I HAVE always been treated well at our airports through my many years of traveling so that I could have taken comfort in the DOTC’s pronouncement that victims of the “tanim-bala” scam comprised but a small percentage of the total amount of passengers passing through NAIA. But neither logic nor superstition would give any weight to this argument. Thieves are not the most common of men, but they are assigned the most terrible depths in Hell, to punishments more terrible than the expletives of Mayor Duterte.
I thought this tactic to explain away government irregularities had gone out of fashion years ago. Before, we used to excuse the morass corruption has brought the country to by citing how much more corrupt were our neighboring governments and societies. But how far ahead of us have they gone since in economic growth and in the fight against corruption?
Now that I am retired and hold no high office, would I still get the same treatment at our airport as before? Or would fate fall on me to find a bullet in my suitcase as it passes the X-ray machine and to miss my flight because I have no money to pay for the airport official to look the other way? The last seems more likely to happen to me, not having forgotten the many complaints I heard from overseas Filipino workers or ordinary citizens about how airport personnel victimized them. With “tanim-bala,” scamming OFWs appears to me to have become an ingrained habit among certain NAIA personnel.
“Tanim-bala” rang a mighty bell in my consciousness because it confirms the pattern into which those complaints I heard from OFWs mostly fall. At the heart of the complaint is usually a law or regulation that ironically has been enacted to protect citizens in general and the riding public or overseas workers in particular but in which airport personnel find a spot of opportunity for their nefarious enterprise.
When I was stationed in Laos, a talented singer making the rounds of five-star hotels in mainland Southeast Asia recalled to me the hard time she had at the airport going to Bangkok to be auditioned. The POEA regime had just been put into place according to which an individual showing a worker’s contract enjoyed certain facilities and privileges at the airport. But perhaps looking like a showbiz overseas worker and not yet holding a contract, the said singer faced the threat of being sent back home until she gave the airport inspector a certain sum and only then was allowed to board her plane. Because Filipino singers were ubiquitous in the Asian nightclub circuit and getting a contract only after passing an audition abroad was a common occurrence, one can imagine how much ill-earned money went into the hands of airport personnel just from entertainers alone.
I imagine with what malevolent glee these crooked creatures at the airport greet every announcement of a ban against travel to a country where contract workers proliferate.
Even before a travel ban was officially in effect, I was awakened in the dead of night in Islamabad by a Filipino overseas worker asking if there was a ban on travel to Afghanistan, because he had just bribed an airport official to let him board his plane. Later, Filipino associations in Afghanistan protested that the travel ban only served to give corrupt airport personnel opportunities to prey on overseas workers. Because workers in Afghanistan lived under highly restricted conditions, they were given home leaves at short intervals like three months. Despite the travel ban, they would be able after each home leave to return to their workplaces by bribing airport officials.
These intimations of wrongdoings at the NAIA have stuck to my mind because there was little more that I could do other than listen to the victims of those incidents. And cry on my shoulders seemed the only thing these victims meant to do: None of them was willing to execute an affidavit testifying to what happened to them at the airport. None of them could even remember the airport officer they encountered nor the time their traumatic experience happened. In the state of harassment they were in, none of them could take note of those vital details. And they simply did not have the time to help us pursue any investigation; they give their all to their work and for every dollar they earn from their employers.
Of the over a thousand cases of “tanim-bala,” it has not been reported how many of them were overseas workers. But there must be a significant number of them. Contract workers are favorite prey of airport predators. They are presumed to have the means to give bribes, and there is a culture hereabouts that oblige contract workers to share their manna with or give “balatong” to those who have not had the fortune to work abroad.
Contract workers can also be trusted to be uncomplaining about their misadventures at the airport. They are likely to forget them as soon as they are safely on their way to their employers. “Tanim-bala” has only been the latest in a long-running saga because it seems airport employees can merrily milk contract workers with impunity.
The resource person at the recent symposium on Migration Peace and Development sponsored by the Philippine Ambassadors Foundation Inc. and other organizations showed the meticulous work done by those behind the crafting of the Migrant Workers Act in proclaiming the rights of overseas workers at every stage of their recruitment, engagement, employment, and withdrawal from service.
But I have misgivings about the need to enact new laws to protect contract workers against extortionate activities of airport employees. These activities are after all committed by state employees who themselves are supposed to protect citizens. And any new law may only be misused and provide a new opportunity for those extortionate activities.
Corrective measures should be on the side of the enforcement of existing laws and involve public vigilance. Some sort of Citizens Crime Watch at the Airport organized by civil society may be in order to put erring airport employees in line. Such an organization should give guidance to contract workers on what to do in case airport employees mulct them. It should provide a means by which complaints of victims can be pursued with the least bother to them while busy at their work abroad.
Jaime J. Yambao is a retired career Ambassador of the Philippines last posted in Pakistan with concurrent accreditation to Afghanistan.