On IWD, gov’t told to end trafficking of Filipinos to Sabah

On International Women’s Day, Migrante Partylist reiterated its call on the Philippine government to stop the trafficking of migrant workers, mostly women, to Sabah.

“Sabah has become one of the worst places for any migrant worker. Now with the ongoing conflict and the Philippine government’s complicity, we fear that it will become a more dangerous place for migrant workers and their children,” said Connie Bragas-Regalado, Migrante Partylist chairperson and first nominee.

She said that they fear the intensification of crackdowns and raids overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), especially on undocumented or “stateless Filipinos” in Sabah, and even elsewhere in Malaysia. “After the first attack on Sabah, we have already received reports of indiscriminate crackdowns and raids on households whose residents have Filipino-sounding names. This is on the top the long-neglected miserable situation of our OFWs in Sabah,” Bragas-Regalado said.

Sabah is one of the most common destinations of trafficked Filipinos, mostly women. It is also one of the most common “transit points” of trafficked Filipinos on their way to Malaysia or other nearby parts of Asia.

Citing reports from a fact-finding mission conducted by Migrante International and other migrant groups in 2009, Bragas-Regalado said that around 80-90% of OFWs in Sabah were trafficked. By definition, trafficking is when 1) the workers have been lied to with regard a number of things, including salary; and 2) debt bondage at high interest rates; 3) slave-like conditions, involuntary servitude; and, 4) sex trafficking.

Most trafficked OFWs enter Sabah through the Zamboanga-Sandakan ferry route. In the case of Arlene (not her real name), she was promised to work as a waitress in Labuan (an island off Sabah) but upon arrival discovered that she would instead be working in a night club. She received very low wages and was forced to return to the Philippines. During her stay in Labuan, she learned of 50 other Filipino women working in one club, many of whom were minors. She learned that most of the women came from Pampanga and were later trafficked to Kota Kinabalu.

The situation of migrant workers in Sabah plantations are far worse, Bragas-Regalado said. “Their salaries are far below minimum, salary deductions plunge them into debt bondage and any arena for redress, governmental or otherwise, is absent.”

Bragas-Regalado said that even Suhakam, Malaysia’s National Commission on Human Rights, admitted that it has limited powers on effecting change with the regard the protection of migrant workers in Sabah and Malaysia. “Even they admitted then that the Malaysian government does very little in resolving the problems of migrant workers and had, in fact, become part of the problem.”

The Malaysian government, to this date, has not signed and ratified the International Convention for the Protection of Migrant Workers and Their Families.

Bragas-Regalado said that the Philippine government is of no help. “While temporary working offices of the Philippine Consulate in Sabah have been determined, the presence and effectiveness of the support that they provide to migrant workers is miniscule, if not insignificant,” she said.

It is the contention of the Philippine government’s claim to Sabah that hinders the establishment of a permanent office there, she said. “As members of the Philippine Consulate are deployed on a rotational basis, the services are reliant on the availability, if not whim, of the appointed personnel.”

In 2008, the Philippine Consulate reported handling some 1,700 cases, mostly of OFWs unable to obtain their salaries and those “criminalized” because of their undocumented status. However, the Consulate remained ambivalent on migrant workers’ concerns.

“They said their hands are tied. That they cannot punish erring recruitment agencies. Nor can they do anything on the arrest and detention of migrant workers because it is ‘the Malaysian government’s policy and we do not intervene’,” said Bragas-Regalado.

Crackdowns conducted by the Malaysian government became more rampant as a result of the Malaysian government’s Illegal Immigrant Settlement Program (6P Programme, “6P”) which is in its final phase of implementation. Arrests, illegal detention and raids of undocumented migrants are being conducted by the Malaysian government in spite and despite of the extension of the deadline for the 6P declared by Secretary-General of Home Ministry Tan Sri Mahmood.

“Now, with recent developments, OFWs in Sabah will become more vulnerable to crackdowns and abuses. This, without doubt, will be the direct result of Aquino government’s defeatist and passive stance on the Sabah issue. Filipinos in Sabah are in danger of being ‘criminalized’ or deemed ‘illegal’ or ‘undocumented’ because our own government does not support the legitimacy of their stay in Sabah.”

Bragas-Regalado said that long before the present Sabah stand-off, despite the crackdowns, migrant workers kept coming back to Sabah. Considered as “a country of hope”, many deported migrant workers return to Sabah for either economic reasons/labor migration, filial relations (most of their relatives are already based in Sabah) or militarization (Filipino refugees from war-torn Mindanao). “Unless the Aquino does something about it, the mass exodus of Filipinos to Sabah will continue.”

“While the diplomatic ties between two governments are strained by the Sabah issue, it should not inhibit the Philippine government, and henceforth the Philippine Embassy in Malaysia, to provide assistance to Filipino nationals, whether documented or not,” Bragas-Regalado said. ###