Friday, August 22, 2008

The Condition and Demands of Filipino Migrant Workers

Migrant workers and their remittances are not just a significant but already a crucial component of the Philippine economy. On the one hand, the export of labor relieves the grave problem of unemployment in the country. On the other hand, the multibillion-dollar worth of remittances keep the economy afloat that would have otherwise sunk.

Labor migration is also a key factor in shaping the present social situation. Not a few have observed that without the safety valve of labor migration, the social volcano in the Philippines would have long erupted. However the fact that millions of Filipinos have left their homeland has led to real social costs, though not easily quantifiable, among them dysfunctional families and brain drain.

To grasp the extent of labor migration and the economic importance of their remittances, let us look at the statistics and data.

A good 10% of Filipinos, almost 9 million out of a population of 80 million, are living or working abroad. Undocumented migrants and immigrants will bloat this figure further. About half are contractual workers, now called overseas Filipino workers (OFW’s), principally found in Saudi Arabia, Japan, Hong Kong, United Arab Emirates and Taiwan. The other half have emigrated mainly to advanced countries like the US, Canada, Australia, Japan and the UK.

Thus practically every other family in the Philippines has an immediate member living or working abroad. In some families, there are already two generations of migrant workers with the next on the path of becoming the new batch of OFW’s.

Yet whether permanent residents in other countries or contractual workers abroad, all these overseas Filipinos send remittances back to their families and relatives in the homeland. More than $14 billion in remittances were sent to the Philippines in 2007 alone or above $1 billion per month. The figure would rise by an estimated 50% if money sent through informal channels were included.

Just the official figure of $14 billion in remittances already constitutes 10% of GNP. That amount exceeds both official development aid and foreign direct investments received by the Philippines. Without the influx of dollar remittances, the country’s current account would be negative.

The growth of remittances has been explosive, commensurate to the number of migrants and immigrants. Back in 1993, about half a million OFW’s were deployed while the remittances were worth just $2.5 billion. Yet even then this was considerable since it already equaled half of the foreign debt service.

The government actively promotes labor migration. In fact, the export of labor is part of the yearly target for employment creation. About a million migrant workers are deployed yearly. Everyday almost 3,000 Filipinos leave to work abroad. In 2007, about a third of them were new hires. The rest were rehires and sea-based workers.

The number of women migrant workers has been increasing and in 2007 they constitute half of new hires. Many are domestic helpers like in Hong Kong, entertainers like in Japan, and nurses like in the US. Thus many have observed the contradictory situation of Filipina mothers taking care of other people’s children while their own grow up without their physical presence. The feminization of labor migration and the lack of protection for migrant workers have led to rising cases of abuse, harassment and rape.

Labor migration has a long history in the Philippines. At the turn of the last century, the first batch of Filipino migrant workers found work in the plantations of Hawaii and California. The modern wave of migration however started in the 1970’s with the promotion of labor export under the Marcos dictatorship. Skilled manual labor was deployed to the Middle East that was in the midst of a construction boom.

The fall of the dictator did not stop labor migration but instead accelerated as the Aquino regime begun the shift to trade liberalization and as the economy remained stagnant. From then on, labor migration became a flood with both unskilled factory workers and professionals like teachers, nurses and doctors joining the trek abroad. Despite the fact that nursing is one of the most popular courses in college, the Philippines today faces a health crisis due to the lack of nurses and doctors as most are moving abroad.

It is not an exaggeration to say that labor migration today is the modern-day form of slavery. Five hundred years ago the age of mercantilism saw the heyday in the trade of human slaves. In the era of globalization, millions of workers cross borders in search of greener pastures or simply to survive in the face of joblessness and destitution in their home countries.

The pull of a substantial wage differential between the sending and receiving country is enough incentive for massive labor migration. That has of course resulted in significant transfers of wealth and token alleviation of poverty in the home countries. Yet the fact that millions of migrants are involved and the reality of lack of protection for basic worker rights and respect for labor standards results in so many victims of abuse.

In the Philippines, no reliable data exists but it is common knowledge that migrant workers fall prey to excessive fees from labor contractors and employment agencies. Once abroad, many are underpaid or not paid their salaries at all. Some are forced to work 50 to 80 hour workweeks and usually without overtime pay. There are many abusive employers and some labor under unsafe conditions. Contracts are breached and migrant workers are without recourse for redress. In the worst cases, the workers end up as bonded labor or sex slaves, if not incarcerated despite being innocent or dying in unsolved murders.

In many receiving countries, basic labor rights and standards are not respected and implemented. Even in advanced countries where there are formal guarantees of workers rights, baiting of immigrants and restrictive immigration policies lead to the proliferation of so-called illegals. As illegal immigrants, they are without the protection of the law and thus easily victimized. Moreover they are hunted by the governments of host countries and if caught deported back home with their dreams broken.

It is a glaring contradiction that in the era of globalization, goods, capital and information flow freely across the world and yet the free movement of labor is restricted. Trade in goods and capital flows are fully liberalized through multilateral agreements but labor migration is highly regulated through unilateral actions. This is one fundamental aspect of the grave inequalities and double standards under globalization.

Fact is globalization is the key link in the flood of labor migration in recent times. There are estimated 150 million migrants and immigrants around the world. Meaning 2.5% of the global population had to cross borders and oceans just to find their daily bread. In 2005, their combined remittances amount to $167 billion and could reach up to a quarter billion if those sent through informal means are counted.

While the pull factor in labor migration is mainly the wage differential—a fact that exists even before globalization—the push factor is principally the deepening poverty and worsening unemployment brought about by near universal enforcement of neoliberal policies worldwide. The policies of liberalization, deregulation and privatization have led to the collapse of local industry and agriculture. Together with policies of cheap labor, labor flexibility and others associated with globalization, workers are encouraged if not forced to look for work abroad despite all the dangers, hardships and costs.

Still labor migration is a right that workers must enjoy in a globalized world. Even more than goods and capital, labor must be able to move freely across the world. The Partido ng Manggagawa as the political party of the working class in the Philippines defends and advances this as a right for all workers. Labor must be mobile in order to seek better wages and working conditions.

Thus we aim to protect the rights and welfare of migrant workers in their host countries. The international guaranteed labor rights as enshrined in the ILO conventions including the right to organize, bargain and strike, must be extended to all migrant workers.

To this end, the Philippine government must forge bilateral agreements with host countries of OFW’s to guarantee their basic labor rights and ensure implementation of labor standards. It must also take the lead in pushing for enforceable multilateral treaties defending and advancing migrant rights. A government that actively promotes labor migration as a policy can do no else.

To protect OFW’s and curtail abuses, deregulation of the labor export industry must be stopped and government must strictly regulate the deployment of workers abroad. This will greatly reduce fraud, deception and abuse by private employment agencies and contractors at the homefront. Heavier penalties and fines must be levied against illegal recruiters.

The Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipino Act or RA 8042 must be amended in this regard. RA 8042 must further be amended to incorporate important protective provisions specifically for seafarers and women migrant workers.

The Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) must be reorganized and its program reoriented to ensure that the funds collected from OFW’s are used to serve migrants and their families. Scrap the OWWA Omnibus Policies. Audit and transparency mechanisms must be installed to protect the OWWA Fund. OFW’s and their families must be represented in the OWWA Board.

The embassies and consulates of the Philippines in OFW host countries must serve the concerns of migrant workers above all. The promotion of OFW rights and welfare rather than the promotion of tourism or investments must be their primary mission. To that end, the embassies must be reorganized with programs to assist migrants who are victims of abuse and to facilitate redress of their grievances.

Above and beyond programs and projects that currently exist, there must be provision for reintegration and retraining of OFW’s, care for women survivors of violence abroad, support for families of migrant workers including women abandoned by their spouses working abroad, and coverage for OFW’s social security, health insurance and housing.

The Overseas Absentee Voting Law must be amended so that it more effectively assures the right to vote of Filipinos abroad and ensures the sanctity of their ballot. Among these are a choice for either postal or personal registration and voting, continuing registration of overseas Filipinos, and an appropriate mechanism for seafarers to register and vote.

Yet almost four decades of labor export has not led to social progress in the Philippines. In fact from a long-term perspective, the social costs and the brain drain may offset whatever economic benefits accrue from labor migration.

Thus the policy of labor export promotion must be reversed and instead the government must enforce the Constitutional mandate for full employment in the country.

Such a policy shift can only be realized as part of a paradigm shift away from globalization. Without falling into the trap of autarky, the local economy must be strengthened so that domestic industry and agriculture can generate sufficient decent jobs for all Filipinos.

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