By Gloria Jane Baylon/Businessmirror – When something earthshaking happens anywhere in the world, Filipinos scramble for their television sets to find out if a relative or a friend or acquaintance is involved for good or for bad.
Just a couple of days ago, for instance, the three-week Sabah standoff erupted into a brief shooting war, where at least 10 Filipino Muslims and two Malaysian security forces were killed. The violence was over contested territory in eastern Malaysia’s Sabah. From their standpoint, the Filipinos say they are the owners/legal residents of the palm tree-dotted Lahad Datu township in Sabah and not overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) governed by Malaysian immigration laws. They work mainly in the palm plantations of Malaysia, the world’s biggest source of palm oil.
Filipinos are, indeed, world citizens, mainly as OFWs. The United Nations-linked International Office of Migration (IOM) says that of the 215 million international migrants, 10.46 million are Filipinos scattered in 217 countries and territories. In Sabah alone, their population varies from between 200,000 and 800,000—but that number is precisely why there was a standoff between Malaysian forces and the Sulu-based Kiram royalty, which claims possession of a land deed of ownership of Sabah since time immemorial.
The standoff ended in a bloody way, contrary to the hopes of the Philippine government, who asked the Lahad Datu Filipinos to get out of harm’s way by retreating from their encampment and returning to the Philippines.
Most of the Filipinos on the island inherited their jobs and other sources of livelihood from parents and relatives. Many have never set foot in the Philippines, or moved away to other parts of Malaysia, because they do not have identity cards. Thousands are undocumented, with no record of birth or death or marriage, and are in eternal fear of deportation to Sulu, Zamboanga peninsula and Basilan. A government team, led by the Philippine Embassy in Kuala Lumpur (with the National Statistics Office, etc.), has been to these Filipino communities to register births, marriages and other civil rites.
This would give them Filipino identities and legalize their stay in Sabah, as well as facilitate their movement to and from the Philippines. This would also protect Filipinos from being victimized by human traffickers and illegal job recruiters, who use the southern backdoor and take advantage of the porous borders to ply their trade.
The government has to go to them, said Philippine Ambassador to Malaysia Eduardo Jose Malaya, because if they go out to apply for documents in the Philippines, they might be arrested and deported. They also face some problems once in the Philippines for lack of identity, the ambassador added.
The dilemma has been with the Sabah Filipinos for decades.
From an archipelagic country of 7,107 islands in the Pacific Ocean of more than 90 million people—some super rich, very many quite rich, an average chunk rich enough, but mostly very poor and survivors at the base of the economic pyramid—the Filipino diaspora of mainly OFWs is now a world total of 10,455,788, according to the CFO. The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) submission to Congress is lower at 9,324,094. CFO’s listing showed that there is not one country in the world not hosting a Filipino soul, whether as a “permanent,” “temporary” or “irregular” worker. The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (Central Bank) shows their annual remittances at between P18 billion and P20 billion, and credits the OFWs for propping up the Philippine economy ever since overseas employment became a government-led official policy, conceived half a century ago by the administration of Ferdinand Marcos.
But while migrant-labor policies flowered, modern development models jaded some of the beautiful premises as to what the Good Life is. Questions arose, among them: Until when will the Philippines be a labor-exporting country? Many OFWs who are at the bottom heap of the employment market return home financially unprepared and broken, without decent shelters as when they first left the Philippines. Think Flor Contemplacion and the fate of her immediate family members who have, at one time or another, served prison terms for drug-related convictions.
Another question: After more than 50 years of inability to meet basic development goals such as eradicating groveling poverty, despite the richness of remittances, isn’t it time for the government to stop pegging remittances to a successful national economy? A point of view proffers that a remittance-propelled economic growth could not be for real and should be rethought. A rebalancing toward economic maturity is in order, the experts say. And these advocacies must begin now before it’s too late, they note.
By region, the Americas (the US, Canada, South America, the Caribbean) are the largest hosts of OFWs, at 4,432,301 (of which more than half are undocumented), DFA figures show. Next largest are the Middle East and Africa, at 2,139,613 (with about only 135,000 undocumented). Asia Pacific (which includes Australia) is the third-largest regional host, with 1,967,703 Filipinos and about 518,000 undocumented. Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore are the major destinations in this region.
Every Filipino abroad counts, even if the number of undocumented or illegals, for obvious reasons, cannot be perfected. Even if such Filipinos may have caused embarrassment to the Philippine government or propagated ill-will against Filipino communities, that Filipino citizen “is a Filipino still and deserves all the services and protection due him,” former Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo would emphasize in his news briefings. “Never mind,” he said, “if that costs the government millions in out-of-the-budget Philippine funds.”
Thus, an illegal worker who has killed someone, even if premeditated, would get assistance at all costs. Sometimes the Filipino community itself is tapped to finance the “blood money.” US-based lawyer Filipino-American Loida Nicolas-Lewis is one such community leader; she led contributions for blood money for a Filipino convict in the Middle East and the man could be released from prison once his victim’s family accepts the sum. Blood money and a letter of forgiveness are among the basic requirements in Islamic Shariah courts in exchange for the freedom of a convict in cases such as murder.
The Philippines is constantly commended for setting the standards of reforms in contracts between labor-sending countries and labor-receiving countries (e.g., Saudi Arabia). The International Office of Migration (IOM), an adjunct of the United Nations, has gratefully acknowledged such Philippine leadership; former Foreign Undersecretary Esteban Conejos is now seconded as one of the top officials of the IOM in Geneva. To Conejos’s credit, the UN Forum on Migration and Development was held in Manila in 2008.
With what could be seen also as a feather in their caps, Filipino workers in Hong Kong, mainly household workers, have put to action their angst about rights of abode. In 2011 maid Evangeline Banao Vallejos became the first foreign maid to win a Hong Kong High Court ruling granting permanent residency. Even though an appeal by government overturned this ruling, Vallejos is still fighting and is a main witness in hearings that challenge the right of abode.
There are about 270,000 Filipino maids in Hong Kong, the biggest group of foreign maids. About a third of them could benefit from the appeals if Beijing’s Basic Law on Hong Kong residency even for mainlanders would be interpreted in their favor. Many children of maids, including those from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India, were born in Hong Kong and are studying there for years now. They, too, would be thankful to the Filipinos.
But the close-knitness of Filipinos has also spawned a collateral issue that hiring agencies find inimical to their interests. For a decade now, employment in a Hong Kong household is getting to be by word of mouth and inherited by a relative or friend, bypassing licensed recruiters. This week this downer for Philippine deployment to Hong Kong stewed not only prospective jobseekers and recruiters but also non-governmental OFW advocates such as Migrante. Migrante organized on Thursday a protest march in front of the Philippine Consulate in Hong Kong, where it called for direct hiring and accused Philippine-based agencies as being engaged in a “profit war.” It demanded that the consulate ask the Hong Kong government to lift the ban on direct hiring. As of this writing, it is not known how the consulate reacted.
“We will not be made casualties of the profit war between private recruitment agencies in the Philippines and in Hong Kong. We demand that the Philippine government protect our livelihood and rights over the vast profit that recruiters squeeze from our sweat by lifting the ban on direct hiring,” said Eman Villanueva of Migrante. He reported that the Society of Hong Kong Accredited Recruiters of the Philippines Inc. alleges that an increase in the number of claims filed by OFWs against recruiters aggravates problems in Filipino deployment.
Amid this downer in Hong Kong, which is basically a marketplace for unskilled Philippine labor, comes this upper from Tokyo (which recruits highly skilled professionals) under the Japan-Philippine Economic Partnership Agreement (Jpepa) program. Japan’s embassy in Manila has announced that the Japanese government is extending for one year the period of stay of the second, third and fourth batches (those who entered Japan in 2010, 2011 and 2012, respectively) of nurse- and caregiver-candidates. The measure would further assist the candidates in taking their Japanese licensure exams, according to the embassy. The embassy said the extension “is beyond Japan’s legal obligation under Jpepa” but was undertaken in consideration of the “friendly relations between the two countries as strategic partners.”
According to the embassy, Japan has made a series of improvements with regard to the acceptance of nurses and caregivers under Jpepa, such as the provision of preparatory Japanese-language training in the Philippines, improvements in the implementation of national licensure examinations for Economic Partnership Agreement candidates, and the creation of a learning support program. The period of stay of the first batch of candidates (2009) was earlier also extended.
But despite the obvious disadvantages of death, prison, mental and physical illness, and loneliness, why do Filipinos increasingly flock to overseas labor markets as tenuous as Afghanistan and as volatile as as Sudan?
A DFA officer at the Office of Migrant Workers Affairs replies: “Nothing beats the amount of money they get paid for. Even if it’s only $400 a month for unskilled or semi-skilled workers, that is still 10 times what they get at home. Highly skilled workers, especially doctors, engineers and nurses in high-end workplaces such as the US, Canada, the United Arab Emirates and Japan, get the equivalent of at least10 years of work in Manila what they get in only one year in those foreign labor markets.”
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