Who will save the saviors of the Philippine economy?
By Gina Mission

ndeniably, the $5.3 billion in remittances of overseas Filipino workers (OFW) in 1997 and their remittances in 1998 have helped save the peso from further collapse amid the Asian financial crisis. However, the same financial crisis is threatening their jobs abroad. Will the government help them get through this labor crisis?

___In a press conference on the rights of migrants held last December 17, participants of the "Rights and Roots Campaign and Regional Consultation on Migrants’ Savings for Alternative Investment" expressed their disappointment over the absence of government in reintegration processes.

___"What infrastructure support can government give migrant workers? What financial channels? What production incentives so that our savings create value added production, instead of being squandered on apples, 21-inch TV sets, chocolates and other imported goods?" they asked.

___The consultation gathered 60 grassroots migrant workers, unionists, migrant families, advocates and support groups from Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia, Nepal, Thailand and the Philippines. The event was organized by the Asian Migrant Center (AMC), Kanlungan Center Foundation (Kanlungan), Kapisanan ng mga Kamag-anak ng Manggagawang Pilipino (Kakammpi), and Unlad Kabayan (UK). The organizers said that it was a pioneering endeavor aimed at upholding migrants’ rights and demand for jobs in their homelands.

___Overseas migration of Filipino labor dates back to 1972, when the Philippine government adopted labor migration as a temporary measure due to an economic slump which increased unemployment. From then on, labor migration has been on a steady rise and in the 1990s, the country exported an annual average of 513,907 documented OFWs. In 1996, there were 6.5 million land-based documented Filipino workers abroad.

___For the government as well as the families of OFWs, overseas migration has been an economic plus. Even former President Fidel Ramos recognized this and consequently raised the status of labor export, coining the term "modern-day heroes" to describe migrant workers.

___But along with the dollar remittances and the short-term luxury that money can afford is the brutal reality of migration’s ugly side. Maricris Sioson, Flor Contemplacion, Sarah Balabagan, Heidi Juperatum and all the other victims of injustice and violence whose names didn’t make it to the headlines are among the grimmest pictures of migration.

___Some 700 workers, mostly women, die each year following mistreatment by their employers, according to recent figures released by the House of Representatives’ Committee on Overseas Foreign Workers. Women activists say the mortality figure is likely to be even higher. An anonymous source at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport said that 40 foreign workers arrive home in coffins each week.

___With the economic crisis continuing to engulf Asia, thousands of Filipinos are either retrenched or on the brink of being terminated from work. Organizers of the consultation reported that in Malaysia, thousands of Filipino domestic helpers will have to return to the country in line with that government ‘s policy passed last October not to approve new work permits, and limited existing work permits to a maximum of six years. In Hong Kong, more than 25,000 foreign domestic helpers have already been terminated due to the crisis; 160,000 others experienced a 36 per cent wage reduction last December.

___Leny Tolentino, a lay missionary in Japan, revealed that an increasing number of abuses committed against Filipina entertainers brought about by the crisis as their managers have given them a quota of 10 customers a day. Even Filipina wives, Tolentino said, have sought assistance as they are battered by their economically-depressed Japanese husbands.

___Deported migrants are not welcome in their home countries, said Rex Varona, AMC executive director. The Philippine government, for instance, has encouraged OFWs hit by crisis to find work in other countries – instead of coming back to the country.

___"For those who ultimately return, it will be like jumping from the frying pan to the fire – no jobs, no property or land to farm on, huge debts to pay and a family to feed. Those who are allowed to remain in the receiving countries are re-deployed in 3-D jobs (dirty, dangerous, demeaning) as in Malaysia. Many have been cheated out of their wages and benefits (e.g., in South Korea) or can’t find work (e.g., in Japan, Korea)," wrote Varona in his article "A Year After: Surveying the Impact of the Asian Crisis on Migrant Workers" published in the Asian Migrant 1998 Yearbook.

___"The era of export of Philippine labor has to end," the consultation participants declared in a statement. Varona said that the government is on a denial stage when it claims that "there is no policy on labor export." "It has to fully accept the diaspora that it has created, and account for the thousands of OFW lives that have been sacrificed."

___While the organizers recognize the efforts of the government in protecting OFWs, they are also resigned to the fact that these efforts are "too weak, too inadequate, too late."

___"We demand more resolute and aggressive initiatives by the government to institute bilateral, international and national protection mechanisms, laws and agreements for Filipino migrants," the participants said.

___More importantly, the participants emphasized, the government must address the root cause of overseas migration. "Staving off attacks and abuses on migrants’ rights is not enough nor sustainable. The real, substantial protection for OFWs is to provide decent jobs for them at home."

___"No amount of paper protection nor government pleading will stop the abuses against the OFWs. We are hired abroad precisely because we are cheaper, more exploitable than local workers."

___The era of Filipino dominance in the international labor market, according to them, is drawing to a close. The international labor market has been saturated. The economic crisis has further narrowed down opportunities, and created a ‘double push’ pressure. Even Korea, a destination for Filipina domestic workers, is reportedly planning to export its own migrant workers. Other sending countries like Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh have been aggressively exporting their labor.

___And like goods in a globalized market, there is a stiff competition in terms of cost and quality. As the organizers said, "In order to gain market hold, there is intense undercutting – migrant labor from other countries are offering themselves at cheaper rates, in worse working conditions, in more vulnerable situations."

___If the Philippines wants to maintain its level of deployment, it has to accept reductions in migrants’ wages, benefits, rights and protection. OFWs will therefore be exposed to more abuses. "The worse can be expected," lamented Tolentino of her constituents in Japan.

___At present, the only "semi-protection" that OFWs have is the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families promulgated by the United Nations in 1991. However, only 10 countries have so far ratified it. A minimum of 20 signatory countries is required for the covenant to be enforceable among member countries.

___Uncertain of their future abroad, not to mention the poignant feeling of homesickness, participants declared: "We demand our right to work, our right to life and to be with our families. We demand that the government start creating reintegration processes and mechanisms now so that there can be jobs and opportunities later that we can return to."

___As the Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong said: "We sell only our labor but not our rights and dignity."

CyberDyaryo | 1999.01.07