ONE of the three pillars of Philippine foreign policy has been the protection of the rights, and the promotion of the welfare and interests, of overseas Filipinos. The other two pillars are the preservation and enhancement of national security and the promotion and attainment of economic security.
Ever since the execution of Filipino maid Flor Contemplacion in Singapore in 1995, assistance to nationals or ATN has gained ascendancy in Philippine foreign policy.
Contemplacion was convicted of killing a fellow OFW and her young ward and executed thereafter. Certain quarters blamed the Philippine government for not acting accordingly on the case. Philippine relations with Singapore were strained and the case led to the sacking of the Secretary of Foreign Affairs and the Secretary of Labor. It was during my tenure as Assistant Secretary for Asian and Pacific Affairs in the DFA in 1998 that the Philippine-Singapore Action Plan was signed to put behind the Contemplacion episode.
Despite the official statement that our policy is not to export labor, our government officials constantly seek job opportunities for Filipinos abroad. Overseas deployment has become an obsession for jobless Filipinos and for those seeking greener pastures. Between 3,000 to 5,000 Filipinos leave their homes everyday to seek work overseas. There are now over 10 million Filipinos in at least 192 countries, not to mention the seamen.
The Filipino diaspora represents about 10 percent of the Philippine population. Migration has been the answer to the perennial problem of inadequate domestic job creation. Our overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) have been hailed as “modern-day heroes” owing to their significant contribution to the Philippine economy. The remittances of OFWs to their families have raised the country’s GNP and stimulated consumerism and construction activity in the real estate sector. Remittances from overseas Filipinos have exceeded the $20 billion mark, sending home a record $24.31 billion in cash in 2014. As one of the top labor exporting countries, the Philippines is the third biggest recipient of cash transfer, after India and China.
The enactment of a national legislation—the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995 (RA 8042)—was deemed essential to enable the Philippine government, particularly our people in the foreign service, to be attuned to the task of extending assistance to overseas Filipinos whose stay abroad has caused social downsides, such as family separation and moral breakdown. OFWs also have to be protected from illegal recruitment, coercive practices of and inhumane treatment by employers, and deployment in dangerous places. RA 8042 was amended by RA 10022 to enable the DFA to use its legal assistance fund in filing charges against erring foreign employers.
The Philippines was the first developing country to host the Global Forum on Migration and Development. Aside from seeking the conclusion of bilateral accords with labor recipient countries, the Philippines is also in the forefront of the campaign for the ratification of the Convention for the Protection of Migrant Workers.
Migration has created an enormous and delicate constituency for our foreign service. It has become imperative to open more embassies and consulates, particularly in Islamic countries hosting a concentration of OFWs. In this sense, our diplomatic approaches have put on a humanitarian face. It should be understood here that ATN covers all overseas Filipinos, not only OFWs. The Philippine government extended assistance to five Filipino drug mules (not all of them OFWs) who were executed in China in 2011 and 2013.
Working side-by-side with our Embassy and Consulate General is the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) which consists of the Labor Attache sent by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) and the Welfare Officer from the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA). The Embassy and POLO must work in tandem in order to deliver the assistance and service needed by OFWs and other Filipinos at the post. Close cooperation and coordination between the two entities are essential, otherwise our representation abroad will be found wanting.
Aside from the social downsides and problems mentioned earlier, Embassy/POLO have to deal with the following:
Ill effects of labor deployment
loneliness/depression, mental illness or disorder
live-in arrangement or cohabitation
quarrel and violence
Drug use and drug trafficking
Repatriation of nationals from strife-torn countries
Assistance to OFWs has, in certain instances, compromised Philippine foreign policy orientation and advocacies. The United States was miffed by the decision of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2004 to withdraw the Philippine humanitarian contingent in Iraq earlier than scheduled to save the life of OFW Angelo de la Cruz from his abductors. This incident put the Philippine role in the U.S.-led Coalition of the Willing in Iraq and designation as “a major non-NATO ally” under a cloud.
The Secretary of Foreign Affairs at that time (Delia D. Albert) justified the President’s decision, saying that it was dictated by the convergence of the three pillars of Philippine foreign policy, to wit: saving de la Cruz was in accordance with the objective of protecting as well the 1.5 million Filipino workers in the Middle East; of having a secure and democratic Iraq contributing to a stable and safer Middle East; and reducing the possibility of disruption of our oil supplies from that region.
In February 2012, the Philippines, with the protection of Filipino workers in Syria in mind, did not participate in a United Nations General Assembly vote seeking endorsement of an Arab League plan for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down. DFA Secretary Albert del Rosario justified the action in these words: “Our nationals in Syria, who are highly vulnerable, are urgently being repatriated and we are receiving assistance from the Syrian government in this effort.”
If there were no OFWs in Syria, the Philippines would have logically joined the overwhelming majority of UN member states in supporting the resolution owing to the fact that our country had shown to the world how to oust an authoritarian regime through peaceful People Power. Syria is the last holdout among the countries of the Middle East and North Africa gripped by the so-called “Arab Spring” in 2011-2012.
In looking after the interest and welfare of overseas Filipinos, the DFA relies on two mechanisms, namely: the embassies and consular establishments abroad, and the Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs (OUMWA) in the DFA. The geographic offices inside the DFA that encompass the Asia-Pacific, the Americas, Europe and the Middle East assist in the formulation of policy towards the overseas Filipinos along with the Undersecretary for Policy.
There appears to be a comprehensive spectrum of government agencies attending to the problems, needs and requirements of our OFWs. Aside from the DFA, there is DOLE, OWWA, Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), and the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO). TESDA can be added to them for it is providing new or enhancing skills to make our workers more employable and competitive abroad.
The post of Presidential Adviser for OFW Concerns should be abolished as his role is in conflict with that of the Secretary of Foreign Affairs. The proposed establishment of a Department of Overseas Filipino Workers is superfluous since it will create another bureaucratic layer that will encroach into and complicate the functions of the aforementioned government entities.
On a personal note, I served from 1999 to 2003 as Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, a post where there is a convergence of the three pillars of our foreign policy. Modesty aside,
I can say that I did my part in helping our workers in Korea in my own quiet way and without fanfare. In retirement, I treasure the following commendation from the DFA’s OUMWA regarding the case of eleven Filipinas trafficked to Korea:
First, OUMWA takes this opportunity to commend Post and the Office of the Labor Attache for the successful and careful handling of the case of the eleven (11) Filipinas trafficked to Korea. The pro-active stance and strategy that the Post took, in close coordination and collaboration with Labor Attache Conferido, deserves not only commendation, but also emulation. What you have done for these Filipinas, though often remain unpublicized, become poignant stories of heroism which would remain with us even after retirement and keep us inspired to serve our country well.
OUMWA is elated to learn that the filing of the civil case on behalf of the Filipinas caused quite a stir in the Korean government. Nonetheless, our job is not yet finished. We just hope that we can elicit the same interest and response from the end of the Philippine government.
The resolution of the case of the 11 Filipinos is embodied in the following clipping from the Joong Ang Daily dated 31 May 2003:
Court rules in favor of Filipinas
After informal and non-binding hearings, the Seoul District Court ruled that three night club owners in Dongducheon, north of Seoul, must pay from 4 million ($3,200) to 6 million won in compensation to each of 11 Filipinas who said they were forced into prostitution at the clubs.
The night clubs are located near Camp Casey, a US military base.
The Philippine Embassy here instituted the proceedings, making it the first embassy to take such steps on behalf of its nationals.
The court agreed that the women had been forced into prostitution, and said the compensation was based partly on Philippine income levels. Both parties have two weeks to consider the court’s informal verdict before deciding whether to pursue the matter formally. The lawyer for the women complained after the decision that the compensation was too little.
Instead of the usual brickbats, it may not be amiss for the Philippine media to acknowledge, if not appreciate, the humanitarian and “heroic” acts that our people in the foreign service have been extending to our “modern-day heroes.”