OFWs to the world

If Filipino taipans flock to China and Filipino professionals bloom in the United States (as I reported last Sunday), overseas Filipino workers serve the rest of the world. According to the Commission on Overseas Filipinos, 8.5 million kababayans are spread out in 194 countries. This means that about 10 percent of our total population and about one in every household live and work abroad.

OFW largesse and benefits. Land-based OFWs are concentrated in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong, Qatar, Singapore, Kuwait, Taiwan, Italy, Bahrain and Canada (in that order), while seafarers are deployed in vessels bearing the flags of Panama, Bahamas, Liberia, Marshall Island, Malta, Singapore, Italy, United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Bermuda.

The owners of these vessels and the real employers of our seamen are not necessarily nationals of these countries, because merchant ships often carry what are called “flags of convenience” to accord them tax shields and anonymity of ownership. Even Filipino entrepreneurs fly these flags of convenience for their international maritime operations.

According to statistics of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, OFWs, both land- and sea-based, remitted more than $18.7 billion in 2010, thereby keeping the Philippine economy afloat, more than anyone else, even during the worst global financial storms. These remittances generate local spending. OFWs fund their relatives’ appetite for homes, cars, motorcycles, appliances and foodstuff, and send their children to school. They patronize shopping malls, feast in fast-food shops, buy condos and town houses, and operate tricycles and pedicabs.

Small wonder, OFWs have been hailed as “Bagong Bayani” (New Heroes). The big wonder is they have almost always been shabbily treated. Since the overseas employment program began in the ’70s, the Philippines has had four decades of experience in dealing with migrant workers. Yet up to now, its officialdom is still struggling to solve the problems besetting our heroes.

Recurrent ordeals. True, our lawmakers enacted two landmark pieces of legislation, Republic Act 8042 and 10022, to improve the lot of OFWs. But, as in many other instances of good laws with bad results, the OFWs continue to suffer indignities and pain.

The recurrent ordeals and heart-wrenching woes of our OFWs never really leave the headlines. Perhaps, I can understand the difficulty of anticipating wars and conflicts in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and other places in the Middle East (as well as the earthquake and tsunami that hit Northern Japan) and the dislocation, injury and sometimes death they inflict on OFWs there.

But I cannot fathom government’s inability, nay neglect, to look after the needs and desolation of overseas workers that arise from our very shores. The recent shoddy treatment of Stella O. Gonzales, former staff member of the Inquirer and now an editor of the Financial Times of London, demonstrates the pits of government inefficiency and total lack of care.

I will no longer recount her ordeals of being made to fill up useless forms, and her being shuttled from one desk to another to obtain an “exit permit” that immigration officers at the airport did not even look at. And rightly so, for such exit permits are of doubtful constitutionality. My point is that there is no systematic and coordinated mechanism that is able to respond with dispatch before an issue becomes a crisis.

Permanent solutions needed. Worse it is with our foreign service, especially with our labor attachés. There appears to be no resource base – human and financial –with which government officials are able to network more effectively with their foreign government counterparts to ensure solutions on the basis of shared responsibilities.

Labor attachés have been deployed in various OFW-rich countries. But are these labor attachés selected on the basis of qualification? Do they have adequate orientation and training to prepare them for the rigors of OFW welfare assistance and repatriation that as a rule is a 24/7 engagement on top of their other tasks in negotiations and bilateral liaison with foreign governments?

It seems to me that the private sector, particularly Migrante International, is even more prepared in promptly bringing out issues ahead of government. It is the first to know and/or experience the problems besetting OFWs in their places of employment. To my knowledge, it was the first to bring out publicly the so-called “Saudization” or “Nitaqat” of work opportunities in Saudi Arabia, which restricts the employment of foreign workers.

To keep tab of our OFWs, Migrante maintains a website with an “online complaint form” where OFWs can air their grievances to a sympathetic audience. It is able to respond immediately to plaints without the rigors of diplomatic mishmash and red tape that beset officialdom. That said, certainly our government officials can take more proactive and creative solutions to tend immediately to OFW needs.

Three years ago, in early 2008, I wrote extensively on the laments of our OFWs and the solutions proposed by the OFWs themselves, which I outlined in my columns on Jan. 6, 13, 20 and Feb. 10, 2008. But to this day, their problems remain and their woes continue. Certainly, they deserve better treatment than just skin-deep acclamations of “Bagong Bayani” all over again. The Department of Labor and Employment must reinvent itself and implement permanent solutions to these recurrent problems.

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