Madam Speaker, I rise today on a matter of personal and collective privilege regarding the alarming situation of migrant workers today.
It is timely that we highlight their conditions not only because this coming March 8 is International Women’s Day but also because last March 1 marked the one year anniversary of the implementation of the new POEA Guidelines on Household Service Workers. Further, this speech comes in the wake of widespread global protests against the POEA Guidelines on Direct Hiring or Memorandum Circular 04.
Madam Speaker, we note that after a year of the guidelines on household service workers, these have resulted only in increased hardship for migrant workers. And based on POEA reports, 70% of the OFWs are women. We are also aware that their departure has resulted to various forms of difficulties or dysfunctions experienced by families left behind.
According to Migrante International, a global alliance of Migrant Filipinos, stipulations about a no placement fee and a minimum US$400 salary are not being implemented while abuses against domestic workers continue unabated. The guidelines have served to benefit only the Arroyo administration as these exact fees from household service workers compelled to pay to TESDA thousands of pesos in accreditation and testing fees.
Migrante International, has launched an international campaign against MC 04. These protests led to its selective implementation, eventual suspension and now exemptions for migrant workers in white collar, executive positions by the beleaguered Secretary Brion himself. Despite such announcements, I would like to report that migrants and their families remain committed to their call that the new guidelines on direct hiring should be scrapped in its entirety.
Madam Speaker, as I speak, there are around 100 stranded OFWs, including women and children, living right now on the streets of Jeddah like beggars. There are around 200 women migrants also stranded in Jordan; there are about 4,000 OFWs still languishing in foreign prisons, largely through little fault of their own; and countless more toiling around the world as modern-day slaves and facing untold risks to their lives. In fact a female OFW was just raped in Japan by an American soldier.
As members of this Chamber, Madam Speaker, it is imperative that we recognize and take action against the Philippine government’s culpability with respect to exacerbating the already miserable plight of migrant workers today. It is indeed distressing to note that as exposes over the NBN-ZTE and other deals are unveiled, migrant workers are also being hit with high-level corruption that exacerbates the already miserable conditions of migrants in distress.
Madam Speaker, let me focus on three points: State exactions against migrant workers, Corruption of OFW funds, and lack of genuine government services for migrants and their families.
1. State exactions against migrant workers
Migrant workers today are among this administration’s top milking cows. Last year, they infused approximately US$14.7 billion in remittances to the economy. At the same time, they also directly contribute more than P15 billion annually to government coffers through the various fees or state exactions charged them even before they go abroad.
Before leaving the country, migrant workers pay an average of P15,400 in government fees. Included in this amount are the forced US$25 OWWA membership fee, the US$100 POEA processing fee, P900 for Medicare, P650 for passports and an assortment of other payments.
Once abroad, migrants continue to be bled dry through various consular fees that are often unjust and excessive. These include passport renewal fees that differ per country despite a supposed standard of US$50. Some consulates even peg their fees charged in the local currency much higher than the dollar equivalent to squeeze even more funds from migrant workers..
In Korea, the Seoul embassy charges our kababayans US$55 for a passport renewal but if they pay in Korean won, the fee is 80,000 Won or around US$80. Worse, there was even a time when the Seoul embassy compelled migrants to pay only in Won, so that they could be charged the higher rate. This practice only ceased when KASAMMA-KO, local Migrante International member groups, protested against it.
Madam Speaker, this is in direct violation of Section 36 of R.A. 8042 or the Migrant Workers Act which states “all fees being charged by any government office on migrant workers shall remain at their present (1995) levels and the repatriation bond shall be abolished”.
Moreover, in the POEA guideline for hiring household service workers, the administration has imposed exorbitant fees for mandatory training and assessment. Under POEA MC 04, a repatriation bond is also imposed on foreign employers who want to directly hire Filipino workers.
This is unacceptable, Madam Speaker.
2. Corruption of migrant workers’ funds
Revelations made by Mr. Jun Lozada regarding high level corruption in this administration strongly resonate in the hearts and minds of migrant workers and their families. This is because funds intended for OFWs are misused and misappropriated.
A particular source of corruption is the almost P8 billion OFW Trust Fund at the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration. In 2004, Migrante International exposed how P530 million was siphoned from the OWWA Medicare Fund to PhilHealth when PhilHealth cards were given away during the Presidential Elections.
Further, documents obtained by Migrante International illustrate how Mrs. Arroyo approved the disbursement of more than US$200,000 or approximately P10 million from OWWA to Ambassador Roy Cimatu for the non-existent “evacuation” of migrant workers from Kuwait during the Gulf War in 2003 – even though he had requested the funds to come from the President’s Discretionary Fund. To date, these funds, Mr. Speaker, remain unliquidated.
Similar examples related to unliquidated disbursements and misappropriation of funds exist at the POEA and the Department of Foreign Affairs.
The misuse of migrant and government funds was further underscored Madam Speaker during presentations made by Migrante International to the Senate hearings in 2006 regarding the evacuation of migrant workers during the Lebanon Crisis.
3. Lack of genuine government services for migrants and their families
The great human cost this exacts from our migrant workers is indeed distressing and disturbing. There are unending stories of how migrants approaching consulates for assistance with repatriation are turned away because of “lack of funds” – despite the creation of a P100 million Emergency Repatriation Fund and a P45 million Assistance to Nationals budget with the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Madam Speaker, many migrant workers became stranded after running away from abusive employers who physically and emotionally maltreated them. Some were even subjected to sexual harassment and rape. At one point, Migrante-Saudi Arabia reported they numbered almost 200, including women and children. They lived for two months under a bridge in Jeddah until they were compelled to bring their demands directly to the Jeddah consulate.
After dialogues with the Jeddah Consulate and the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila, almost 100 still remain stranded in Saudi Arabia.
The case of Mr. Joel Agana, stranded in Jedda, is all the more distressing because prior to his mother’s death last February 4 in Cavite, it was her dying wish to see Joel once again. Upon learning of the death of Mr. Agana’s mother, Migrante International communicated anew the strong request for Mr. Agana to be repatriated soonest for humanitarian reasons so that he may at least see his mother before she was finally laid to rest. However, their call was in vain.
The human cost of corruption among migrant workers includes how migrants are unjustly arrested and imprisoned and not provided effective legal assistance or of how sick OFWs are told to fundraise among family and friends for their medical expenses because of the alleged “lack of funds”.
Madam Speaker, remember that migrant workers prop up our country’s economy by infusing more than US$14 billion in remittances; directly contributing around P15 billion to government coffers through various state exactions. They have an OWWA fund amounting to about P8 billion; a P100 million Emergency Repatriation Fund; and a P100 million Legal Assistance Fund among others.
Coupled with revelations about the corruption of funds intended for migrant workers and exposes about high-level corruption involving the First Family, it is deplorable that this administration turns its back on many migrant workers in distress
Madam Speaker, the Migrant Workers Act of 1995 (RA 8042), states in its Declaration of Policies (Section 2, b) that the “state shall afford full protection to labor, local and overseas, organized and unorganized, and promote full employment and equality of employment for all. Towards this end, the State shall provide adequate and timely social, economic and legal services to Filipino migrant workers.”
This declaration is violated more than it is honored. Worse, in the guise of enacting policies and legislation for the “protection” of migrant workers, this administration is guilty of exacerbating their abuse and exploitation.
Let me remind this chamber, Madam Speaker, that section 2 of R.A. 8042 states that “the State does not promote overseas employment as a means to sustain economic growth and achieve national development.”
But this administration’s intensified policy of labor export and avowed target of up to 2 million migrants per year by 2010, inherently contradicts the provision of genuine government services for migrants and their families.
It allows for the corruption of funds intended for this use and paves the way for the treatment of migrant workers as commodities, and not human beings, for export.
It is in this light, Madam Speaker, that the Gabriela Women’s Party, having been elected by migrant workers and their families, calls the attention of the chairpersons of the Committee on Labor and the Committee on Migrant Workers’ Affairs to demand for a moratorium on issuing policies with regard to state exactions and other anti-migrant policies. We suggest that a task force be created to investigate all the policies of the Arroyo administration affecting migrant Filipinos to determine if their implementation remains consistent with the laws and regulations enacted by this chamber. Congressional inquiries should also be held to determine the extent of corruption in migrant-related government agencies.
In conclusion Madam Speaker, I reiterate my earlier call that the House of Representatives recognize and take action on the Philippine government’s culpability with respect to the worsening plight of migrants and their families. Let us ensure that the Filipino migrants the world over are afforded the protection and services they so rightly deserve from government. This is the least we can do for these modern day unsung heroes and heroines of our country. ##