The heroes behind our ‘modern-day heroes’



THE struggles and challenges faced by millions of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) are as diverse as the Philippines itself. While the government remains committed to its pledge to meet the needs of our OFWs, many of its agencies and offices, both here and abroad, are handicapped by numerous personnel, budget and diplomatic restrictions.

This is why civil society actors such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) play a crucial role in the lives of our migrant workers. By providing services and assistance that fill the service gaps left by the public and private sectors, NGOs are able to attend to migrant workers who would have otherwise fallen through the cracks.

These non-profit groups cover a wide range of activities. There are NGOs who assist OFWs who have been maltreated by foreign employers or who have become victims of trafficking by providing shelter and protection services. Others provide counseling and medical support as well as assistance in return and reintegration.

Some NGOs focus on organizing or carrying out workshops, seminars and information dissemination and media campaigns directed at increasing awareness of the plight of migrant workers.

To my mind, many of these NGOs in the migrant worker sector also deserve to be recognized as heroes for their tireless but unsung efforts to further the cause of our OFWs despite bureaucratic resistance, opposition, and skepticism. Their presence in several Filipino communities overseas as well as in many regions throughout the country, definitely make up for the inevitable shortcomings of state and private institutions.

Although there are several local NGOs catering to our migrant workers, one of them stands out in terms of the breadth and impact—the Villar Sipag (Social Institute for Poverty Alleviation and Governance).

Established by former senator Manny Villar as a non-stock, non-profit foundation in 1995, Villar Sipag adopted OFW advancement and assistance as one of its major advocacies.

Through the initiatives of and financial assistance from the foundation, thousands of OFWs were provided airfare to return to the Philippines as well as their onward trip to their home provinces, medical aid, burial assistance, legal aid, and livelihood skills training and business start-up assistance.

Spearheading the advocacies of Villar Sipag is Manny Villar’s wife, the feisty and hardworking Sen. Cynthia Villar, who is also the incumbent managing director of the foundation.

Last week, Villar Sipag held its 7th Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) and Family Summit at the World Trade Center in Pasay City, with the theme “Kabuhayan sa Agrikultura para sa Pamilyang OFW.” This is no coincidence since Cynthia is the current chair of the Senate committee on agriculture and food, and a known proponent of migrant worker empowerment through entrepreneurship. And for this year’s gathering, that means agribusiness.

Explaining the theme of the summit, Senator Cynthia Villar said: “Our ultimate dream is to see the day when our kababayan are no longer compelled by lack of local opportunities to work abroad and leave their loved ones behind. With various opportunities sprouting from agriculture, that dream could become a reality sooner than we all think.”

The summit gathered former and current overseas Filipino workers, their spouses, children, parents or siblings in a bid to introduce them to various opportunities in entrepreneurship, particularly in the agriculture sector. Registration was free upon presentation of a photocopy of passport, proof of remittance, seaman’s book, job contract and proof of kinship to OFW such as marriage certificate or birth certificate.

The one-day gathering featured real-life stories of OFWs who turned into successful entrepreneurs in agriculture, or “agri-preneurs.” Among them were Gigi Morris, president and school director of Moca Family Farm Learning Center in Padre Garcia, Batangas; Joel Frago, owner of Forest Wood Farm and Garden in San Pablo City, Laguna; and Rafael Teraoka Dacones, owner of the Teraoka Family Farm in Mangatarem, Pangasinan.

From the event partners in government, Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) Deputy Administrator Josefino Torres oriented the participants on the reintegration programs available to OFWs, while Undersecretary Teodoro Pascua of the Department of Trade and Industry’s Consumer Protection Group briefed the attendees on anti-investment and business scams. Well-known migrant worker advocate (and my co-columnist in the Manila Times) Toots Ople talked about human trafficking and illegal recruitment.

Experts from various industries discussed various agribusiness-related topics such as mechanization and modern farming technology; credit and micro financing for agribusiness startups; best practices in farm schools, tourist farms and learning sites; and most importantly, family values, education and sustainable livelihood.

I was one of the thousands who attended the summit, and it was indeed inspiring to listen to stories shared by the OFW agri-preneurs and resource speakers. But I was not the lucky one who won the grand prize at the summit: a house and lot from Camella Homes. That distinction belongs to Zysa Bisquera, whose brother is an OFW seafarer.

More than the raffle prize, however, the Villa Sipag summit exemplifies the vital role of NGOs in uplifting the lives of our OFWs and in pursuing President Rodrigo Duterte’s goal of making overseas employment a choice rather than a necessity for Filipinos.


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