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OFWs Remain Neglected Under Aquino

MANILA — After nine years of neglect under former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, expectations among overseas Filipino workers were high when the Aquino administration was installed.
Arroyo’s nine year rule left some 7,000 Filipino migrant workers jailed, more than 10,000 stranded in the Middle East alone, 108 in death row and six beheaded. Arroyo’s waning months as president could have provided President Benigno S. Aquino III a bird’s eye view of the hardships that OFWs went through.

In January, a death sentence imposed on an OFW was upheld by Kuwait’s highest court. Jakatia Pawa, 34, was accused of killing her employer’s daughter on May 14, 2007. She repeatedly pleaded for innocence, saying that the knife that claimed the victim’s life did not even bear her fingerprints. But because of the lack of legal assistance, the decision was upheld by Kuwait’s highest court. Her family, meanwhile, were left in a blind spot, without receiving any significant update on their kin’s case.

Relatives, too, of Joselito Zapanta have expressed the same sentiment. Zapanta was sentenced to die last year after trying to defend himself and ended up killing his Sudanese landlord who was beating him up. The family began contacting the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) for updates but received very little and insignificant details that could help them know what Zapanta was going through. When the family had the chance to talk to Zapanta, the OFW said that no lawyer or embassy official had visited him since he was sent to jail.

Labor disputes have also been reported early this year. In February, 43 women workers of Annasban were repatriated. They were victims of contract substitution, delayed salaries, illegal deductions, poor working conditions and non-provision of medical insurance by their employer. They went to various government agencies to ask for help but were ignored, compelling them to stage a camp-out outside the office of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) in Pasay City. On the third day of their protest, OWWA administrator Carmelito Dimzon finally agreed to sit down with the workers and was forced to give them P10,000 ($228) financial assistance each, free medical check-ups, transportation fees to enable them to return to their respective provinces and P20,000 ($456) burial benefit for their co-worker Elsie Pelayo who died several days after being repatriated.

Some 200 Filipino employees of Al Arab company, on the other hand, staged a strike in Saudi Arabia for the company’s alleged labor malpractice in February. Four days prior to their strike, they submitted to the company’s human resources manager a formal letter of complaint for delayed salaries, contract substitution, and non-payment of their overtime work. Though their strike lasted only for a day, the company agreed to sit down with the Filipino workers, look into their demands and draw a win-win solution on their case.

These were just some of the cases of abuse and neglect that OFWs experienced. Thus, when the Arroyo administration stepped down from power, OFWs hoped that under the Aquino administration, they would be treated well and not as mere government’s milking cows. In his inaugural speech, Aquino ordered all relevant government agencies to be more responsive to the needs of OFWs while working toward the goal of creating more jobs at home “so there will be no need to look for employment abroad.”

But as the days and months unfolded, the hopes of OFWs that there would be a change in the way they are being treated by the government became dimmer. “You [President Aquino] embraced us face-to-face but stabbed us behind our backs,” Garry Martinez, chairperson of Migrante International, the largest OFW group, told in an interview, referring to Aquino.

State Exactions

Since Aquino became president, he has not made any significant policy that would alleviate the conditions of OFWs. Instead, his administration has allowed anti-migrant policies to continue.

Migrante International estimates that a prospective OFW needs to pay around P20,000 ($456) in fees to the government, excluding placement fees. Martinez said that even before a job-seeker is deployed abroad, the government is already earning from him or her through exorbitant fees collected by the different government agencies processing his or her papers.

For one, the OWWA membership is mandatory for all OFWs as stipulated in the OWWA Omnibus Code. Each OFW must pay $25 yearly to be used purportedly to assist distressed OFWs.

The government has also proposed to make membership to Pag-ibig, a government housing fund agency, mandatory. Though the idea might initially seem helpful to OFWs, Migrante International said this would only become another financial burden to migrant workers and another form by which the government could earn from OFWs.

The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), in its Memorandum Circular 06-2010, requires OFWs to pay, upon deployment, a membership contribution of P600 ( $13.70) every month for six months. The memorandum is in pursuance to Republic Act 9679 or the Home Development Mutual Fund Law of 2009, placing informal sectors under mandatory coverage. The law stipulates that employers should cover the mandatory contribution. But Migrante International said the law “became muddled and misleading” when its implementing rules and regulations stipulated that foreign employers are not subject to mandatory coverage.

The recently amended Republic Act 10022 or the Migrants Workers Act, on the other hand, stipulates that mandatory health insurance shall be imposed on OFWs. John Monterona, Migrante Middle East coordinator, said the health insurance would compensate OFWs for injuries suffered because of an accident, maltreatment, or physical abuse. “But no amount of money could compensate for the loss of the life of an OFW, for the violation of his or her rights, and for the degradation of his or her well-being,” Monterona said.

Martinez added that mandatory insurance is also another way for the government to escape their responsibility to OFWs, especially those who have suffered abuses. For one, Martinez said it takes five complaints from OFWs to serve as basis for the suspension of an erring recruitment agency. With the insurance, it would be the insuring company that would compensate the OFW.

But the insurance company would have to investigate first before any compensation would be given. “Experience tells us that OFWs are almost always on the losing end in a legal battle,” Martinez said, citing cases of runaway OFWs who escaped from their erring employers because of abuses and delayed salaries. “They would be charged with breach of contract, so they would not get anything from the insurance company.”

Aside from these “legalized kotong (extortion)” as how Migrante puts it, there are also issues of corruption. For one, Aquino has not yet ordered an investigation into the controversial e-passport project of the DFA.
The new passports contain a chipset for added security, in compliance with the standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization. The e-passport costs P1,200 ($27) or P250 ($5.70) more for rush processing, which would take 10 working days, and P750 ( $17) or P200 ($4.56) more for regular processing, which takes 20 working days.

The College Editors Guild of the Philippines discovered that the e-passport laminates procured from French company Hologram Industries were overpriced by P50 ($1.14) each. This amounts to an additional cost of P120 million ( $2.7 million) assuming that the DFA releases about three million passports annually.

Poor Services, Inept Government Officials

Despite such exorbitant fees, OFWs and their families receive very few, or none at all, services from the government. The case of Agnes Tenorio, a first-time domestic helper in Hongkong, is a perfect example.

Tenorio was illegally terminated by her employer barely two hours after she arrived in Hongkong. Her case was forwarded to Labor Attache Romulo Salud. During their first meeting, Tenorio, unaware of her rights and the possibility of filing a case against her employer, told Salud she wanted to go home. Salud made arrangements for her repatriation. However, Tenorio later learned from other OFWs and the Mission for Migrant Workers that under Hongkong laws, she has the right to claim her unpaid wages from her host country’s Labor Department. Tenorio went to see Salud to ask for assistance in filing a claim. Instead of helping her, Salud scolded and verbally abused Tenorio. An excerpt of their conversation is now posted at YouTube and has been circulating in social networking sites.

Meanwhile, OFWs had to live like ‘squatters’ outside the Philippine Consulate office in Saudi Arabia, after they were driven out of Khandera Bridge, where stranded and undocumented OFWs awaiting repatriation stay. The Migrante chapter in Saudi Arabia intervened in behalf of the said OFWs. Philippine consulate officials, however, told the OFWs that they could not be accommodated inside the consulate. They were later on moved to Hajj Terminal, where they stayed temporarily while waiting for their repatriation papers.

Worse, other OFWs such as the the two beauticians in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia were barred from staying in the Philippine shelter because they are undocumented workers.

Aquino’s early days as president were also marred by issues of human trafficking. Dreams of many Filipinos who took a chance in Macau were dashed, after entrusting their lives to a recruiter who, after getting their money, left them helpless in Macau. Human trafficking also occurs in banned countries.

In Jordan, runaway OFWs, mostly women, who approached Philippine embassy officials to ask for help were asked to pay $1,000 as deployment cost, The welfare officer at the Philippine embassy told them that the $1,200 fee being levied on them was already discounted. The deployment cost is based on the amount of money spent by employers to enable the OFW to reach Jordan. Embassy officials claimed that since the OFWs escaped from their employers and thus, were not able to finish their contract, they would have to pay for the deployment cost.

“This is unacceptable. Any victim of human trafficking should be repatriated immediately,” Martinez told, adding that the DFA has a repatriation fund for undocumented workers.

Families of OFWs who died abroad also had to go through the proverbial eye of a needle to have the remains of the dead OFW repatriated. Perlita Carmen, mother of OFW Mark who was killed in Kish Island, was told that she would have to pay around P500,000 ($11,400) for her son’s autopsy and the cost of repatriating the remains. When she asked for assistance from the DFA, an official named Ariel Gatchalian, even blamed his son, saying that this is what happens to Filipinos who insist on working abroad undocumented. Later on, though, the DFA agreed to shoulder the expenses.

Mary Grace Travilal, 42, worked in Cyprus as a domestic helper, and succumbed to thoracic aortic aneurism on September 30. Her long time partner Felix Catajay asked for the assistance of the OWWA for the repatriation of Travilal’s remains. But they were told that since Travilal was not able to pay her OWWA annual membership dues during her three-year stay in Cyprus, the family could not avail of her death and burial benefits amounting to P120,000 ($2,800).

Travilal’s insurance company agreed to pay for the cost of repatriating her remains to Manila. The airfare from Manila to Tacurong, however, would have to be shouldered by the family. Catajay could not afford the cost of bringing her remains back to Tacurong so he went to different government agencies to ask for assistance. After he made the rounds of government agencies, the OWWA agreed to pay for the local airfare.

“If OWWA continues to decide on requests for assistance on the basis of technicalities instead of looking into its merits, they are turning their backs on OFWs,” Martinez said.

Budget Cut

The “most direct attack on OFWs,” Martinez said, was when Aquino reduced the legal assistance fund for OFWs, from P50 million ($1.14 million) to only P27 million ($616 thousand). Martinez said this is a gross violation of the Migrant Workers Act, which mandates that the DFA must allot at least P100 million ($2.28 million) for the repatriation, medical assistance and other welfare services for OFWs in distress. The Assistance to Nationals fund of DFA, on the other hand, has been reduced to P87 million ( $1.986 million) from P100 million ($2.28 million).

With over 108 OFWs in death row and in dire need of legal assistance, Martinez said, the budget cut was tantamount to allowing these OFWs to die. OFW Camille, not her real name, hopes that other Filipino migrant workers would not have to go through what she experienced. She was raped by a Bangladeshi co-worker in September 2009 and became pregnant as a result. Her employer did not believe her and sent her to jail instead.

She was sentenced to serve 11 months in jail and to receive 600 lashes. During her imprisonment, no embassy official visited her, even after she had a miscarriage due to the stressful conditions inside the jail. No lawyer also came to defend her during the hearings. She believes she lost her case because of this.
When she was finally able to return home last December 9, she was saddened by the fact that other OFWs might suffer the same fate because of the reduction in the budget for legal assistance.

“If Aquino would not change the government’s policies and way of dealing with OFWs, we see a bleak future in the next six years,” Martinez said, “The bright yellow ribbon that he used during the elections is starting to fade, and it would have more blood splattered on it because of the anti-migrant policies the Aquino government is pursuing.”