The deregulation of overseas employment: the looming apocalypse?
First of two parts
By Gina Mission

Cesar Tablo is a Marine Engineering graduate from Mindanao who is presently in Manila, working as a utility boy in a maritime agency while waiting for his tawag. Tawag (literally, a call) is what seafarers call the official order for them to start working on a ship. Although overworked and unpaid, Cesar doesn’t really mind. "It’s company policy. You really have to go through this stage of being a utility boy. Otherwise, you cannot get a slot for overseas work. Even if I don’t earn now, I will have plenty of money when my tawag comes," he said in Cebuano.

   Depending on work availability, and mostly the whims of the company’s boss, working as a utility boy, Cesar has learned, could last up to one year. But if the boss likes the applicant, he added, there is a big chance he can get a job within six months. Cesar is on his third month of utility work, which include, aside from the usual janitorial services, cleaning the boss’ house every week, and buying pornographic magazines for him.

   "It’s a good sign," Cesar said, referring to his buying porno magazines for the boss. He had heard from his "seniors" that those utility workers that the boss trusts to buy such magazines are usually the ones who will get the job when there’s a vacancy.

   To further increase his chance of getting a job, Cesar brings big prawns for the boss every now and then. "He likes seafoods, so I always make it a point to bring something for him at least every week," he revealed.

   The highly-coveted work among utility workers like Cesar, is the position for a "wiper." This is the lowest level of maritime work, which entails hard physical labor that would sometimes last up to 36 consecutive hours when the ship gets stalled out at sea.

   The more vocal Walter Monteron, a "veteran" seaman from the same company said that during storms, the "wipers" are the most overworked employees. Sometimes, their supervisors would even hit them on the head for no reason at all.

   But Cesar is unfazed. "When you are just starting, you have to take whatever comes your way. After a while, when you become a ‘senior’ yourself, you can do the same to the new workers," he said in jest.

   During the time when Walter was still a utility boy, he refused to buy porno magazines for the boss. As a result, he got bypassed on two jobs. It’s only when he complained with the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) that he finally got his tawag.

   Unless one has good connections, most maritime graduates end up like Cesar and Walter. And in the world of overseas maritime work, enchantingly advertised as one where seeing the world is "free," the name of the game is jobs. You have to have a job.

   But at what cost?

   The escalation of overseas employment dates back to 1972, when the Philippine government adopted labor migration as a temporary measure due to an economic slump prompted by the increasing unemployment that plagued the country. In the same year, then-President Marcos created the POEA to oversee the entire overseas employment industry. Not long after, the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) was also put up. In May 1985, the Marcos administration, through EO 857, ordered the compulsory remittance of the income of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

   The government initiative proved to be a good move, at least for both the Philippine economy and the families of those who had made it big outside the country. At present, there are an estimated seven million OFWs scattered among 182 countries. This number accounts for 10 per cent of the country’s population, and 20 per cent of the total labor force. The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas recorded a total remittance of $1.279 billion for the first quarter of this year. Experts say the Philippine economy was buffered by OFW remittances during the recent Asian financial crisis.

   But while many stakeholders have benefited from OFW remittance, over the years, the risk to the life and limb of the migrant workers has also grown enormously. For instance, the 1998 OWWA Report on Casualties reads: 451 repatriation of human remains; 251 cases of physical illness; and 122 cases of mentally-ill OFWs. The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), on the other hand, noted a 20 per cent increase in OFW deaths from 1997 to 1998. Some 296 OFWs were reported dead from January to June 1999, an average of 49 deaths a month.

   In addition, the National Mental Hospital recorded 200 OFWs confined in 1994, the single biggest group treated for mental disorder. According to the DFA, at least three mentally-ill women were repatriated every month in 1998. POEA recorded a total of 13,196 complaints ranging from rape, maltreatment and non-payment of salaries, to illegal termination of contracts in 1998.

   As Kanlungan executive director Malou Alcid said: "Migrant workers are vulnerable to human rights violation owing to their migrant status. They are subjected to different forms of racism. They are usually not covered by the receiving countries’ labor and social laws. They take on jobs, which the local populace would not touch – dirty, dangerous and degrading jobs."

   Yet, despite these risks, Filipinos continue to go overseas in droves to seek employment.

   But as Cesar’s experience would show, the "risks" start even in the Filipino’s own homeland. Kanlungan identified several pre-employment problems in the form of illegal recruitment, overcharging of placement fees, forced indebtedness leading to bonded labor, contract substitution, delayed documenting/processing, undocumented/illegal workers.

   And when finally the worker arrives in the receiving country, he or she faces potential on-site problems such as contract substitution, poor working conditions, inadequate protection, maltreatment, inadequate food, unfair regulations, sexual harassment/exploitation, illegal recruitment, non-payment of wages or benefits. In addition, the OFW has to deal with homesickness, which can sometimes lead to psychological problems.

   Or, if the OFW is unlucky, there’s a chance of unjust termination, disability, death, jobs that are not commensurate with qualifications, exposure to occupational health hazards, and/or labor-trafficking.

   After employment, the OFW has to deal with the issue of being continually productive, and keeping the savings account intact.

   And these are just the economic issues. Past studies have shown that overseas migration has precipitated a social crisis, affecting most especially the family. There are marital conflicts and breakdown of marital relations due to prolonged separation and lack of communication.

   Amidst the strong protest following the Flor Contemplacion and the Sarah Balabagan cases, the 10th Congress passed RA 8042, the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995. Its critics say that it is a "hasty piece of legislation" that "purports to uphold the rights and welfare of migrant workers and their families," but which also sets in motion the "fast-tracking of the deregulation program of the Ramos administration, particularly with regard to the overseas employment industry."

   For even as the likes of Cesar are continually abused by opportunist placement agencies that operate in the shadow of POEA regulation, Sections 29 and 30 of RA 8042 provide for the eventual deregulation of the overseas employment industry.

   Section 2 (c) provides: "While recognizing the significant contribution of Filipino migrant workers to the national economy through their foreign exchange remittances, the State does not promote overseas employment as a means to sustain economic growth and achieve national development . . . Nonetheless, the deployment of Filipino overseas workers, whether land-based or sea-based by local service contractors and manning agencies employing them shall be encouraged. Appropriate incentives may be extended to them."

   Section 2 (g) further provides: "The State recognizes that the ultimate protection to all migrant workers is the possession of skills. Pursuant to this and as soon as practicable, the government shall deploy and/or allow the deployment only to skilled workers."

   Section 29 on the Comprehensive Deregulation Plan on Recruitment Activities provides: "Pursuant to a progressive policy of deregulation whereby the migration of workers becomes strictly a matter between the worker and his foreign employer, the Department of Labor and Employment within one year from the effectivity of this Act, is hereby mandated to formulate a five-year comprehensive deregulation plan on recruitment activities taking into account labor market trends, economic conditions of the country and emerging circumstances which may affect the welfare of migrant workers.

   Section 30 of RA 8042, on the Gradual Phase-out of Regulatory Functions provides: "Within a period of five years from the effectivity of this Act, the DOLE shall phase out the regulatory functions of the POEA pursuant to the objectives of deregulation."

   Consequently, the POEA started drafting a comprehensive deregulation plan since March 1986.

   According to Alcid, at first glance, the POEA implementation of deregulation seems to be merely a streamlining of POEA procedures and organization, to facilitate the overseas employment of migrant workers. But on closer examination, she continued, this "gels into a concrete game plan, which will intensify the export of Filipino human resources by leaving the migrant workers to the dictates of the international labor markets."

   And when this happens, who will be liable or accountable to the Filipino migrant workers and their families?


Next week: Implication of the deregulation for OFWs, and POEA’s say on the matter.

CyberDyaryo | 1999.10.21