Migrante Int’l calls for an end to GFMD, modern-day slavery

On the occasion of the 2013 High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development, Migrante International is bringing to the United Nations (UN) its appeal to put an end to the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) and to decisively bury the notion that migration, as it is recognized and practiced by the world today, shall not and will never lead to any genuine development.

Migrante International chairperson Garry Martinez is currently in New York, USA to attend the International Assembly on Migrants and Refugees (IAMR), a gathering of grassroots migrant organizations from around the world that exposes the GFMD’s line of “managing migration” as a “tool for development”. The IAMR has been held in opposition to past gatherings of the GFMD, which was formed by the United Nations High-Level Dialogue on Migration and Development in 2006.

Migrante International presents the Philippines situation to the High Level Forum on Migration and Development as an example of how migration cannot be managed as a tool for development. Large scale migration is a symptom of underdevelopment in the sending country. The structural causes of underdevelopment driving migration and exposing migrants to vulnerable situations must be addressed.

On the occasion of the 2013 High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development, Migrante International is bringing to the United Nations (UN) its appeal to put an end to the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) and to decisively bury the notion that migration, as it is recognized and practised by the world today, shall not and will never lead to any genuine development.

Migrante International presents the Philippines situation to the High Level Forum on Migration and

Development as an example of how migration cannot be managed as a tool for development. Large scale migration is a symptom of underdevelopment in the sending country. The structural causes of underdevelopment driving migration and exposing migrants to vulnerable situations must be addressed.

The global economic system has led to the commodification of labour as well as goods; and current neoliberal policies underpinning the prevailing economic order has driven the movement of peoples and goods from developing to developed countries. The Philippines is one example within a broader context of labour commodification and exploitation on an international level.

Since 2006, at the first High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development (HLD), there has been global recognition that migration not only provides a pool of cheap and flexible labour but also has great financial potential through considerable remittances which redirect resources from developed to developing countries. Because of this, no less than the United Nations has peddled the notion that migration leads to development and a country only needs to “manage” migration to reap its benefits.  Currently, remittances rank only second to foreign direct investments and are fast outpacing the rate of official development aid (World Bank 2011).

The myth of migration as a tool for development is based on two premises: firstly, remittances from migration will fund beneficial economic development from the individual to macroeconomic level and secondly there will be a transfer of knowledge and skills upon the return of migrants to their country of origin.

The HLD on Migration and Development was expressly created, under the UN mandate, to enhance this myth through coordinating policy and cooperation among relevant actors. Subsequently, the GFMD was established to facilitate dialogue between governments on migration for development. Both forums needed to legitimise the promotion of neoliberal policies which further commodify labour.

The GFMD promotes the concept of government responsibility to “manage migration” in order to augment state revenues and help cover deficits in foreign payments. Managing migration meant institutionalizing migration policies, adopting “policy coherence” in all its related branches of government, and by “aligning” migration policies with development policies domestically and internationally. This concept exposes the underlying neoliberal agenda in ensuring that developing countries continue to implement neoliberal policies of liberalization, privatization, deregulation, etc which have proven to create a vast pool of unemployed and underemployed. These workers are then free to supply developed countries according to their needs and demands of the time with flexible labour force willing to do the 3 ‘D’ jobs – dirty, dangerous and difficult.

Despite the official mandate of the GFMD to promote the protection of migrant rights as well as promote the positive benefits of migration, the International Migrants’ Tribunal on the GFMD in November 2012 found that the GFMD has focused more on managing the economic potential of migration – mainly through remittances – for the interests of those who take in billions of profits from it (banks, remittance centers, telecommunications industries, real estate etc.) than on promoting respect, protection, and realization of human rights of migrants.

Though the HLD has made some statements reaffirming the need to address root causes of migration and that migration should not be viewed as a substitute for development (Report of the UN HLD 2006), the HLD’s main recommendations have instead focused on facilitating migration and international coordination of migration and has even made a model out of the Philippine experience.

 The Philippine Context

The Philippines has a long history of outward migration where large numbers of Filipino men and women have left in search of work to support their families. It is now one of the largest sending countries of migrant workers in the world with more than 1.5 million Filipinos leaving every year. It has one of the most sophisticated models of “institutionalizing and managing migration”. However, decades of exporting cheap Filipino labour have not led to any genuine development: the Philippines is still an underdeveloped Third World country.  Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) continue to experience physical, sexual, psychological abuse, are exploited, trafficked and discriminated against. Their families at home suffer the social burden while the Philippines experiences an unrelenting brain drain.

The Philippine government has been ‘managing migration’ through the labour export policy (LEP). This approach has proven detrimental to people and has stunted broader economic and social development. The only positive benefits have accrued to a small number of people and have not been shared with the broader population.

For the past three years, the Aquino government has been aggressive in crafting programs and services aimed at intensifying migration. Social costs are effectively downplayed while the positive aspects of labour export are over emphasized as unequivocally beneficial for migrants and their families, as well as to the economy. The economic compulsion of the Aquino government to keep exporting Filipinos to increase remittances unfortunately overrides and precludes any concern for the negative social, economic and cultural impact of migration.

The Philippines is the fourth biggest remittance receiving country next to India, China and Mexico (Data Hub of the Migration Policy Institute and Development Prospects Group, World Bank, 2011). Its economy depends on remittances to keep the economy afloat. Remittances make up 12.5% of the GDP (IFAD 2007). Economic growth was sustained during and after the financial crisis of 2008 due to sustained remittances but there has not been more equitable distribution of wealth – there has been no ‘trickle down’ to the people at the bottom.

Remittances have not been proven as a motor for development in the Philippines. In fact, inequality is as deeply entrenched as before. Economic growth in the Philippines has not translated to economic relief for the people. The income of the top one percent of families in the Philippines is equivalent to that of the bottom 30 % of households (IBON Foundation).

Remittances are channelled directly to households to meet basic needs not met by the government – education, health, housing and food. The economic benefit of remittances to households is undeniable but it is limited and has not been proven to support macroeconomic development. Foreign dollar earnings go mainly to debt payment and not to the generation of jobs or basic social services. Economic growth supported by record high remittances has not resulted in a transition to sustainable development in the Philippines. Despite more than 40 years of the labour export policy, the Philippines has failed to develop a sustainable local industry.

According to the latest survey done by the Social Weather Station (SWS) in March 2013, unemployment rates in the Philippines are still at a regional high at 27.2% compared to Asian neighbours: Singapore (1.7%), Malaysia (3%), Korea 3%, China (4.1%), Vietnam (4.4%) and Indonesia (6.5%). In 2012, IBON Foundation estimated that the number of unemployed Filipinos increased to 4.4 million and the under of underemployed reached 7.5 million. This was an increase of 20% from the previous year. 2012 to 2013 has been marked by a record high number of job losses – which runs contrary to the positive presentation of the Philippines as a country in state of growth. Job losses have been coupled with declining wages which was widened in 2012 by the introduced of a two-tiered wage scheme which effectively cut the minimum wage.

Filipinos are pushed into migration due to unemployment, declining wages and increasing costs of basic services from privatisation and public-private partnerships (PPPs). Well sought after in the global market due to high levels of education, English language skills, and reliability, OFWs are still vulnerable and exploited. The lack of development of the economy, resulting in high unemployment and low wages, means that Filipinos are trapped in cycles of migration generation after generation with no long term solution. ‘Human capital investment’ cited as a positive effect of migration is meaningless if children educated from remittances are unable to find work at home when they graduate.

The Philippine Government also claims to ensure social protection covering the migration cycle for migrant workers: in preparation for their departure, during their stay and on their return to the Philippines. This is used to legitimise high processing and numerous fees for OFWs: from pre- to post- departure which includes increased passport fees; fees for 76 signatures to meet documentary requirements, POEA fee, mandatory payments for housing and health benefits, affidavit of support fees, translation fees. Each OFW has to pay at least P25,367 (USD587) in fees before they can leave the country. From the 1,802,031 OFWs who left the Philippines in 2012, the Philippine government earned nearly P45.7 billion (USD1billion) from these state exactions.

As processing fees increase, government funds for direct services for OFWs have been slashed in the National Expenditure Program. For the fiscal year 2012, only 0.17% of the national budget was allocated to services for OFWs. In 2012, news reports cited remittances reaching an all time high of USD23.8 billion. Despite OFWs essential contributions to the economy and to their communities, the government does not invest back into migrant workers in practice. Support agencies and funds are undersupplied and there is little assistance for migrant workers.

The Philippine government has long prided itself for its efforts in working with receiving governments to negotiate formal and informal agreements which they say guarantee basic national and international labor and human rights standards for Filipino workers in those countries of work. In truth, these agreements are formal endorsements by the government for the continued exploitation of OFWs. Many agreements have been made with receiving countries only to facilitate the sending of more OFWs as cheap labour. The government has not ensured that those states meet their obligations to protect the basic human rights of OFWs. OFWs are frequently exploited and abused – physically, sexually and emotionally.

An example of an exploitative system that the Philippines government continues to endorse is the Saudi government’s kafala or sponsorship system – one of the main policies that has caused the surge in number of undocumented migrant workers in the country. Saudi Arabia remains to be a top destination country for OFWs. Human Rights Watch, in a July 2, 2013 statement, said that the Saudi government should “abolish its migrant worker sponsorship system and allow workers in abusive situations to easily change their jobs”.

Under the kafala, no migrant worker is allowed to enter the country without an “in-country” sponsor, usually the employer. The sponsor is primarily responsible for the workers’ visa and legal status. Also under the kafala, migrant workers’ residency permits are bound to their “sponsors” whose written consent is required for workers to change employers or leave the country. Employers often abuse this power to confiscate passports, withhold wages and force migrant workers into slave-like conditions. In effect, the kafala makes migrant workers more vulnerable to abuses and modern-day slavery.

The kafala is in direct violation of Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Universal Declaration on the Protection of Migrant Workers and their Families. It is the main reason for the yearly increasing number of stranded OFWs, OFWs in distress, jailed OFWs and OFWs on death row in Saudi Arabia. It has been in place for decades now yet both the Saudi and Philippine governments have done nothing to address its adverse effects.

In 2013, the Saudi Arabian Government also started massive crackdowns on undocumented migrants – many of whom are undocumented due to the kafala system. Some 4,500 undocumented OFWs camped outside the Philippines embassy in Riyadh and Jeddah in the Philippines requesting assistance to be repatriated to the Philippines to no avail. According to testimonies of many campers, leaders of the tent city were detained, and even tortured by Saudi police, allegedly at the behest of Filipino embassy officials as the arrests were made inside the embassies.

At the last HLD, the Philippine government boasted of having a Rapid Response Team to repatriate OFWs in times of crisis. However, the emergency response systems have been non-functional and repatriations were few and slow such as in Libya when it was at war in 2011 and in the crises in the Middle East where many OFWs are based. Recently, allegations about government officials engaging in ‘sex-for flight’ deals with OFWs desperate to be repatriated home from crisis areas broke out and led to an investigation. The sex-for-flight scandal is not an isolated issue but rather an added example of the vulnerability of OFWs and abuse they are subjected to abroad.

There are many ways in which migrant workers are regularly exploited in their country of work. Employers frequently fail to meet the terms of standard overseas employment contracts which have been negotiated by the Government of the Philippines. Consequently, most OFWs do not receive their full promised wages and they are expected to work long shifts with no days off. There are also high rates of physical, sexual and emotional abuse and OFWs are prevented from leaving exploitative working conditions by their employers and lack of supportive embassy conditions. Despite this, the Philippines Government fails to take issue with the persistent breaches of contracts with their counterparts in the countries in question.

The aggressive promotion of migration within the Philippines has encouraged the proliferation of recruitment agencies which engage in human trafficking. The Philippines remains one of the top source countries for human trafficking as 300,000 – 400,000 Filipinos have been estimated to be trafficked. Many OFWs – desperate to earn enough for their families and unable to meet high processing fees and travel costs – are susceptible to illegal recruitment agencies which operate openly in the Philippines free from fear of prosecution. Some recruitment agencies which have engaged in human trafficking are also on the government endorsed register. The Philippines Government has taken very superficial efforts to address trafficking of persons. Of thousands of pending cases for human trafficking, there have only been 25 convictions for human trafficking in the past year. Recruitment agencies on the government registered list which are engaged in human trafficking are not investigated or removed from the list.

The Philippines has suffered socially from the long term and sustained outward migration. Families experience social conflict and children are vulnerable without close supervision and support from parents. An estimated 6 million children in the Philippines are growing up with at least one absent parent which has been shown to affect children’s emotional and psychological well being (UNICEF).

The social, physical, psychological burdens of migrating are not accompanied by positive impacts for the majority of Filipinos. The promised knowledge transfer does not go from developed to developing countries but rather in reverse. Developing countries have been used as pools of cheap labour to supply demands in developed countries for important social services in care work, cleaning and domestic work as well as construction and other essential services. Developing countries continue to educate and train their people to send them to developed countries for profit.

The Philippine context demonstrates that migrants are a vulnerable population and management policies only serve to institutionalise exploitation in their home country as well as in their country of work.


  1. Migration is not a tool for development but a development concern

Migrante International challenges the HLD to reject the current model of ‘migration management’ and to instead focus energies and attention to securing the human rights of all migrant workers in receiving countries and promoting sustainable development policies in sending countries which address the root causes of poverty and inequality. The HLD must unequivocally reject the labor export policy model of sending countries such as the Philippines.

As the HLD on Migration and Development takes place in the context of the post-2015 development agenda, it is a critical time to consider how we need a new, just framework for development which will address the roots of underdevelopment.

Migration should not be treated as a tool for development but rather as a development concern which should be addressed in the post-2015 agenda.  Migration, as a choice or an obligation for family survival,  should serve as a measure to see whether development goals are working.

  1. Migrant workers should be recognised as a vulnerable group in the new SDGs and post-2015

Migrant workers should also be recognised as a vulnerable group who need special consideration in a new development framework. Often left of official government records and not targeted by government programmes, migrant workers should not be excluded from the new post 2015 framework and  SDGs should be applied to their context.

  1. HLD should support the People’s Goals for Sustainable Development

Migrante International calls for development justice to frame the new post-2015 development agenda. Migrante International calls for the HLD to support and uphold the People’s development Goals. The People’s Goals for sustainable development are a comprehensive and alternative framework for development being advanced by grassroots organisations and civil society organisation from different sectors. It calls for governments and the international community to adopt concrete commitments and targets consistent with the principles of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capacities and the right to development. (www.peoplesgoals.org).

  1. Prioritise the respect, protection and realisation of human rights for migrant workers

 Migrants rights are human rights. Too often, human rights are limited to citizen’s rights and migrant workers are excluded on the basis of their nationality. Migrant workers provide essential social services in their countries of work and do the jobs that no one else is willing to do. They contribute to their communities at home and abroad and their rights are as important as any others. The HLD should prioritise the respect, realisation and protection of migrant workers rights in their country of origin and work by promoting relevant UN and ILO Conventions including the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and members of their families.

  1. Introduce democratic participation in governmental and intergovernmental policy making process

Migrant workers voices are being ignored and suppressed while their earnings in the form of remittances are being eyed by governments. Democratic and transparent processes must be introduced in all government processes from the local, to the regional to the international – in both sending and receiving countries – to ensure that grassroots migrant workers voices are heard and that they have active participation in decision making processes which affect their lives.

The UN HLD should open their forums to grassroots migrants organisations and not merely tokens of them. Lessons can be learned from the ILO structure which has representation from the workers through trade unions.

The UN HLD should learn from the poor experiences of the GFMD and avoid exclusion of migrant organisations. ###