EVERY overseas Filipino worker (OFW) leaving for abroad for the first time experiences mixed emotions. One is the excitement at traveling and working overseas and the prospect of earning big bucks. But there is also the fear and anxiety over what sort of fate awaits them at their workplace.
To address this, first-time OFWs are made to go through PDOS (or the “Pre-Departure Orientation Seminar”) – the country-specific mandatory seminar that teaches migrant workers how to adjust to life in their destination countries and other topics such as travel regulations, immigration procedures, cultural differences, settlement concerns, employment concerns, and their rights and obligations as foreign workers. But judging from my recent trip to Saudi Arabia, it appears many of our “kabayan” (as Filipinos in the Middle East refer to each other) have forgotten these PDOS lessons.
Given the cultural and language differences between employers and OFWs, conflicts are often unavoidable. It is therefore crucial that migrant workers are aware of their rights and know how to react to employer misconduct or maltreatment.
I asked former Kuwait labor attaché and current chief of the Repatriation and Assistance Division (RAD) of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), lawyer Cesar L. Chavez, Jr., for some advice on what our OFWs should do when faced with employment issues.
According to Chavez, the usual problems encountered by OFWs abroad are contract violation, contract substitution, and maltreatment. These are especially prevalent with household service workers (HSW) who are more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation due to their physical isolation.
So, what exactly is contract violation? Simply, it is the intentional disregard by a foreign employer of the terms and conditions of his employment contract with his OFW-employee.
The Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA) prescribes a standard employment contract (SEC) for OFWs, which contains the minimum terms and conditions of employment for a migrant worker. So, if a foreign employer, for example, pays the HSW a monthly salary of $380 rather than $400 (i.e. the amount mandated by Philippine labor laws and stipulated in the SEC for HSWs), he commits a contract violation. Or an if OFW is made to work as a “seamstress” instead of a “salon beautician” as provided in the SEC, the employer commits an offense known as “misrepresentation.”
There is also what’s called “contract substitution.” This usually happens when the foreign employer replaces the POEA-approved contract with another contract after the OFW’s arrival in the country of destination. This is usually done to lower the salary or diminish the benefits of migrant workers. However, if the employment terms and conditions in the substituted contract are better or are improved, then substituted agreement is deemed legal and valid.
What should OFWs do if they fall victim to contract violation or contract substitution?
The OFW should first notify the foreign employer and the Philippine recruitment agency (PRA) about the violation of his or her employment contract. Most companies abroad usually have “in-house” procedures and policies for addressing the grievances of their migrant workers. If the OFW has exhausted all in-house remedies or no action is taken by the PRA, and the violation persists, the OFW should take the matter to the nearest Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) or Philippine embassy (if there is no POLO) in the country where he or she is deployed.
Once a complaint is filed, the POLO’s labor attaches and welfare officers will first conduct a “conference” between the company (or employer) and the OFW. This is part of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE)’s single entry approach (or SEnA) – the 30 day conciliation-mediation mechanism to amicably resolve labor-related disputes, which is also being implemented overseas.
The SEnA is an effective strategy to solving labor disputes abroad, Chavez said, as most foreign employers are easily persuaded by the non-confrontational approach to employee grievances. “Many Filipino workers have been paid after the POLO successfully settled their cases through SEnA,” added Chavez.
But if conciliation efforts fail, then the worker can avail of the remedies under the laws of the host country. In Saudi Arabia, this means filing a complaint with the Saudi Ministry of Labor, and going through their labor courts. The POLO can also endorse the case to the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA) so that the latter can summon and instruct the workers’ recruitment agency to fix or address the complaints, usually through the PRA’s foreign counterpart.
Another option available to our OFWs is for them to file an administrative complaint against their placement agency with the POEA once they return to the country. The POEA can impose administrative sanctions ranging from the blacklisting of the foreign employer and the foreign recruitment agency, or the temporary or permanent suspension or cancellation of the PRA’s license.
In cases of maltreatment, OFWs should immediately report the matter to the assistance to nationals (ATN) section of the Philippine embassy or consulate, which is primarily responsible for so-called “ATN cases” like detention cases, medical repatriation, trafficking in persons, physical abuse, rape and other police cases.
Since prevention is better than cure, DOLE has forged bilateral labor agreements (BLAs) with several labor-receiving countries, especially those from the Gulf States like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, etc., in order to secure more protection and better working conditions for our OFWs before they arrive in their country of destination.
Of course, there is no magic bullet to prevent or to solve all the problems faced by our migrant workers overseas. But OFWs can empower themselves by being mindful of the remedies and options available to them if they find themselves in such situations.
Happy Labor Day to all our OFWs and their families, and to all Filipinos who strive every day to give the best to their families!