Fair recruitment brings hope to OFWs

IT has been almost two decades since the story of Ely Rose Miguel made newspaper headlines.

Miguel was a young mother from Kalinga, a province in the northern island of Luzon, who signed up for a contract to work for a politician in China. She was instead assigned to work in the politician’s extended household. In telephone calls to her family, she sounded puzzled why her employer worried that she would tire herself and made sure she got enough rest even in the afternoon hours. They filled her fridge with fresh fruits and healthy stuff but, rather than getting bewildered, Miguel would tell her family she had good employers, even if she found their kindness rather odd.

Shortly after, the family could no longer reach her until they were told that she had died. It has been years ago and even while I did an extensive feature story on her, I could not ascertain what China reported as the cause of her death. What remained imprinted in my mind were photographs of her coming home in a box and the shocked and silent grief of a husband who saw her first, an autopsied corpse not stitched back and all her internal organs exposed. All but a missing heart.

It was believed to be a case of organ theft, as it was said that a family member needed a heart transplant, but inquiries never got to the end of it.

Elena (not her real name) worked for a Taiwanese woman farmer. She woke up at dawn and was on the road together with her lady master to the farm before daybreak and worked till late at night in the household.

There was a policy of a portion of a salary to be withheld until the employee leaves to ensure the service of the worker. but her employer owed her salaries from the first day. When she was soon bound for home,  and thus was collecting her long-hoarded salary, her family instead got a call that she had died from jumping off the fast speeding truck on the way to the farm. Back home, it was believed she was pushed off so her employer could get away from paying her the large amount of money she owed Elena.

The Cordillera region, like the rest of the country, has its share of horror stories of how their overseas workers are treated abroad. Miguel became a victim of trafficking because of the change of contract. Many like Elena are in slave-like conditions of forced labor.

The stories of families selling or pawning their farmlands or other precious property to come up with the stiff cost of getting a contract and flying to faraway destinations to earn for families left behind are all too common.

While it is true that government efforts to minimize victimization of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), such as in the predeparture seminars, exorbitant placement and processing fees hinder the dreams of many to work overseas. And when swindled out of their precious money by fraudulent recruitment, tales of the entire family’s financial ruin are widely known.

So devastating is the impact on OFWs from illegal recruitment that a law was passed giving the crime the highest penalty under the law. But with the slow grind of justice in the country, pursuing a case is often just another burden.

There must be a better way as, after all, the pursuit of a better life is a basic human right.

The social costs of overseas work are plenty and sad. In the Cordillera region, for instance, where in the indigenous language, there is no word for rape, incest is on the rise in instances when young daughters are left in the care of fathers when their mothers leave to work overseas. A culture of dependence on the regular remittances is instilled, exacerbated by an abundance of gifts from the overseas worker because of a feeling of guilt for absence or sheer homesickness.

Still, in a country with no worthwhile jobs to offer, seeking greener pastures abroad will remain a reality. But certainly, in the midst of the dark side, shine as many bright stories  that inspire others to seek overseas jobs.

This is apparent in the fact that the Philippines alone deploys 5,787 workers abroad, according to Philippine Overseas Employment Authority (POEA), with 2,112,331 recorded in 2016. The number is much higher considering the huge number of undocumented workers who choose backdoor entries and become most vulnerable to abuses.

Recognizing that crossing borders in the quest for a better life is a reality far from reversing, the International Labor Organization (ILO) has come up with a program to alleviate the burdens imposed on OFWs and put in place guidelines in recruitment that serve as barriers to abuses.

The Fair Recruitment Initiative (FAIR) launched in 2014 was prompted by their records that there are 232 million international migrants and 740 million internal migrants in search of decent employment; 21 million are in forced labor and trafficked globally, of which 9.1 million moved internally or internationally for work; and migrant workers who borrow money from third parties face an increased risk of being in forced labor.

In a recent forum on fair recruitment and labor migration, Hussein Macarambon, FAIR project coordinator, said the move is compliant with Sustainable Development Goal Target 8.8 for the promotion of labor rights and safe and secure working environment for all workers, in particular women, and Target 10.7 that is to facilitate orderly, safe and responsible migration and mobility of people through well-managed migration policies.

Charles Autheman, ILO consultant, said the ILO mandate is to set basic principles and standards acceptable to all. He said domestic work is very conducive to exploitation,  as it happens within the household, where there is no one to see what is happening, while in construction work, there is an issue on overtime work and difficult working conditions. In the Philippines there is a predominance of domestic-job seekers and in construction.

Outsourced jobs to cut costs is not a standard, he said, citing the example of Bangladesh garment-factory workers in situations where there is little ventilation and overtime work. He cited the Rana Plaza, an 8-story building that collapsed because of engineering issues. About 1,100 garment workers, mostly women, died in the incident. While the European brand claimed not to know of the working conditions, this sparked an international debate on supply chains to address human-rights issues.

No placement fees and transparency are part of the basic FAIR principles. In the Philippines, of the 1,000 POEA registered recruitment agencies, only 1 percent qualifies as fair-recruitment agencies.

In 1999 two idealistic men in their late 20s decided to leave their corporate jobs and be their own boss. They embarked on a job-recruitment business despite warnings that they were coming in too late in the game. But Manny Gomez and Marc Capistrano saw something that just wasn’t quite right with the way things were being done. Today, starting with just the two of them and one multitasking employee, the company has grown to 100 employees and more than 15,000 employees deployed and 100 overseas companies as clients.

It sent out more than 15,000 OFWs who landed jobs abroad without paying any fees.

“We grew just by doing what was right,” Gomez said.

The recruitment agencies then were in a bad light for the exorbitant processing fees and reports on abuses. Gomez said that, back then, he and Capistrano knew there must be a better way to deliver services.

Passion and idealism drove them to recruit OFWs without charging fees.

“We just knew it wasn’t right,” Capistrano said.

In the United States, for example, employers would even pay for workers to come. They don’t even dare to ask for a fee, he said.

It was no bed of roses, as Filipinos have been so used to paying fees and the mind-set was that, if they paid, they would be guaranteed better service, they said. In communities where they go to recruit, the response sometimes would be the popular Filipino expression “weh” when they say there will be no fees charged.

They have won the trust of reputable companies who think that, if they were set standards for getting workers, Staffhouse must be reliable in getting them qualified workers.

Consistent with the statement of Macarambon that movement of workers is a triple win—economy, higher income for workers and provision of skilled workers for destination countries—Capistrano said they always bear in mind that they have two clients: the applicant and the company.

Applicants are lined for interviews based on their qualifications and not their capacity to pay.  “We don’t endorse even friends,” he said.

Gomez said from the very beginning and to this day, they visit the companies where they deploy the OFWs to personally check the working conditions. They have a complaints desk on Facebook and e-mail that ensure any deviation from the contract of both employer and employee is addressed quickly.

Ethical recruitment for them goes beyond just no charging of fees . There is contract transparency and following up on compliance to it. No wonder their company grew mostly from word of mouth.

While other companies waive processing fees, this is offset by incidentals like training and medical fees.

Capistrano said they take concern with the realities of the workers and such fees are also shouldered by the employers. An example is in their deployment of workers to Germany where a requirement is to be able to speak German. This would require a six-month training costing US$2,000. Aside from the condition that the training be paid by the employer, “we put it gently to give them a monthly stipend while in the study period,” Capistrano said.

The POEA awarded Staffhouse as seventh in ranking of the number of deployed workers, belying the claim of other agencies that fair recruitment will only work for small companies.

Establishing fair recruitment corridors to prevent exploitation is the advocacy carried by FAIR with focus on Tunisia, Jordan, Nepal and the Philippines. In the country, working with Staffhouse and the few other agencies practicing fair recruitment is part of their initiative in establishing a pilot model.

“I only hope that fair recruitment can spread more. It is so quiet,” Capistrano said.


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