On the ASEAN consensus on the protection and promotion of rights of migrant workers

image from iPleaders Blog

Global alliance of overseas Filipinos Migrante International today said that while the Duterte government hails the pending signing of the ASEAN consensus on the protection and promotion of the rights of migrant workers as the “centerpiece” of the Philippine chairmanship, migrant workers from the Philippines and the ASEAN are yet to assess if the final document adequately protects migrant workers’ rights or provides redress mechanisms, especially for those in distress.

In 2007, the ASEAN made a leap to address the issues of migrant workers by adopting the ASEAN Declaration of the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers. However, the drafting of the instrument had come to an impasse since 2009 after members of the committee, specifically migrant-sending countries, failed to agree with provisions proposed by committee members and migrant-sending countries like the Philippines and Indonesia. The dispute involves whether the instrument will be legally-binding, will protect undocumented or irregular migrant workers, will cover migrants’ family members and will cover migrant workers who are not from ASEAN member states.

If the consensus still does not address these core issues, then President Duterte just signed a “landmark” spoiler for migrants rights that, ironically, the Philippines has been contesting for 10 years now.

There is also a lack of clarity, consultative process and scarcity in information-sharing with relevant stakeholders, including migrant workers themselves. Proposed changes to the draft instrument, to exclude families, undocumented migrant workers and to remove legally-binding clause of the draft, would have a significantly negative impact on migrant workers. If Duterte brokered the signing of such a consensus, then he cannot boast of having signed a “centerpiece” agreement for ASEAN migrant workers.

Why legally-binding?

With the lack of comprehensive legislative protection of migrant workers in destination countries where most violations happen, it is important in the continuing battle for protection of migrant workers that the consensus on the protection and promotion of the rights of migrant workers is binding. If the implementation is optional for member states, migrant workers will not be able to maximize its benefits wherever they may work or migrate, however strong the principles and provisions may be.

The concept of ‘non-interference’ has been effectively instituted in ASEAN through the ASEAN Charter and had been used consistently as a method to avoid state human rights obligations in deference to the need to ‘respect state sovereignty’. The emphasis on ‘regional particularities’, principles of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘non-interference’ allowed the perpetuation of human rights violations in deference to the goals of regional and inter-governmental collaboration and economic development. The consensus on the protection and promotion of the rights of migrant workers should be legally-binding and obligate ASEAN member states to fully commit to the protection and promotion the rights of all migrant workers.

There is also a need for urgent review of existing legislation and national laws with the aim to harmonize such with a legally-binding consensus. Likewise, existing legislation and national laws that would contradict or be inconsistent with the legally-binding consensus should be repealed. These efforts should also include destination countries outside of the ASEAN if the source countries of migrant workers are in ASEAN in order to better ensure the protection and promotion of the rights of migrant workers.

Why include undocumented migrant workers?

The 2007 draft instrument related only to documented migrant workers so the framework does not correspond with the reality of migration, particularly in the Mekong region where the majority of migrant workers are living and working abroad with undocumented status.

 It is also important to note that undocumented migrant workers are not necessarily only those who entered a destination country illegally. They may include those who lose status when their work permits were not renewed, they leave their employer even if due to abusive and exploitative conditions, and, those whose employers cancelled their work permits.

Most countries in ASEAN and Asia Pacific do not have specific legislations pertaining to the protection of undocumented migrant workers and mostly deny the growing magnitude of this problem. The solution by some states for undocumented persons is typically deportation. Some corrupt immigration officers may also trade detainees to traffickers to be sent to work on fishing boats and other work. Migrant workers who are arrested are charged for working without appropriate permits and violating visa requirements or being involved in prostitution. There are no screening processes for identifying trafficked victims from undocumented migrant workers.

However, sadly, embassies and consulate offices that should serve as sanctuaries and support mechanisms for undocumented workers have been found lacking. In the case of the Philippine government, for instance, the proposal of establishing a diplomatic outpost in Sabah has been denied, mainly because it would risk the country’s diplomatic ties with migrant-receiving Malaysia.

Why include families of migrant workers?

There are often social costs to the families of migrant workers, including family dislocation with children growing up without a parent or parents. When migrant workers leave their children behind, the children are more likely to suffer academically, have emotional problems, suffer from substance abuse, be forced into the labor force at an early age, and suffer physical or sexual abuse.

Women typically bear the major responsibility for care of the family. Therefore, measures to fulfill women migrant workers’ rights must improve the treatment of women migrant workers as workers, and must minimize the hurdles women migrant workers face in maintaining their family and cultural obligations.

Furthermore, the UN Convention on Migrant Workers recognizes family as the fundamental group unit of society. As such, family unification is a major goal of the Convention. States Parties are directed to “take appropriate measures to ensure the protection of the unity of the families of migrant workers.” This provision benefits not just women who are “left behind” by their migrant worker husbands, but it benefits migrant workers who wish for their families and children to join them. Where children are able to accompany the parent or parents when they migrate for work, there are also protections needed in host countries, such as ensuring that children of migrant workers have access to social security, health care, education and other basic social services.

Family reunification/reintegration in countries of destination is the second-best option as forced migration continues to force families apart. The best option is still for sending countries to come up with alternatives to migration, such as job generation, land reform and the provision of sufficient basic social services.

 

There is also a need for the creation of an ASEAN-level body, structure, commission, or possibly even a tribunal, to address migrant-related violations and concerns. This formation may be a consultative body which would specifically focus on migrant workers, with the powers to investigate and recommend appropriate actions to member states; or in the form of an ASEAN-level tribunal or court dedicated solely, with judicial functions, to facilitate trials of and impose sanctions on violators; or reprimand, if need be, governments that would violate the consensus.

Because there is a lack of support mechanisms in both sending and receiving countries, the tendency is always to deport or repatriate victims of abuse and exploitation resulting in the denial of justice and non-persecution of perpetrators. This attitude of “exporting the problem” limits and hinders migrant workers’, for instance victims of rape and/or sexual harassment, access to justice.

Migrante International believes that national, regional and international migration policy must take place within a human rights framework that protects, promotes and fulfills the rights of migrant workers. Human rights standards in general, as well as those concerning migrants, have been codified into international human rights law, through treaties and conventions, as well as incorporated into domestic law. These have been the foundation of many state efforts in the ASEAN region to realize the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of migrants. While there has been progress in the past decades, the achievements have been minimal and, considering the present condition of migrant workers, insufficient.

Also, while there have been efforts within ASEAN member states to defend rights of migrant workers, they have not necessarily led to greater protection and instead even gone against migrants’ rights. For instance, some have resulted in the criminalization of victims, such as of undocumented/irregular workers and trafficked migrant workers. Crackdowns on work places, tightening up on movement, and border controls may have effectively restricted the right of nationals to migrate. The creation of the impression that there are sufficient mechanisms and legal responses to migrants in crisis may have also encouraged migration, resulting in the increasing number of distressed migrant workers unaided upon the onset of crises because of a lack of national and regional level mechanisms of protection.

Migrante International reiterates that the most basic right of migrant workers is to be able to have decent, regular work and livelihood at home without having to seek these in other countries under likely very difficult conditions. This draws attention to how recommendations need to first of all be grounded in a solid understanding of the root causes of forced migration which create the basic conditions for rights violations. Addressing these root causes and implementing policies that prevent forced migration are vital and should proceed astride more immediate efforts to advance migrant workers’ rights.

Another key point is the recognition of the right of migrant workers to organize among themselves. The united action of migrant workers, their families and advocates, to provide venues for redress when there are none is a significant step in the promotion and protection of the rights of migrant workers in the ASEAN. ###

 

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“OFW Bank” further institutionalizes bankrupt labor export program

Global alliance of overseas Filipinos Migrante International objects to the creation of an “overseas Filipino worker bank” (OFB), saying that it is geared towards “managing OFW remittances for the perpetuation of a long-bankrupt labor export program”.

President Duterte recently authorized the transfer of shares of the Philippine Postal Savings Bank (PPSB) to the Land Bank of the Philippines (LandBank) for its subsequent conversion into the OFB through Executive Order 44.

The creation of the OFB is in tune with the Duterte government’s economic thrust of “managing migration” as a “tool for development”, a neoliberal prescription that does not in any way address the root causes of forced migration nor even attempt to curb it in the policy-level. Its main objective is to “manage OFW remittances” to enable a more fast-tracked, sufficient and concentrated system of profiting from overseas Filipino workers’ (OFWs’) hard-earned incomes.

This in itself further institutionalizes the decades-long labor export program that continues to exploit OFWs’ cheap labor and remittances in accordance to neoliberal policies and dictates.

Previous administrations have been aggressive in crafting programs and services aimed at facilitating and encouraging forced migration. While acknowledging the many social costs and human rights violations, these are effectively downplayed by the hailing of OFW remittances. Instead, past administrations have unfailingly and resolutely promoted the labor export program as unequivocally beneficial to OFWs and their families. This is particularly done by overstating supposed development benefits for the economy and the income benefits of households.

Precisely, this is what the Duterte regime hopes to achieve anew through the creation of the OFB, to the detriment of our OFWs.

Instead of providing a comprehensive and genuine economic program that decisively deviates from a policy of labor export and focuses on creating domestic jobs to end the cycle of forced migration, Duterte’s economic compulsion is to keep exporting Filipinos to maintain or, especially, to increase, concentrate and manage remittances.

Further, the EO’s supposed vision to “provide OFWs with priority support for their growing financial needs” is plain braggadocio. Encouraging OFWs to embark on “microfinancing” will only bury them in greater debt to big banks and financial institutions, this time facilitated by the state itself. Meanwhile, enticing investments for so-called “microinsurance” may only be deemed as yet another state exaction scheme in which OFWs are encouraged to allot their earnings to premiums and contributions that will ultimately be useless to them. This has long been the case with the controversy-laden and corrupt-ridden OWWA funds.

Migrante International firmly stands on the position that, should there be “OFW banks”, these should ensure that OFWs’ hard-earned money are invested towards genuine rural development and national industrialization that will create jobs at home and end the vicious cycle of forced migration. Unfortunately, this thrust is hardly the case under the Duterte regime’s present economic agenda.

To address the problem of forced migration, the government’s economic policies should focus on developing national economy by advancing local industries, agriculture and basic services. It should depart from neoliberal policies which focus on increasing dependence on OFW remittances. Only then can OFWs look forward to a future in which they will not have to leave their families behind just to survive. ###

Never again to a fascist dictatorship! – Migrante

Today, wherever we may be in the world, Filipinos come together to mark the 45th year of the declaration of martial law. But this year’s September 21 protests go beyond commemoration and recollection of the crimes of the US-Marcos dictatorship. Today, we unite to hold accountable the fascist US-Duterte regime for crimes perpetrated in its Marcosian all-out war against the people.

We are gathered today with other sectors because OFWs and families stand against Duterte’s fascism and tyranny. We condemn in strongest terms the government’s mass murder under the banner of the regime’s three wars – the war against the Moro people, the bloody “war on drugs” and the anti-people Oplan Kapayapaan. We vow to fight Duterte’s political suppression and repression of its critics and perceived enemies. We vow to resist and reject any and all forms of curtailment of our hard-fought freedoms and civil liberties.

We vow to frustrate any and all moves by Duterte to install himself as a fascist dictator like his idol Marcos.

We are not cowed by President Duterte’s attempts to sabotage, belittle or mock today’s protests. We shall hold no less than Duterte responsible for manoeuvres to disrupt or cause trouble in today’s peaceful mass actions. We are aware that Duterte is more than capable of creating scenarios to serve as pretext for the declaration of nationwide martial law.

We will not be intimidated. Should Duterte make good his threat to declare martial law nationwide, we vow to be ever vigilant and continue with efforts to mobilize the broadest number of Filipinos in the Philippines and around the world to call for an end to his fascist rule.

 

September 21 protests go global

Migrante chapters held different forms of protests around the world today.

In Hong Kong, OFWs trooped to the PH Consulate to condemn the spate of killings. Meawhile, OFWs in Japan distributed leaflets in train stations to call for solidarity with the Filipino people against Duterte’s fascism and tyranny.

OFWs in Qatar, Italy and South Korea held indoor and outdoor protests. Filipinos in Canada, Australia and the United States also held simultaneous protests. In the United Kingdom, Filipinos are set to hold a protest action on September 24.

 In the Philippines, Migrante chapters in Davao, Cebu, Negros, Laguna, Batangas, Cavite, Rizal, Nueva Ecija, Pampanga and Baguio participated in the nationwide protest centers. Manila-based chapters of Migrante joined the big multisectoral rally in Luneta. ###

#SONA2017: OFWs protest Duterte’s fascism and ‘broken vows’ in People’s SONA

On Pres. Duterte’s second State of the Nation Address (SONA), global alliance of overseas Filipinos Migrante International led protests worldwide condemning the regime’s martial law and empty promises.

“Today’s protests are happening at a time when the nation is once again engulfed in a new dark era, that of the US-Duterte regime’s militarist authoritarian rule amid worsening social injustices. We are gathered here today with other sectors because OFWs and families stand against Duterte’s martial law and all-out war against the people. We lend our voices against the government’s political suppression and repression of its critics and perceived enemies. We vow to fight any and all forms of curtailment of our hard-fought freedoms and civil liberties,” said Arman Hernando, Migrante International spokesperson.

Hernando said that martial law in Mindanao has resulted in countless deaths, destruction and numerous human rights abuses brought on by the military’s indiscriminate bombings and air strikes.  It has also been used by state forces to carry out harassment, extrajudicial killings, illegal arrests and the filing of trumped-up charges against activists, progressives and civil libertarians, not only in Mindanao but in Visayas and Luzon.

“The extension of martial law in Mindanao represents a clear and present threat of an expansion of military rule not only in Mindanao but a military takeover of the government. Such a move has paved the way for a possible declaration of martial law nationwide,” he said.

“History has proven that martial law cannot and will not pave the way to peace and stability. Instead, most vulnerable to human rights and violations are the Filipino people — unionists who strike for better wages, farmers and national minorities who struggle for land, the poor who fight for better services and against state repression. The extension of martial law in Mindanao has set the stage for the large-scale violation of human rights by the AFP and other state forces.”

Hernando said that today’s SONA protests around the world is also testament to overseas Filipino workers’ (OFWs’) continuing clamor for genuine change.

Joining the Migrante contingent in the People’s SONA in Manila are returned OFWs and families of stranded OFWs in Saudi Arabia; the family of Mary Jane Veloso; and, the family of Teresa Quedding, an OFW victim of mysterious death whose remains arrived from Kuwait without internal organs and with apparent signs of torture and maltreatment.

Migrante also raised OFWs’ strong opposition to fees and tax impositions brought on by the new OFW ID, or the iDOLE, and the Bureau of Customs’ Memorandum Order 04-2017 on balikbayan boxes which will be effective on August 1.

“After a year of Duterte’s presidency, it has become evident that no genuine change awaits OFWs and their families. Duterte vowed to end forced migration and the policy of labor export but continues to cater only to the ruling elite, big business and foreign interests. Joblessness, contractualization, landlessness, lack of basic social services and other social injustices are not being addressed. These are the root causes of forced migration, the reasons why millions of our OFWs are compelled to leave their families just to survive. These are also the root causes of the ongoing armed conflict, that only fundamental societal change can resolve,” Hernando said.

Like in the Marcos era, he said, Duterte’s martial law and all-out war against the people will only further force Filipinos to seek security and refuge abroad.

“History has also proven that martial law failed to address the root causes of the CPP-NPA-NDF armed rebellion as well as the Moro people’s struggle for the right to self-determination. Martial law extension in Mindanao, and its possible expansion nationwide, is a momentous stumbling block to the Filipino people’s aspiration and commitment to a just and lasting peace,” Hernando said.

Migrante also condemned the apparent US-hand not only in the Marawi conflict but in moves to extend martial law in Mindanao and expand it nationwide.

“Filipinos here and abroad resist and reject the US’ involvement in the Marawi conflict and in Philippine affairs. Our nation should not fall prey to the US ploy of wreaking terror and division to advance their economic and political interests in the country and in the region, similar to what they are waging in Syria, Venezuela and other countries where people are asserting their independence,” Hernando said.

“Nothing good ever comes out of US interventionist wars. The Filipino people will not allow Pres. Duterte to fall into the same trap that happened in Syria, Libya and elsewhere. In line with the US pivot to Asia, the US-hand in the Marawi conflict and the declaration of martial law in Mindanao, enabled by US puppets in the Duterte government, has already been exposed. Migrante International calls for the lifting of martial law and the immediate pull out of US troops from Philippine soil.”

“We call on all Filipinos around the world to rise against state fascism. Only through collective action and struggle can the Filipino people ultimately topple the rotten, corrupt system that has produced one tyrant leader after another,” Hernando said. ###

No to martial law extension, stop the AFP’s “all-out war” against the people – Migrante

Migrante International strongly opposes moves by the Duterte regime and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to extend martial law in Mindanao.

Martial law in Mindanao has resulted in countless deaths, destruction and numerous human rights abuses brought on by the military’s indiscriminate bombings and air strikes.  It has also been used by state forces to carry out harassment, extrajudicial killings, illegal arrests and the filing of trumped-up charges against activists, progressives and civil libertarians, not only in Mindanao but in Visayas and Luzon.

It is no secret that militarists and opportunists in the Duterte government want to extend and expand martial law for their own interests. The extension of martial law in Mindanao represents a clear and present threat of an expansion of military rule not only in Mindanao but a military takeover of the government. Such a move will further pave the way for a possible declaration of martial law nationwide.

Migrante International condemns in most vehement terms orders by Defense Sec. Lorenzana to utilize the martial law in Mindanao to carry out and intensify the AFP’s “all-out war” counter-insurgency operations. History has proven that martial law cannot and will not pave the way to peace and stability. Instead, most vulnerable to human rights and violations are the Filipino people — unionists who strike for better wages, farmers and national minorities who struggle for land, the poor who fight for better services and against state repression. Extending martial law in Mindanao will set the stage for the large-scale violation of human rights by the AFP and other state forces.

History has also proven that martial law failed to address the root causes of the CPP-NPA-NDF armed rebellion as well as the Moro people’s struggle for the right to self-determination. Extending martial law in Mindanao, and its possible expansion nationwide, will be a momentous stumbling block to the Filipino people’s aspiration and commitment to a just and lasting peace.

Migrante also condemns in strongest terms the apparent US-hand not only in the Marawi conflict but in moves to extend martial law in Mindanao and expand it nationwide. Filipinos here and abroad resist and reject US involvement in the Marawi conflict and in Philippine affairs. Our nation should not fall prey to the US ploy of wreaking terror and division to advance their economic and political interests in the country and in the region, similar to what they are waging in Syria, Venezuela and other countries where people are asserting their independence.

Nothing good ever comes out of US interventionist wars. The Filipino people will not allow Pres. Duterte to fall into the same trap that happened in Syria, Libya and elsewhere. In line with the US pivot to Asia, the US-hand in the Marawi conflict and the declaration of martial law in Mindanao, enabled by US puppets in the Duterte government, has already been exposed. Migrante calls for the lifting of martial law and the immediate pull out of US troops from Philippine soil.

Migrante enjoins all OFWs and their families here and abroad to join the protest against the Duterte regime’s attempt to convene a joint session of Congress on July 22 to extend martial law in Mindanao.

On July 24, Migrante International calls on all peace-loving and freedom-fighting Filipinos all over the world to join the People’s SONA to call the for lifting of martial law, the pull out of US troops and the resumption of the GRP-NDF peace talks. ###

 

 

“Thanks, but no thanks”, OFWs slam new OFW ID

Flaunted by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) as President Duterte’s “best gift” to overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), the OFW ID or the iDOLE is now receiving flak from OFWs and different sectors.

According to Arman Hernando, Migrante International spokesperson, the iDOLE is a haphazard attempt to impress and appease OFWs in time for the president’s next State of the Nation Address (SONA). “Unfortunately, it has been exposed as yet another money-making scheme as quickly as it was hastily launched by the government.”

“How could it be the ‘best gift’ when even the DOLE is clueless on its relevance? There is as yet no implementing guidelines on how it is supposed to function. It will not even benefit all OFWs and only new hires. Worse, the DOLE claims that it will be free of charge, to replace the useless scrap of paper that is the OEC (overseas employment certificate), but it turns out to be seven times more expensive at Php701. Employers are expected to pay for the iDOLE but since when has this stopped them from passing on the burden to recruitment agencies and, consequently, to OFWs?” Hernando said.

“Thanks, but no thanks, President Duterte. Hindi po ito regalo kundi dagdag-perwisyo para sa mga OFW.”

 Hernando said that the government would do well to cease from its “big talk” and instead genuinely address issues that would stop forced migration and put an end to the policy of labor export.

Migrante described Duterte’s first year in office as “a year of big talk, band-aids and business-as-usual” for OFWs and their families.

“For all his posturing and promises, Duterte 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. Talk is cheap, band-aids are temporary and business-as-usual means a never-ending and chronic cycle for OFWs and their families. We do not wish to hear more of the same from President Duterte in his SONA,” he said.

Migrante International will join the BAYAN-led contingent in the upcoming People’s SONA here and abroad on July 24. ###

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. ###