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TURNING POINT: The New Filipino Heroes

NAAWAN, Misamis Oriental (MindaNews/03 December) — They are coming home.

The overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) have started arriving lately to reunite with their families during the Christmas break.

The OFWs are called the new heroes and rightly so because with their toil and sacrifice in strange cultures and climes, they lift up their families from penury and provide the government with badly needed resources to keep the economy afloat and preclude dysfunction in governance.

In 2013, cash remittances of the overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) through legal channels (banks and money transfers firms) amounted to $20.1 billion. If we consider cash remittances through personal couriers like friends and co-workers and those brought home in kind, such as household appliances, equipment and the like, the total earnings of OFWs would likely be 50 percent more than what is officially calculated.

The remittances from of OFWs are now one of the country’s major sources of foreign reserves, second only to the revenues generated from exports, and beating out foreign direct investments in terms of percentage of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It is then doubtful if the government will survive without the OFW contributions to the economy.

Needless to say, the OFWs deserve all the accolades heaped on them by the government.

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This public recognition, however, has not been accompanied with sincere and meaningful efforts to improve their plight, thus amounts to nothing and serves no purpose at all.

Being called new or living heroes smacks of irony and pathos. The dead heroes in public parks are given more respect, attention and treatment than the living ones. The former are cleansed of smudge, surrounding made green and beautiful, and are offered flowers every now and then; the living are left stuck in the mire of inefficiency, indifference and neglect in government service.

The number of OFWs, reported lately at 2.2 million, is some 2 percent of the country’s population.

In 2013, the National Statistics Office reported that Filipinos with existing work contracts abroad comprised 96.2 percent of the total migrant Filipino workers. The estimated 3.8 percent of the OFWs are presumed to be undocumented, meaning, they have no records with the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) and might have pursued work abroad through self-initiated contacts, or those who find works outside the country without passing through government channels, and those working in the host country with tourist visas, or through other means.

The OFWs are scattered in different parts of the world. Some 84 percent of these contract workers are land-based while 16 percent are sea-based. The destination choices of OFWs depend on gender, education, and the type of employment. Many men venture to the Middle East for construction, mining, and oil-related jobs. Women flock to Southeast and East Asia for caretaking and home servicing jobs. North America attracts professional migrant workers, such as nurses, doctors, and other types of healthcare workers.

The 10 major destinations of land-based OFWs are the following: Saudi Arabia (316,736), United Arab Emirates (235,775), Singapore (146, 613), Hong Kong (129,575), Qatar (100,530), Kuwait (65,603), Taiwan (41,896), Italy (31,704), Bahrain (18,230), and Malaysia (16,797).

The countries that top as major origin of cash remittances include the United States, Canada, Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, Japan, United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Italy, Germany, and Norway.

Sixteen percent or around 352,000 OFWs work as mariners or seafarers of giant oil tankers, cargo or cruise ships, and a few works in oil rigs in foreign waters.

Fifty-two percent of OFWs are male while 42 percent are female. About one-third (32.7%) of Filipino migrant workers are laborers and unskilled workers. And one of every two women OFWs are unskilled.

It is widely known that those who usually suffer from unfair labor practices –long working hours, meager pays, and unsanitary rest quarters, are those ordinary laborers and unskilled workers employed in the Middle Eastern countries. The unskilled women, generally hired as domestic help, are the most vulnerable. Many had come home reporting that they worked 7/days/week, up to 16-21 hr/day, with salaries as low US$120/month. They had no sleeping quarters; no day offs; subsisted in leftovers; and allowed no vacation or contacts from the outside at the duration of their employment contract. Some had reported being physically or sexually abused by their employers. Moreover, many undocumented female migrant workers often fall as victims to human trafficking ending as prostitutes and sex slaves.

Migrant workers are also victims of contract breaches. Contracts are changed unilaterally by the recruitment agency or employers upon arriving in host country to the disadvantage of the workers. Workers are forced to sign new onerous contracts or are threatened imprisonment or immediate deportation.

Also, the practice of employers of keeping the passports of the workers in their possession deprives the latter of their liberties. This restricts their freedom of travel and movement even within the locality. At the expiration of their work contracts, some find it very difficult to retrieve their travel documents, especially if their employers want them to remain in their employ under the same unspeakable conditions.

The adoption and institutionalization of Kapala or sponsorship system in the Middle Eastern countries makes working in these places a very trying venture. The policy decrees that expatriate workers can only enter and leave the countries of the Gulf States with the assistance or explicit permission of their sponsor or employer, who is the local country. The Kafile (employer) determines their visa and legal status.

Moreover, the new policy of Saudi Arabia – the number one OFW destination – that mandates companies to hire Saudi nationals equivalent to 10 percent of their workforce, has displaced recently a good number of OFWs. Those eased out before their time by the “Saudization” policy have swelled the ranks of the undocumented in the desert kingdom. They have agonized in tents and makeshift shelters, wanting in food, water and sanitation facilities, while waiting for their repatriation, which the Philippine government has been neglectfully slow to respond.

But even before they could leave the country, migrant workers already suffer many difficulties and inconveniences. Many often turn victims to illegal recruiters who run away with their money, or to legal recruitment agencies that exact from them huge placement fees and other payments beyond what is allowed by law. The migrant workers have to suffer, too, from the arrogance, indifference and inefficiency of government functionaries in processing their employment and travel papers. The systemic inefficiency in servicing them is manifest in the pitiful crowding of OFWs in government processing centers and airport terminals.

The government needs to respond to the plight of migrant workers with dispatch and seriousness of purpose. Policy reforms are needed in strengthening bilateral agreements with host countries to protect the rights and interest of our migrant workers; in securing them from illegal recruitment and human trafficking, from legal but exploitative recruitment agencies, and from the greed of loan sharks. Reforms are also needed to streamline government services to OFWS making them more efficient, transparent and predictable here and outside the country.

Now that they are coming home for the holiday, the government should at least show the new heroes some respect and courtesy, say, by freeing them from long and taxing queue at the airport arrival processing area; and shielding and protecting them from extortionists at the airport terminal, from criminal taxi drivers, and from other opportunists who are waiting to jump on them at the opportune time.

Indeed, working abroad demands a lot of hard and difficult sacrifices from the workers and their loved ones. The tradeoff is devastating to the family, especially to its stability, wholeness, social and spiritual growth. Notwithstanding its blessings to the government and the economy, this eventually has to stop if only to protect the basic unit of our society from disintegration and decay. The government ought to pursue genuine and meaningful development which will make migration just an option not a compelling choice. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews.

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William R. Adan, Ph.D., was a research and extension worker, professor and the first chancellor of the Mindanao State University at Naawan, Misamis Oriental.

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He was a British Council fellow and trained in 1994 at Sheffield University, United Kingdom, on Participatory Planning and Environmentally Responsible Development. Upon retirement, he served as national consultant to the ADB-DENR project on integrated coastal resource management. He is the immediate past president of the MSU Alumni Association.)

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