On International Migrants Day, OFW community leaders hit state exactions, departmentalization, red-tagging and labour export program under the Duterte regime (18 December 2019)

As part of its observance of the International Migrants’ Day, Migrante International held a Year-end press briefing on the state of Filipino migrants under the Duterte Regime on Wednesday, 18 December at its home office.  In anticipation of the impending congressional approval this month of the Department of Overseas Filipinos at the House of Representatives,  members of migrant groups in South Korea, Hongkong, Japan, New Zealand, UK and USA described the major issues and struggles faced by Filipino migrants and OFWs. 

Shiela Tebia of Hongkong decried the mandatory SSS (Social Security System)  and other state exactions being imposed on OFWs. “The Duterte government exhibits aggressiveness and efficiency in extorting OFWs through these mandatory exactions and yet when we plead for help in times of our distress, they just turn a deaf ear to our cries,” Shiela lamented. About 20 OFW groups and federations in Hong Kong have formed an alliance called RAGE or Rise Against Government Exactions to oppose contribution hikes.

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Speaking from Seoul via video conference, Chat Dimaano said that the Duerte government has been planning to reroute OFW insurance contributions in South Korea into SSS. Filipinos in South Korea fear that they will have to wait until they turn 60 or 65 before they benefit from their premium once this scheme is implemented. Dimaano recalled Duterte’s promise on OFWs as he also raised alarm on the exploitation of foreign farm workers in South Korea. “The monthly minimum wage for workers in South Korea is 1.7 Million Korean Won but they are only paid 400,000 Won. Duterte promised that working abroad will soon become an option but we are certain that it is far from being fulfilled,” Dimaano stated.

On the issue of human trafficking, Gary Labao of New York revealed that about 70 Filipino teachers were among the 300 victims of human trafficking in the US. They have been fighting for 10 years to legalize their status. It took these teachers 5 or more years after arriving in the US before they finally got hired. Some of the victims have already given up and just decided to return back to the Philippines. “We already raised this to Philippine embassy and consulate officials but we have never seen any concrete action from them,” Labao said.

Japan has also been a notorious destination for education trafficking through its short-term study program. Butch Pongos of Migrante Japan pointed out to the proliferation of Japanese language schools in the Philippines targetting students and young Filipino graduates desiring to work or study in Japan. Butch said, “these Japanese language schools are engaged in aggressive recruitment by offering job placements. Aspiring students pay up to US$5,000 or 600,000 Japanese Yen only to end up getting exploited as manual labourers once they arrive in Japan. Some even run away to escape their harsh conditions, and in desperation they apply as student refugees to continue their stay.” Migrante Japan blames complicity and connivance on the part of the Duterte government and these language schools as there is no ongoing effort to stop their illegal trafficking operations.

Likewise, Mikee Santos of Migrante Aotearoa related how the New Zealand government has been promoting its international student visa program which gave a false expectation of easier residence pathway to students from the Philippines and other Asian countries. Most student visa holders do not become residents and are forced to enter into unfair labour relations to extend their stay or improve their chances. Santos said that the Duterte government is not doing any concrete efforts for Filipino victims many of whom are sinking in debt after spending up to Php 1.5 Million worth of exorbitant fees.

Meanwhile, OFWs based in the Middle East reel from the political and economic crisis hounding the region. Escalation of conflict in Saudi Arabia this year has led to armed clashes with Yemenite forces flaring within its territory, especially in the border regions of Asir, Jizan and Najran where more than 40 thousand Filipinos live and work. Joseph “Erap” Valenzuela said that Migrante KSA currently handles more than 500 cases of runaways, mostly domestic helpers as well as 1,500 workers laid off due to Saudization. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has been ardently prioritizing the employment of Saudi locals in vital sectors. 

Thousands of Filipino workers were left with unpaid salaries and without access to benefits after operations of big construction firms like Saudi Oger collapsed due to mounting debt. Valenzuela also denounced the absence of a bilateral agreement to ease the repatriation of OFWs restrained by the Kafala system. “Filipino workers were duped into believing false assurances by officials of the Duterte government that they will get their benefit claims after their arrival back in the Philippines. The Duterte government had the audacity to spend huge amounts of money for a ceremonial cauldron while neglecting stranded and despairing Filipino workers. Moreover, OFWs on death row are not even getting a cent for their blood money to save their lives from execution,” Valenzuela lamented. 

The onslaught of right-wing policies in Europe, the US and even in the Philippines has also exacerbated the criminalization of migrants. Undocumented and other irregular migrants are threatened by fierce crackdown and prolonged detention according to Fr. Herbert Fadriquela who is based in the UK. He also pointed out to big travel junkets of government officials bringing with them fake Lumad leaders who actually head paramilitary units implicated in the killings of land rights defenders in Mindanao. 

Gary Labao of New York described the situation in the US as similar to Europe where leaders and members of progressive organizations like Migrante International, Migrante Youth, Gabriela and Anakbayan are being vilified by government officials and fake Lumad leaders who hold seminars using taxpayers money in migrant Filipino communities. Labao likewise questioned the setting up of PNP posts in Washington DC and San Francisco. 

Joseph Valenzuela of Migrante KSA said, “The Duterte government is making life hard for overseas Filipinos who are fighting for their rights and welfare but we will never stop serving our fellow Filipinos abroad.” Shiela Tebia of Hongkong said, “if there are only job opportunities in the Philippines, nobody will be forced to leave their loved ones for overseas deployment.”

Migrante International Chairperson Joanna Concepcion concurred with their statements. “Attending committee hearings at the House of Representatives, we were told that the Department of Overseas Filipinos will resolve the tough issues faced by Filipino migrants but for us, it will only facilitate the Duterte government’s greed for extracting OFW money and peddling Filipino migrants through labour export. Departmentalization is not the solution but addressing our demands for stable jobs and just wages in the Philippines is what we want. We observe International Migrants’ Day today to celebrate and honour Filipino migrants in their struggle for genuine change in our country. Duterte seeks to silence us but we will continue to fight for the advancement of our rights as Filipino migrants,” Concepcion concluded.  

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