Overseas Filipino Workers, the Philippines Modern Heroes
HELLO SISTERS! I HAVE, AT LAST, CRAFTED THE DRAFT FOR OUR MODULE 4 WRITING ASSIGNMENT - THE FEATURE STORY. IT'S ACTUALLY OVERFLOWING - WAY BEYOND THE 2,500 WORD LIMIT. I GUESS I WAS CARRIED AWAY BECAUSE THIS IS SOMETHING I REALLY WANT TO BE ADDRESSED SO BAD, THAT I KNOW UNLESS AND UNTIL HUMANITY AND THE WORLD'S LEADERS THROW THEIR CONCERN AND UNDERSTANDING ON US MY HEART AND SOUL WILL NOT RUN OUT OF EXPRESSION. I KNOW I WILL HAVE TO REDUCE THIS PIECE INTO 2,500 WORDS ONCE I CONSOLIDATE THE COMMENTS AND REFLECTIONS OF MY MIDWIFE AND YOURS. MEAN TIME, PLEASE GO AHEAD AND SAY OR ASK ANYTHING. I NEED YOUR REFLECTIONS AND COMMENTS SO BAD! ... I AM RIGHT HERE AS ALWAYS ...
Bagong Bayani (modern heroes) – that’s our overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), simply because their tears, sweat and blood keep the Philippine economy afloat despite its instability. The economic impact of money sent by OFWs is such that without it my country’s economic capability will continuously dwindle in the face of global recession. In 2009 alone, OFW remittances pegged at 17.348 billion US Dollars (USD) – the highest among past records, which rose to almost 18 billion USD in 2010. Five years ago, the Philippines was the fourth largest recipient of foreign remittances, with India being the first, followed by China and Mexico. At 10 billion USD in 2005, the amount was grossly 13.5% of the Philippines Gross Domestic Product that year.
Since 1974 the Philippine government has recognized overseas employment as key factor in economic development, with remittances as major source of foreign currency earnings. Local economists note that OFW remittance is the life support system to our ailing economy.
Last January, Central Bank of the Philippines reported total OFW remittance of 1.4 billion USD, while the Bureau of Internal Revenue collected 74.57 billion pesos from remittance taxes. This is a favorable kick-off to the government agency tasked to collect 940 Billion pesos for 2011.
The Philippine National Statistics Office, on its 2004 Survey on Overseas Filipinos, reported 1.06 million OFWs, 49.3% of whom were males and 50.7 females, posting remittances at 1.2 billion USD. Since then the number of female OFWs continued to rise, as more women leave homes and families to seek employment overseas, with a 5.15% increase of OFWs, as well as 26.6% growth in remittance yearly.
In recent years, exodus of OFWs has seen a rapid increase, with remittances amounting to 13 billion USD in 2006, 14.4 billion USD in 2007, and 15.9 billion USD in 2008. Estimates show that there are about 9 to 11 million overseas Filipinos all across the globe, representing about 11% of the Philippine populace, which earned them the label “global Filipinos”. Annually, over a million Filipinos leave the country for employment abroad, although some through programs sponsored by government and institutions, or through other means.
The United States of America is the destination of the bulk of OFWs, followed by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As of 2008, the Philippines surpassed China as the leading source of Canada’s immigrants.
In 2007, the US State Department estimated about 4 million Filipinos in the USA. It is embarrassing to note that Filipino women comprise a huge percentage of the approximately 4,000 to 6,000 women who come to the USA each year as mail-order brides or through internet courtship, or by direct contact with American travelers in the Philippines. But sadder still is the fact that majority of Filipino women abroad are lowly employed as domestic helpers, household maids, caregivers, nannies, baby-sitters, and other jobs that require personal services. Worse is that most of these OFWs are professionals and well-educated who, because of necessity, have to set aside pride and dignity, suffer the pangs of separation from loved ones and confront threats of maltreatment, to be economically productive. It’s frustrating, too, that the exodus carries an increasing number of skilled workers to work for unskilled positions, that issues on “brain drain” and underemployment are alarming. This is very rampant with teachers working as babysitters or domestic helpers, nurses as caregivers, and pharmacists as medical transcriptionists. Even medical doctors have to undergo retraining to work as therapists and nurses.
Out of the 300,000 Filipinos in Japan, OFWs are only a fraction (about 5,000) - 90% of whom are in the entertainment industry, mostly women. The recent killer tsunami that has driven us to terror, since the Philippines lies in the Pacific ring of fire and shares the same fault lines with Japan. Yet the much greater scare caused by the tragedy is real. The Japanese government funds 35% to 37% of our Overseas Development Assistance. Last year, Japan extended 3.4 million USD in loans and 146.8 million USD in grants. Our tourism will suffer badly, too, considering that Japanese are the third biggest group of tourists visiting our golf courses, beaches and cultural attractions every year. In 2010, 360,000 Japanese tourists filled our vaults with 300 million USD. Exportations will be adversely affected since Japan imports 98% of its banana consumption from our country, pegged at 7.8 billion USD last year.
Likewise, the devastating earthquake in New Zealand last month killed eleven of my countrymen and left many Filipinos residing in Christ Church homeless and jobless.
Moreover, the Middle East employs over two million Filipinos, in both legal and illegal entries. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is presently the largest hirer of OFWs, where Filipinos, numbering over a million, are the fourth largest group of foreigners at, and the second-highest source of remittances to our country, posted at 1.5 billion USD out of almost 18 billion USD remitted in 2010. In 2008 alone, Saudi Arabia had 300,000 job orders for Filipinos. Today, the Saudi Arabian Embassy in the Philippines processes from 800 to 900 jobs for Filipinos daily.
However, it seems like things has gone from bad to worse as our Foreign Affairs Department places fifteen countries on watch list as unrest threatens to spread, to include Yemen, Algeria, Oman, and Bahrain under cause for concern, and Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Morocco, Jordan, Syria, Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, and Saudi Arabia under careful monitoring.
The Philippines has so much at stake and its meagre resources has been bleeding continuously with prevailing unrest in North Africa and the Arab world. Cost of repatriations from Egypt, Libya and now Japan is an economic haemorrhage, with Libya now at over 600 million pesos and rising. As our Foreign Affairs Department raises alert level on Bahrain with temporary ban on entry of OFWs, 31,000 highly-skilled OFWs stand to lose their jobs. Last year, Bahrain was the fourth highest source of OFW remittances in the Middle East at 500 million USD.
However, over and above this prevailing economic nightmare, there is a perennial problem on female OFWs that need to be addressed for once and for good - maltreatment, unfair labor practices and violence against women.
John Leonard Monterona, Middle East coordinator of Migrante – a Manila-based OFW organization, reported that every year female OFWs in the KSA become victims of sexual abuses, maltreatment, unpaid salaries, and other related labor malpractices. Migrante observed that some Filipinos are lured, fooled and transported to Saudi Arabia illegally, where they are left stranded without work. Migrante claimed that between January and August 2008, about 800 OFWs sought their help, while 922 others were deported to the Philippines in the first three months of 2008 due to overstaying visa requirements. Early that year, 103 Filipinos lived in a tent camp under a bridge before being deported.
On September 13, 2010, a newborn baby boy was found in the toilet trash bin of Gulf Air Flight 154, covered with blood and tissue paper. His mother, a domestic helper in Qatar for four years, is married and has children. She last left for work in the Middle East on July 9, 2009, and gave birth on the plane upon her return to the Philippines. The National Bureau of Investigation disclosed possibility of human trafficking and rape.
On January 15, 2011, 84 OFWs with minor children were repatriated from Kuwait, mostly women who left their employers for alleged abuse and maltreatment and non-payment of their salaries.
About 40 OFWs who ran away from abusive employers, mostly women with 15 infants and children, and camped out in tents under Khandara Bridge in Jeddah since December 2010 hoping for repatriation to the Philippines, braved the elements, reeling under a cold spell, with temperatures ranging from 18 to 25 degrees Celsius, aggravated by lack of food. The continued heavy rainfall took its toll until on January 16, 2011 they had to remain standing because the area was flooded.
Back in 1996, then 17-year-old Sarah Balabagan caused great controversy when she was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to death by firing squad in the United Arab Emirates. Balabagan, born in 1979 in Maguindanao, was fourth of fourteen siblings, seven of whom died in childhood. She confessed being abused by an uncle as a child. Like many young Filipino women driven by utter destitution, she cheated on her age and was barely a teenager when she left for the UAE to work as domestic helper. In July 1994, she killed her Arab employer with 34 stab wounds, alleging that he tried to rape her. In June 1995, a court ruled out that she was guilty of manslaughter and also as victim of rape, and sentenced her to seven years imprisonment with payment of 150,000 dirhams ($40,000) blood money to relatives of the deceased, while awarding her 100,000 dirhams ($27,000) as rape compensation. But then the prosecution appealed the verdict for death penalty, and in September 1995, a second Islamic court found no evidence of rape and convicted her of premeditated murder.
The death sentence was actually Balabagan’s twist of good fate. There was an international outcry and a defense campaign in many countries, since her case symbolized ill-treatment of domestic servants in the Persian Gulf countries. The President of the UAE Sheikh Zayed made a personal appeal for mercy and the victim's family agreed to drop their execution demand in exchange for blood money. Balabagan’s sentence was reduced to a year's imprisonment and 100 strokes of the cane over five days in February 1996, and payment of blood money, which came as a donation from a Filipino businessman.
But Flor Contemplacion and Delia Maga were not that fortunate in Singapore. A few months earlier, Contemplacion, a 42-year-old mother of four, was convicted of killing fellow Filipina domestic helper Delia Maga and four-year old epileptic Nicloas Huang whom Maga was hired to care for as a stay-in domestic helper of the Huangs. Contemplacion was hanged at Changi Prison in March 1995. It was widespread accepted belief among Filipinos that Contemplacion was a victim of frame-up, backed up by substantial evidence that her plea of guilt was made under duress. Evidences, which, according to journalist Abbie Bakan, was not allowed to enter court trial, indicated that she was beaten, tortured with electric shocks, drugged, tied to a chair and left almost naked without access to food or the toilet, pelted with ice and submerged in water, molested by interrogation officers and hypnotized as the police extracted a confession from her. She was imprisoned for 4 years, 2 years under death row. Filipinos frustratingly put the blame on government’s neglect.
Two Filipino witnesses alleged that Huang's father framed Contemplacion for double murder, claiming that the father strangled Maga in rage after finding his epileptic son accidentally drowned in the bath tub in a seizure attack. As the father could not identify a suspect, the police implicated Contemplacion through Maga’s diary. The Singaporean court considered and rejected the testimony as fabrications. The execution went ahead despite Philippine President Fidel Ramos's personal plea to the Singaporean government to stop it.
700 OFWs, many of them women, are now in death row. As menial jobs vanish in the global recession, desperate Filipinos resort to dangerous means. In China, 167 OFWs face death penalty, mostly for drug trafficking. Our Foreign Affairs Department disclosed that since 2007, international drug syndicates target Filipino women, either for them to pick up drugs in one country and smuggle them to China, or the syndicate comes into the Philippines and recruits Filipino women to take drugs to China or elsewhere. The women are paid between $500 and $5,000 to swallow tubes containing drugs, carry them hidden in their luggage or even dissolved and soaked into paper or books. Recently, a domestic worker swallowed a tube of cocaine and tried to smuggle it into the Ninoy Aquino International Airport where she was arrested. She was working in Pakistan but her husband died. Moneyless and desperate to come home, she was helpless until someone offered to pay her to swallow the drugs. Many women, in desperation, are forced to grasp the sharp end of the knife.
There are over 200 destinations of OFWs all over the world. Of these, the Philippine Overseas Employment Authority declared only 85 countries safe for Filipinos. But why do Filipinos insist on working in “unsafe” places and risk living in hostile cultures? We still vividly remember our grievous outrage over a most lamentable advice during the Gulf War in 1991, when during a Senate Hearing where it was reported that Filipino women in Kuwait were being raped by their soldier escorts - who were supposed to protect them across the desert and see them through the border to safety, our very own Foreign Affairs Secretary who served under our first woman president Corazon Aquino quipped, “If rape is inevitable, just relax and enjoy.”
Two decades later, yet still, Filipino women working abroad face the same perennial threats and grievous predicaments. My own sister, a 49-year-old mother of 6, left for work in the Middle East in 2003. Estranged from her husband in favor of his mistress who bore him 5 children, she has escaped from her employer and been deported many times, and yet despite pain of separation, dismal conditions and ugly experiences, every time she goes back to the Middle East for work. A single provider, her meager salary has never been enough, that her three older boys had to forego college education, and the younger ones have been dribbled for care from one of us siblings to another.
Through the years OFWs accumulate tales of woes on their life and employment in foreign lands. Crushing poverty compels them to take the most degrading jobs anywhere across the globe. Every year over a million Filipinos, a growing number of women, exhaust everything at home to leave for overseas employment.
As “global Filipinos” we are affected with what happens in other nations. Our OFWs confront the grim realities in the conflict in North Africa and the Middle East, the devastating earthquake in New Zealand, the tragic tsunami and nuclear radiation in Japan, the recession in the USA. And yet many of them prefer to hang for a sad reason - back home means unemployment and destitution. Filipino workers, fleeing poverty, are forced to accept jobs spurned by people who have other options. The worst jobs, in the worst conditions, are the only “chances” to poor Third World migrants.
Today’s economic hemorrhage – loss of remittances, cost of repatriations, and rising oil prices because, unfortunately, the countries from where our OFWs lost their jobs are the same countries from where we import oil for our economy, is an ugly nightmare. But as of now our government is doubling efforts to conquer this predicament. President Aquino’s state visit in Indonesia early this month resulted to the latter’s commitment to supply oil and petroleum in case our current source, the Middle East, fails to deliver our requirements. Moreover, the KSA offers 3,000 jobs to OFWs repatriated from Libya. The US Embassy has likewise opened 6,600 local jobs for Philippine-based American industries. As well, Australia offers 10,000 jobs for Filipinos, and our Overseas Employment office is negotiating with other Asian countries for job opportunities. At least, despite continuous economic bleeding, we have managed to find solutions.
What remains is the perennial problem on the maltreatment of our female OFWs. This is where we count on international support and global institutions for assistance and solutions. My country is not wanting in its concern and support for the female species. Women are installed in the highest levels in governance, leading our Departments of Justice, Social Welfare and Development, Human Rights, and Science and Technology. We also have the Philippine Women Commission under the Office of the President, and the Committee on Women and Gender Equality in the upper and lower houses of our legislature. On top of these are the various women groups in civil society and non-government organizations. Unfortunately, this is not enough for female OFWs, because even our embassies and consulates find it hard to defend and protect Filipino women from abuse, hostility, maltreatment, violence and unfair labor practices. More often, the role of these institutions in foreign lands is limited to assistance on repatriation.
It is only fitting that we rejoice in unceasing gratitude on the recent installation of the United Nations Women. This is surely the chance and the incentive to ensure protection of rights and preservation of well-being of women anywhere in the world regardless of nationality.
Equally important is the passage of the International Violence Against Women Act. Our hope is that President Obama and all the rulers in the world would open borders and destroy barriers to foreigners. Creed, culture, gender and race should not divide us. Instead, our differences should bind us into one sharing and caring international community. After all, we share one world. Humanity is one global family.