Legal woes of migrant workers

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Atty. Dodo Dulay

Atty. Dodo Dulay

AS the lead agency tasked with promoting and protecting the welfare of our migrant workers here and abroad, the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) offers a diverse menu of services for overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and their families.

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More often than not, it is OWWA’s repatriation services for migrants— especially female OFWs who fall victim to savage maltreatment and physical abuse, or barbaric sexual assault by foreign employers—that usually garners the most media coverage. But there are thousands of OFWs who return to the country under less sensational circumstances and with little fanfare.

In line with Labor Secretary Silvestre H. Bello 3rd’s pronouncements during the agency’s 35th founding anniversary that “OWWA was born for our OFWs and should therefore think of nothing but the welfare of our OFWs,” the agency is aggressively rolling out its programs and services to cater to our many anonymous but equally distressed kababayan coming home every day.

Although not highly publicized, many of our migrant workers have already availed of or benefited from OWWA’s reintegration programs, livelihood training, educational scholarships for the OFWs and their dependents, technical and vocational courses, computer courses, and scholarships (for seafarers), among others.

One of OWWA’s services often hidden from public view is the legal assistance for OFWs and their families in the Philippines.

Unknown to many, OWWA’s free legal assistance and counseling services have one of the most number of beneficiaries among the agency’s various programs and services. The agency may not have adjudicatory powers under the law but it has a team of lawyers and case officers who can render legal advice, conduct conciliation-mediation under DOLE’s single entry approach (SENA) policy, provide legal opinion, review contracts, and represent the agency in congressional and Senate inquiries.

On the average, OWWA’s legal staff handles about 1,000 cases per month. These cases brought by OFWs or their families can range from complaints for unpaid salaries and benefits from foreign employers to the blacklisting of a local and/or foreign agency for alleged maltreatment and abuse.

Although not as frequent, the agency’s legal staff also takes in requests from wives to contact their OFW-husbands abroad who have been remiss in sending financial support to their children. It is likewise not unusual for OWWA’s legal officers to receive requests to search and locate a missing OFW-husband who has somehow lost contact with his wife and children in the Philippines, whether intentionally or unintentionally (but usually, the former).

Monetary claims top the list as the most sought after service requested by our migrant workers, with legal counseling coming in second, according to Robert C. Chuan, the head of OWWA’s legal team. But there are instances when the agency’s case officers have to work with other government agencies in order to properly address an OFW’s legal concerns.

One particular case is “Gemma,” a single mother who went to the Middle East in hopes of providing a better life for her infant son. Upon arriving in Saudi Arabia, Gemma was “sold” and transferred by her Arab employer to another family in neighboring Kuwait. There, Gemma was made to work non-stop, with no days off. Unable to bear the slave-like conditions, she escaped from her Kuwaiti employer and was eventually repatriated to the Philippines.

During an investigation conducted after her arrival, the OWWA legal team discovered that Gemma was actually a victim of human trafficking. She was recruited by a so-called agent who helped process her passport under another person’s name supposedly to expedite her departure.

Being a clear instance of trafficking, Gemma was immediately endorsed by the OWWA legal team to the Inter-Agency Council Against Human-Trafficking (IACAT) for counseling, case build-up and investigation. There have been a number of OFWs, particularly household service workers (HSWs), whose cases are being closely scrutinized by the anti-trafficking council in order to identify and stop the members of this human smuggling syndicate.

While at the legal division, we also met “Michelle,” an OFW from Qatar who was complaining of unpaid salaries and benefits, and no breaks and time-offs at work. Since her Philippine recruitment agency was still active, OWWA’s legal staff scheduled a conference (or face-to-face conciliation and mediation) with her agency via the SENA process.

Another interesting and unique matter brought before OWWA’s legal staff is the request for financial support. It is not unheard of for wives (and yes, even husbands) to become emotional while narrating the circumstances that led them to seek the agency’s assistance, according to lawyer Heidi Marquez-Caguioa.

Let’s take the case of “Ana.” She said that she found it quite strange that her husband stopped coming home to visit his family in the Philippines. Her suspicions aroused, Ana began her own investigation into the possible causes for her husband’s sudden “absence.” She later found out that her husband had another family abroad, and as a result, had stopped supporting their family.

When it comes to such cases, Caguioa says they contact the local recruitment agency as well as the foreign employer of the OFW concerned (through OWWA’s welfare officers abroad), and explain the family’s predicament and request for financial support. In most cases, straying husbands have resumed financial support to their families, though in a somewhat decreased amount.

Perhaps due to pent-up emotions, it is also not unusual for the complaining spouse to demand that their erring husband or wife be deported to the Philippines immediately. That, of course, is beyond OWWA’s powers (although I’m sure some spouses would wish we had).

As you can see, OWWA’s services aren’t limited to airport assistance and repatriation services. The agency also provides legal counseling and assistance to help with the various legal and non-legal (and sometimes, unique and colorful) problems and concerns of OFWs and their families in the Philippines.

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