SUMA 2017: A year of big talk, band-aids and business-as-usual for OFWs and families

State of Migrants, Prepared by Migrante International, June 30, 2017

President Rodrigo Duterte, for all his posturing and promises, has so far done nothing substantial to curb forced migration, something that he promised to make “optional and not a necessity” when he assumed office. Instead, what we have seen thus far is a rehash of the same neoliberal policy of labor export when it comes to peddling Filipinos’ cheap and docile labor to the global market.

 

Weak economy resulting in forced migration

Pres. Duterte’s earlier promise to end contractualization by yearend 2016 was widely welcomed even by OFWs because it brought hope of them coming home to decent-paying regular jobs. However, this promise is yet to be fulfilled. In light of the continuing crisis in the Middle East and looming mass deportations of undocumented migrants in the USA and Europe, OFWs are expected to return to the country only to be forcibly driven away again to seek jobs despite risky conditions abroad.

Independent think-tank IBON Foundation estimates that there are still 11.5 million Filipinos who are without work or still looking for more work because of the poor quality of jobs. There were 24.4 million citizens in low-paying and insecure work with little or no benefits in 2016. The most recent Department of Labor and Employment’s (DOLE) Order 174 has been exposed to even fortify the practice of contractualization rather than end it.

With the passage of DO 174-2017, packaged as the government’s solution to workers’ problems, contractualization is legalized, aggravating the already rampant problem of labor flexibilization, depressed wages, and, ultimately, more massive unemployment.

Widespread unemployment and contractualization are root causes of forced migration. Fewer Filipinos were jobless in the first quarter of 2017 compared to 2016, but Filipino optimism on job prospects went down as well, a Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey revealed. According to Trading Economics, a New York-based global economics research institute, unemployment rate in the Philippines rose to 6.6 percent in the first quarter of 2017, from 4.7 percent in the December quarter. This is the highest jobless rate since March 2015.

The gap between the rich and the poor has further widened, with the income of the top 1% of families equivalent to that of the bottom 30% of households (IBON). According to Forbes, 13 of the richest Filipinos made it to its top billionaires of the world in March 2017.

It is in this light that Migrante International fully supports workers’ demand for a P750 national minimum wage. A P750 national minimum wage can significantly reverse the migration of OFWs. If implemented, for every year, around 200,000 workers can opt to stay and contribute their labor and skills to nation-building while living decently with their families.

Based on Migrante’s study, OFWs who receive a basic salary of USD$400-500 per month would prefer to work in the Philippines instead because their income will be at par with the pay they receive abroad.

Data from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) shows that since 2011 the country has been annually deploying at least 200,000 OFWs to job positions with salaries ranging from USD$400-500 per month. Majority are household service workers and general laborers in the Middle East who receive monthly salaries of USD$400 1,500 Saudi riyals, respectively. According to 2015 data from the PSA, these OFWs account for 33 percent of the total OFW deployment.

Meanwhile, OFWs are coming back home in droves not because they choose to but because of the effects of an ongoing global economic crisis in host countries. Hundreds of thousands of OFWs are being displaced and retrenched in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. What awaits them in the event of their emergency return? Definitely there are not enough decent-paying domestic jobs available. What the Duterte government offers are mere dole-outs and band-aid solutions that are not long-term solutions to unemployment, low wages and lack of social services.

 

Intensification of labor export

The government’s response to the ongoing crisis in Saudi Arabia is testament to the continuing bankrupty of the Philippines’ labor export policy. Last July 2016, Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) Sec. Silvestre Bello III promised to resolve the issue of stranded OFWs in Saudi Arabia by yearend. Now, a year since, what has the government done so far in response to their plight?

In a press conference in Malacanang last November 22, Sec. Bello announced that “only 2,000 OFWs remain to be repatriated in Saudi Arabia”. In the same breath, Sec. Bello said that they “have succeeded in bringing back 3,000 OFWs while the rest have managed to find good-paying jobs in other companies”. This statement is very problematic.

Firstly, the government merely accounts for some 5,000 affected OFWs, still a far cry from the 11,000 it vowed to repatriate early on – and still yet a small percent of the actual number of affected OFWs outside of the three big companies, Saudi Oger Ltd, Saudi Billadin Group (SBG) and Mohammad Al Mojil Group (MMG).

Sec. Bello, in the same press conference, announced that the OFWs opting to transfer to other companies “made it easier for us (the government)”, but he also admitted that the OFWs have not yet been paid their withheld wages and necessary money claims. These statements are not only contradictory but treacherous on the part of the government.

On one hand, while efforts of relief operations and on-site assistance should be lauded, these are short-term and band-aid solutions that do nothing to address the major issues of emergency repatriation, labor issues and comprehensive reintegration for affected OFWs and their families.

Government efforts have also been fragmented, with various agencies involved, particularly the DOLE and Department of Foregin Affairs (DFA), “one-upping” each other in terms of who played a command role in the government’s humanitarian mission to Saudi Arabia. Migrante’s sources in the DFA claim that after the initial and only press conference, where Sec. Bello and DFA’s Perfecto Yasay publicly flanked Pres. Duterte as he welcomed a handful of repatriated OFWs from Saudi, the labor secretary had been reluctant to conduct a follow-up humanitarian mission after he first one in July.

Thus begging the question: Was the DOLE’s objective in the government’s humanitarian mission to Saudi Arabia not really for the main purpose of repatriating stranded OFWs but conducting damage-control for the beleaguered Saudi companies and local recruitment agencies through the facilitation of job transfers?

If so, the promise to “end the Saudi stranded crisis” by yearend 2016 was misleading and bound to fail from the start. Job transfers of crisis-ridden OFWs have been the thrust of the previous governments – as in the case of the MMG workers who initially called for emergency mass repatriation in 2014, were convinced by the PH government to be transferred to other companies, only to enlist yet again for repatration in 2015 after the company they transferred too was also affected by the Saudi crisis.

If Sec. Bello worked mainly to facilitate job transfers, then he only succeeded in buying time for and “rescuing” the companies and local private recruitment agencies instead of the affected OFWs. This is unsurprisingly in line with DO 174 and other deceiving, pro-capitalist and anti-labor policies that the DOLE has been advocating thus far.

Meanwhile, the crisis in Saudi and the Middle East continue to worsen. OFWs, those who Sec. Bello said “opted” to stay on, have not become impervious to the crisis just because they were transferred to different companies. The crisis is also now affecting not only OFWs in industrial and construction sites but those in the service and health sectors as well.

The Duterte government, however, now appears to deem the Saudi crisis fait accompli, problem-solved, and therefore business-as-usual between the Philippine government and its biggest OFW labor importer.

Remittances from OFWs remain at record-high despite the global economic crisis, reaching a record-high USD$26.9 billion in 2016 and accounting for 10 percent of the country’s Domestic Product (GDP). However, although annual remittances increased, its growth rate has been decreasing in recent years. The continuing decrease in growth rate is a constant worry for the Philippine government. If the trend continues, as it is expected to, the governent will be in big trouble because it relies mainly on remittances for its foreign exchange revenues.

This explains the Duterte administration’s thrust to further to seek job markets abroad and intensify its labor export program. Through remittances, the government earns exponentially without having to shell out much capital investment. Even funds for labor export management through agencies sucha as the POEA or the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) are directly sourced from OFWs or recruitment agencies and employers through an assortment of fees.

Duterte, while mouthing local job generation as the government’s core program to eliminate forced migration, continues to hail the “bagong bayani” and their “contribution to the economy” to further promote labor export. To do this, he has become more aggressive and active in lobbying for job markets and signing of bilateral agreements with host countries in the past year though numerous state visits.

Aside from remittances, labor export also provides a tempting alternative to the unemployed and underemployed. Through it, the government insulates itself from its responsibility to create local regular jobs that offer decent wages. Instead, it becomes more convenient to evade genuine and strategic policy reforms to turn the economy around.

The  country’s  economic  situation  has  not  improved  under Duterte’s rehashed neoliberal economic policies. Duterte’s “10-point economic agenda” still relies heavily on foreign investment, debt and export-dependence, particularly the dependence on the export Filipinos’ cheap labor in exchange for remittances.

 

Foreign policy

With regard foreign policies and relations affecting our OFWs and Filipinos overseas, Duterte’s statement that he “will not lift a finger” to help the almost one million undocumented Filipino e/migrants in the US under threat of mass deportation due to US Pres. Trump’s anti-migrant program is very telling of his overall attitude and policy.

According to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), there are currently 3.4 million Filipinos in the US, second only to Saudi Arabia in terms of Filipino populace. Of the 3.4 million, close to one million are undocumented and vulnerable to Trump’s repressive crackdown.

It is the government’s duty to assist Filipinos abroad, regardless of their status. Do we turn our backs on them when they direly need the help of their government? Should any harm befall them in the US, Duterte will be to blame if he continues to tolerate and support Trump’s neo-fascism.

The Duterte government’s position calling on all undocumented Filipinos in the US to “just come home” is also a very insensitive stance. Like all other OFWs, they were forced to seek so-called better pastures in the US (or elsewhere in the world) due to widespread joblessness, contractualization and low wages, landlessness and lack of basic social services. Over the years, OFWs in conflict-ridden areas have opted to stay and risk their lives and welfare because they know that no jobs await them in the Philippines.

The plight of OFWs against racism, xenophobia, rights violations and fascism in host countries is also a very important agenda in the peace talks between the Philippine government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines. Unfortunately, the Duterte government has withdrawn from the 5th round of formal negotiations.

 

Welfare and services

The economic compulsion for the government to keep exporting Filipinos to maintain or especially to increase remittances unfortunately overrides and precludes undertaking any measures that (i.e. OEC partial abolition, extension of passport validity, stopping of “tanim-bala” scheme, etc.), directly or indirectly, constrict the flow of migration – even if such measures would immediately prevent the incidence of abuses and migrant rights violations.

Indeed, there has been a growing clamor among (overseas Filipino workers) OFWs and their families for a “one-stop shop” that would cater to better services and  the protection and promotion of OFWs. This is mainly because the present “one-country-approach” being implemented by agencies tasked to provide direct services to OFWs, namely, the DFA, DOLE, OWWA and POEA, has been deemed dysfunctional, anti-migrant and inoperative.

Migrante therefore sees and appreciates the rationale behind Duterte’s proposal of establishing a “Department of OFWs (DOFW)” that seeks to systematize, consolidate and strengthen government efforts to protect our OFWs. This proposal in itself is already an initial critique of the performance of the above-mentioned government agencies over the years.

Migrante, however, forwards serious apprehensions on the basis of its assessment of the performances of existing agencies concerned with dealing with OFW services and welfare.

If a DOFW is to be established, it is imperative that the Duterte administration first thoroughly investigates how current concerned agencies, as well as existing laws and policies, benefited or failed our OFWs and their families. Duterte’s proposal to create a DOFW should not work to merely further institutionalize labor export, but instead address the decades-long clamor of OFWs and their families to put an end to it.

Filipinos are being forced to migrate because of desperation as a result out of the economy’s lack of development resulting in job loss, low wages and lack of livelihood at home. OFWs have borne witness to how insincere, insensitive and inept past governments have been in upholding and securing the protection and welfare of OFWs. The past four decades of Philippine labor export has showcased a more blatant and unapologetic policy that continues to exploit OFWs’ cheap labor and foreign remittances in accordance to neoliberal interests and dictates.

Migrante can only be compelled to support the formation of a DOFW if, and only if, it would work towards the eventual irrelevance of such a department and instead strive for a society in which families do not need to be torn apart just to survive.

 

Prospects

Unless Pres. Duterte makes good his promise to address the root causes of forced migration, it will be a never-ending and chronic cycle for OFWs and their families. If Duterte sincerely wants our OFWs to come back home, we need more regular jobs, higher wages and pro-labor policies, not a labor export policy that has long gone bankrupt.

To genuinely address the problem of forced migration, economic policies should focus on developing the national economy by advancing local industries, agriculture and basic services.

Migrante International fully supports the call and struggle for national industrialization and genuine land reform as the ultimate solution to the problem of forced migration. ###

 

On the creation of a “Department of OFWs”

digong-inaugural Indeed, there has been a growing clamor among (overseas Filipino workers) OFWs and their families for a “one-stop shop” that would cater to better services and  the protection and promotion of OFWs. This is mainly because the present “one-country-approach” being implemented by agencies tasked to provide direct services to OFWs, namely, the DFA, DOLE, OWWA and POEA, has been deemed dysfunctional, anti-migrant and inoperative.

Migrante International therefore sees and appreciates the rationale behind President Duterte’s proposal of establishing a “Department of OFWs (DOFW)” that seeks to systematize, consolidate and strengthen government efforts to protect our OFWs. This proposal in itself is already an initial critique of the performance of the above-mentioned government agencies over the years.

Migrante International, however, forwards serious apprehensions on the basis of its assessment of the performances of existing agencies concerned with dealing with OFW services and welfare. If a DOFW is to be established, it is imperative that the Duterte administration first thoroughly investigates how current concerned agencies, as well as existing laws and policies, benefited or failed our OFWs and their families.

In the last four decades, Philippine governments have been aggressive in crafting programs and services aimed to facilitate and encourage forced migration and labor export. While acknowledging the many social costs, these were effectively downplayed by the hailing of OFW remittances. Rather, the Philippine government has unfailingly and resolutely promoted the labor export policy as unequivocally beneficial for OFWs and their families. This is particularly done by overstating supposed development benefits for the economy and the income benefits for households.

The economic compulsion of past Philippine government to keep exporting Filipinos to maintain or, especially, to increase remittances unfortunately overrides and precludes any measures that, directly or indirectly, constrict the flow of migration, as enshrined in Republic Act of 8042 (amended by RA 10022), or the Migrants’ Act of 1995.

The Migrants’ Act of 1995 created the existing concerned agencies, laws and policies that are effective to this day. And twenty-two years after its enactment, the plight of OFWs has worsened.

This two-faced law is riddled with embellishments of migrants’ rights but treacherously traps OFWs into the worst possible scenario of commodification. It allowed past regimes to renege any responsibility in the protection of our rights and welfare while permitting the continuance of government financial exaction.

It is in this light that Migrante International poses this qualification: the creation of a DOFW should not work to merely further institutionalize labor export, but instead address the decades-long clamor of OFWs and their families to put an end to it.

Filipinos are being forced to migrate because of desperation as a result out of the economy’s lack of development resulting in job loss, low wages and lack of livelihood at home. OFWs have borne witness to how insincere, insensitive and inept past governments have been in upholding and securing the protection and welfare of OFWs. The past four decades of Philippine labor export has showcased a more blatant and unapologetic policy that continues to exploit OFWs’ cheap labor and foreign remittances in accordance to US imperialist interests and dictates.

Migrante International firmly believes that the Duterte government should strive towards ending forced migration and scrapping the bankrupt labor export policy. It is very open to work closely with the Duterte administration to ensure that this thrust is realized.

It will support the formation of a DOFW if, and only if, it would work towards the irrelevance of such a department and instead strive for a society in which families do not need to be torn apart just to survive. ###

 

Grandstanding, band-aid solutions, damage-control for companies and recruitment agencies: Assessment of PH govt’s response to plight of stranded OFWs in Saudi crisis  

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Stranded OFWs in Saudi still awaiting repatriation from the Philippine government.

Prepared by Migrante International, December 13, 2016

Last July, Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) Sec. Silvestre Bello III declared that the Duterte government will resolve the issue of stranded OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) in Saudi Arabia by yearend. December has come, we are well on our way to usher in the new year, and what has the government done so far in response to their plight?

The economy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is presently beset with a severe oil price meltdown. Crude oil that sold for over $100 per barrel in 2014 was cut down to half the price by the end of 2015. The price decline strongly influenced KSA’s economy since oil sales account for about 80% of its revenues. It prompted the Saudi government to cut spending, delay projects and sell bonds. This resulted in financial instability of government contractors which employs a large numbers of migrant workers.  Its impact also extended to other branches of the local economy, including public utilities and social services.

The effect of the crisis on OFWs became evident when tens of thousands became stranded in numerous company accommodations in various regions of KSA by 2015. The number of OFWs affected by non-payment of salaries, withholding of benefits,  massive retrenchment and contract violations continued to increase as the oil crisis worsened. The Rapid Response Team to KSA dispatched by the previous Aquino administration only estimated some 11,000 OFWs affected in companies such as Saudi Oger Ltd, Saudi Bin Laden Group (SBG) and Mohammad Al Mojil Grooup (MMG). Migrante, however, projected that at least 50,000 OFWs, to include those employed by smaller companies and sub-contractors, will be affected Kingdom-wide by March of 2016 – and the figure will continue to rise if the government continues to turn a blind eye.

Acknowledging the crisis, then newly-elected President Rodrigo Duterte gave “marching orders” to Sec. Bello to conduct a visit to Saudi Arabia to immediately assess the situation and repatriate the stranded OFWs via chartered flights. In response, the government launched an inter-agency project dubbed, “Operation Bring Them Home”, which conducted two “humanitarian relief missions” to Saudi Arabia in August-September and October-November. The Operation was jointly conducted by the DOLE, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), Department of Social Work and Development (DSWD), Department of Health (DOH) the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) and TESDA (Technical Education and Skills Development Authority).

Prior to the Operation and Sec. Bello’s first trip to Saudi Arabia, Migrante submitted to the government a briefer that summarized the plight, demands and urgent government action needed by the stranded OFWs. Below is a summary of the OFWs’ demands:

  • Negotiate with employers for the payment of salaries and benefits, and issuance of exit visas.
  • Emergency mass repatriation for stranded OFWs. Government to shoulder immigration penalties and other costs related to repatriation.
  • Provide legal assistance and other support (free translations fees, transportation expenses) for distressed OFWs who filed labor cases against their companies, and facilitate the provision of subsistence allowances through the OFW’s recruitment agencies.
  • Ban the deployment workers to bankrupt and crisis-ridden companies.
  • Emergency financial assistance to returned OFWs and families of distressed OFWs.
  • Speedy resolution of cases of repatriated OFWs lodged at the POEA and NLRC.
  • Comprehensive reintegration program and decent-paying jobs for returning OFWs.

 In a press conference in Malacanang last November 22, Sec. Bello announced that “only 2,000 OFWs remain to be repatriated in Saudi Arabia”. In the same breath, Sec. Bello said that they “have succeeded in bringing back 3,000 OFWs while the rest have managed to find good-paying jobs in other companies”. This statement is very problematic.

Firstly, the government merely accounts for some 5,000 affected OFWs, still a far cry from the 11,000 it vowed to repatriate early on – and still yet a small percent of the actual number of affected OFWs outside of the three big companies, Saudi Oger Ltd, Saudi Billadin Group (SBG) and Mohammad Al Mojil Group (MMG).

Sec. Bello, in the same press conference, announced that the OFWs opting to transfer to other companies “made it easier for us (government)”, but he also admitted that the OFWs have not yet been paid their withheld wages and necessary money claims.

These statements are not only contradictory but problematic at best. It now appears that the Sec. Bello deems the Saudi crisis fait accompli, problem-solved, and therefore business-as-usual between the Philippine government and its biggest labor importer. This is wishful thinking on the part of the Philippine government and downright deceiving.

On one hand, while efforts of relief and on-site assistance by the DSWD should be lauded, these are short-term and  band-aid solutions that do nothing to address the major issues of emergency repatriation, labor issues and comprehensive reintegration for affected OFWs and their families.

Government efforts have been fragmented thus far, with various agencies involved, particularly the DOLE and DFA, “one-upping” each other in terms of who plays a command role in the Operation. Migrante’s sources in the DFA claim that after the initial and only press conference, where Sec. Bello and DFA’s Perfecto Yasay publicly flanked Pres. Duterte as he welcomed a handful of repatriated OFWs from Saudi, the former had been reluctant to conduct a follow-up humanitarian mission after the first one in July.

Thus begging the question: Was the DOLE’s objective in the Saudi mission not really for the main purpose of repatriating stranded OFWs but conducting damage control for the beleaguered Saudi companies and local recruitment agencies through the facilitation of job transfers?

If so, the promise to “end the stranded crisis” by yearend has been deceiving and bound to fail from the start. Job transfers of crisis-ridden OFWs have been the thrust of the previous governments – as in the case of the MMG workers who initially called for emergency mass repatriation in 2014, were convinced by the PH government to be transferred to other companies, only to enlist yet again for repatration in 2015 after the company they transferred too was also affected by the Saudi crisis.

If Sec. Bello worked mainly to facilitate job transfers, then he only succeeded in buying time for and “rescuing” the companies and local private recruitment agencies instead of the affected OFWs. This is unsurprisingly in line with the “win-win” solution and other deceiving, pro-capitalist and anti-labor policies that the DOLE has been advocating thus far.

Meanwhile, the oil crisis in Saudi continues to worsen. OFWs, those who Sec. Bello said “opted” to stay on, have not become impervious to the crisis just because they were transferred to different companies. The crisis is also now affecting not only OFWs in industrial and construction sites but those in the service and health sectors as well.

The Saudi crisis is far from over. What the present administration should ultimalety strive to do as a comprehensive response to the crisis is to decisively deviate from its labor export policy and instead focus on creating decent and sustainable local jobs to end the cycle of forced migration. ###

OWWA refuses to comply with DOLE Chief’s orders re: Saudi stranded

Migrante International, together with Saudi OFWs and families, and DOLE Sec. Silvestre Bello III, August 11,2016, DOLE Office, Manila

Migrante International, together with Saudi OFWs and families, and DOLE Sec. Silvestre Bello III, August 11,2016, DOLE Office, Manila

Migrante International held a dialogue with Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) Sec. Silvestre Bello III last August 11, together with 30 representatives and family members of stranded overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in Saudi Arabia.

In the dialogue, the OFWs and their families thanked Sec. Bello and the Duterte administration for acknowledging that there indeed is an ongoing crisis affecting at least 50,000 Filipino migrant workers in Saudi Arabia. This is a far cry from the previous Aquino administration’s outright denial of the crisis, resulting in inaction and the aggravation of the sorry conditions of the affected OFWs and their families. They also acknowledged the decisive actions instigated by the Duterte government, based on the seven (7) demands presented by Migrante International and Migrante-Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) to Sec. Bello before his first visit to the Kingdom last August 22-23, 2016.

They, however, raised the following concerns with regard the government’s initial responses to the ongoing crisis, to wit:

At the tailend of the dialogue, OWWA officials arrived at the venue. Sec. Bello ordered them to immediately accompany all OFWs and families present at the dialogue to the OWWA Main Office to claim their money. The officials, however, did not accompany the OFWs and families and instead merely instructed them to proceed to the OWWA and look for OWWA Welfare Officer Connie Marquez.

Upon arrival at the OWWA office, only 9 out of the more than 30 OFWs and families present were able to claim “because only the nine (9) are included in their masterlist”. OWWA Admin Rebecca Calzado REFUSED to grant them financial assistance, despite and in spite of direct orders from the DOLE Secretary.

“While we believe that Sec. Bello is sincere in his promise of improved assistance and services to the affected OFWs and families, OWWA’s non-compliance is putting the good secretary in a bad light. As of this posting, we have been receiving more complaints from OFWs and families, on-site and off-site, nationwide and abroad, of the OWWA’s continuous refusal to follow Sec. Bello’s direct orders,” said Garry Martinez, Migrante International chairperson.

OWWA is an attached agency of the DOLE. The DOLE Chief is also the Chairman of the OWWA Board. “OWWA Admin. Calzado’s refusal to comply is outright insubordination and complete disregard of the rights and welfare of distressed OFWs and their families. We believe this is not what Pres. Duterte had in mind when he ordered Sec. Bello to attend to the plight of stranded OFWs in Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Martinez said that Migrante-KSA is also now preparing for Sec. Bello’s planned return to Saudi Arabia on August 15, as well as the arrival of the government’s one-month humanitarian relief mission within August. ###

The Change OFWs Want in A Duterte Presidency