When the Philippine Red Cross and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies convene today the Manila Conference on Labor Migration at the Diamond Hotel, they will set a historic and important precedent.
First, they will make manifest the Red Cross Movement’s dramatic decision to tackle the plight of labor migrants as a key part of its humanitarian agenda.
Second, they will hold the first-ever international conference that will focus on the plight of female domestic workers (FDWS), a labor migrant sector to which the Philippines according to the UN contributes the most every year.
These are developments that should gladden Filipino hearts, not just because the Mary Jane Veloso case is still fresh and vivid in our minds, but because over 10 million of our people are in various parts of the world, working and living as labor migrants.
In recent years, as we have seen the lifeline that workers remittances (now $25 billion a year according to Bangko Sentral) provide the nation and the national economy, we have also borne witness to the multiplying problems affecting our OFWs, and the growth in number of deaths among them, some at the hands of employers in countries where they serve.
The humanitarian problem affecting labor migrants is a crisis that has been building up for years. Now it is ripening into an emergency, as problems have escalated into a flood in Europe, in the Mediterranean, and in Asia.
It is in this light that the Red Cross intervention in labor migration should be weighed and welcomed.
Jean-Henri Dunant’s magnificent legacy
In the broad sweep of international life and human affairs, a Red Cross commitment is a very big deal.
That was so when the movement was first started by the Swiss humanitarian Jean-Henri Dunant, in June 1859, when he organized emergency aid services for Austrian and French wounded in the battle of Solferino.
Years later, in 1862, he proposed the formation in all countries of voluntary relief societies. In 1864, the first Red Cross societies came into being.
Today, there are 184 Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in the world.
The Red Cross is the name used in countries under nominally Christian sponsorship.
The Red Crescent name was adopted on the insistence of the Ottoman Empire in 1906. It is the name used in Muslim countries.
The Geneva Convention of 1864 is a watershed in the story of humanitarianism. It was the first multilateral agreement on the Red Cross, and it committed signatory governments to care for the wounded in war, whether enemy or friend.
Later this convention was revised, and new conventions were adopted to protect victims of warfare at sea (1907), prisoners of war (1929), and civilians in time of war.
The Red Cross later created a new initiative when it engaged itself in helping to alleviate the plight of refugees, or displaced persons.
The Red Cross engagement in alleviating the lot of labor migrants is analogous to its work with refugees. The movement made this decision during its 31st conference in Geneva in November 2011.
It is to be hoped that the movement’s intervention on behalf of labor migrants will be similarly successful, and will be enthusiastically supported by governments in most countries, particular labor-receiving countries.
The Red Cross identified labor migration as one of the evolving contemporary humanitarian challenges which the Red Cross and Red Crescent have a responsibility to address.
One significant offshoot of the 31st conference resolution on labor migration was the launch last year of the Doha Dialogue on Labor Migration.
The Doha Dialogue is a series of events envisioned to be organized throughout the Asia Pacific and the Middle East and North Africa from 2014 to 2015.
Unprecedented conference on female domestic workers
The Manila Conference on Labor Migration forms part of the series of conferences and dialogues.
The conference is unprecedented because it singles out for specific focus the plight of female domestic workers. Not until now has there ever been an international conference that specifically addressed the lot of female domestic workers.
The concern of the Red Cross for this migrant sector has already produced one beneficial effect. Where in the past, female labor migrants who worked as domestic helpers or housemaids were collectively called “female domestic helpers,” now they are officially called “female domestic workers” by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Red Cross.
One study correctly pointed out that the term “domestic helper” does not do justice to the labor involved: “…the women do not just ‘help’ around the house but are often employed to bear the brunt of domestic work including cooking, cleaning, and childcare.”
Another terminological point that I gleaned from reading about labor migration is this very important point: Labor is not a commodity: the terms “labor exports and labor imports” are misguided.
“Sending labor and receiving labor” or “labor emigration and immigration” are more acceptable and politically correct terms. Migrants may pass from countries of origin through countries of transit to countries of destination.
Lifeline for invisible women
Women are a particularly vulnerable category within the migrant worker sector. The Philippines is a major country of origin of female domestic workers across Asia and the Middle East; more girls and women leave our shores to find jobs as maids or nannies abroad than in any other country.
Dick Gordon, chairman of the Philippine Red Cross, who was instrumental in bringing the Doha dialogue to Manila, says that one of the key objectives of the Manila conference is the establishment of a lifeline that will enable female domestic workers to contact people and agencies who can help them.
Dick explains: “One of my personal observations and greatest fears, is that once these women leave their homelands they disappear from view and become invisible to society.
“Why is it that we only find out about such situations once the women have escaped or returned home? How can we help these women if we don’t know where they are or have any knowledge of their plight?”
Access to domestic workers in receiving countries is a major challenge. Access to these thousands of invisible women can be facilitated if Gordon’s proposed lifeline is created.
The Manila conference has great potential for resolving problems and discovering fresh solutions, because it will significantly bring together in dialogue the representatives of labor-receiving and those of labor-sending countries.
It could produce what Gordon hopes is a consensus on putting “people first” at the heart of labor migration.