemen, about 28 have reportedly asked the Philippine consulate to process their repatriation. Other countries banned from OFW deportation due to safety concerns are Lebanon and Afghanistan.
“With respect to Iraq and Libya, there’s still a review especially Libya. Iraq is still subject to a security alert level so there’s still a total deployment ban for Iraq except for Kurdistan (northern region of Iraq),” Hans Leo Cacdac, POEA administrator, said.
“The irony is that we have Filipinos being caught in conflict in other countries but we have a government that continues to send its own people to work abroad. It goes to show our poor foreign policy and the indifference of the government to their plight,” Martinez said.
The deployment of OFWs has been continuously increasing since 2001. From 866,590 back in 2011, total deployment of Filipino migrant workers have increased to 1,850,463, according to Migrante International’s State of Migrants under Aquino Midterm Assessment.
POEA has approved 542,367 job orders from abroad from January to August 2013 alone.
“POEA also reported that workers with processed contracts reached 1,164,390 for the first semester. In comparison, the total number of workers with contracts in 2012 was 2,083,223,” Gulf News reported.
Martinez said that every time Filipinos get deported, the framework of the government is that they would be able to deploy them to other countries. No diplomatic protests were filed either, he added.
“The government is not prioritizing the generation of local jobs. It just wants to send its people to work abroad, in line with the dictates of the World Trade Organization. These are neo-liberal policies,” he said.
3. Pork barrel scam
Although the issue of the pork barrel scam affected all Filipinos, not only migrant workers, Martinez said, it resulted in the politicization of overseas Filipino workers, especially when the controversy was exposed.
“They are already being oppressed abroad. OFWs are not going to allow that they would also be oppressed in their own country,” Martinez said.
The said controversy refers to the misuse of the Priority Development Assistance Fund or the pork barrel of legislators, some of whom reportedly pocketed public funds by ‘funding’ projects of fake non-government organizations. The most infamous was the case that involved businesswoman Janet Lim Napoles who, according to reports, was able to siphon $238.1 million.
Aside from legislators, the anti-pork barrel protests criticized President Aquino’s Disbursement Acceleration Program, a lump-sum fund coming from the supposed savings if various government offices. Progressive group said President Aquino has “the biggest ‘pork’ of all.”
Migrante International then called for a Zero Remittance Day last Sept. 19, as a form of protest to call for abolishing the pork barrel system. The Philippine government, for its part, belittled the efforts of OFWs, saying that it is their families who would suffer not the government.
“Such belittling of the concerted efforts of OFWs to end the pork barrel system have led them to all the more stand up and exercise their political rights. They felt that they have been neglected by the government for a long time,” Martinez said.
In Migrante International’s Facebook page, Martinez said, OFWs expressed their disgust over the pork barrel system. Some posted “selfie protests,” which showed photos of OFWs with small placards calling for the abolition of the pork barrel system.
These posts, he said, came from all corners of the world, even in countries where Migrante do not have chapters. “We do not have a chapter in Thailand but we received many posts from Filipinos there,” he said.