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New labor protection tact needed for OFWs deployed in middle east

President Duterte’s tough stance against abuse of Filipino workers in Kuwait should boost what the Senate Labor Committee head described last Sunday as a perceptible shift from a purely labor-export policy to a “labor-protection policy” that covers a wide range of measures for strict enforcement by Manila-based regulatory bodies and Philippine diplomatic  posts worldwide.

Sen. Emmanuel Joel J. Villanueva, chairman of the Senate Committee on Labor and Employment, however, said he is not inclined to “second-guess” Duterte’s options in addressing the problem.

In separate interviews, several other senators weighed in on the Kuwait overseas Filipino workers issue, mostly supportive of the ban but suggesting multi-track measures to ensure the least disruption to the OFWs’ families and the Philippine economy, both reliant on remittances.

“I don’t want to second-guess the President, but I think he is not also into promoting labor-export policy,” Villanueva said in reply to a text query from the BusinessMirror.

The senator recalled that the Philippines “shied away from labor export for a long time and has adopted a policy of labor protection for those who opted to work abroad.”

This, as the head of a private think tank and OFW solidarity group said any tweak in labor export and protection policies would have to be sustained this time around, noting how the government had dropped the ball in 1989, when a similar rash of abuses prompted a temporary deployment ban.

Manila moved to forge a bilateral labor agreement with Kuwait, but it lifted the deployment ban nonetheless even though no such agreement was ever forged.

The success of any bilateral labor protection “always lies with the strong commitment of both parties to implement the contents of that agreement,” said former Labor Undersecretary Susan Ople, in an e-mail interview with the BusinessMirror. She now heads the Blas F. Ople Policy Center, which bears the name of her father, the late senator and foreign affairs secretary, who, as labor secretary in the 1970s, was deemed the architect of the labor-export policy that shored up the economy through decades of crisis.

Ople said: “Today, no less than President Duterte has set the tone for bilateral talks to commence. We all need to support him. Any sign of wavering or disunity on our side due to shortsighted political or business interests would only weaken our position and may lead to even greater abuse of our workers.”

Ople reminded everyone that other Gulf nations “are watching our moves,” and also have “a strategic interest to see this impasse resolved.” Millions of Arab families have relied on Filipino domestic and skilled workers for years, she added, stressing that, “We can use the President’s strong position on domestic workers’ rights to revisit existing agreements or push aggressively for new ones.”

Villanueva said the list of programs implemented by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) and the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), including tightening of agency licensing and accreditation, aggressive development of bilateral agreements with host countries on protection of OFWs, “and our bias for skilled workers than deployment of prone-to-abuse household workers are proof of the shift to protection than exportation of labor.”

Villanueva explained that the tweaking is more on the implementation side, adding “that has been my call on the DOLE, OWWA and POEA.”

“Additionally, on the side of legislation, I introduced in the Senate a bill mandating the deployment of social welfare attachés [SWA] and opening of International Welfare Services Welfare Offices [IWSWOs] in foreign service posts with high concentration of overseas Filipinos and with cases of abuses. The bill intends to ensure on-site interventions on OFWs vulnerabilities,” he added.

For its part, the Ople Center is putting forward these proposals, according to Ople:

  1. Tougher and stricter but not slower vetting of foreign employers and foreign recruitment agencies seeking to hire domestic workers from the Philippines. There’s need to “make it clear that the new policy would have greater emphasis on quality of the employer and not quantity of job orders.”
  2. Get rid of corrupt airport and immigration personnel, as well as labor officials involved in corruption. “The message that our workers are not for sale should resonate, as well, throughout the overseas employment program ecosystem.”
  3. Allow only professional and principled recruitment agencies the right to deploy domestic workers. “Enough of the resurrection of canceled licenses. We must hold ourselves to the same ethical conduct as we would foreign recruitment agencies and employers.”

Labor, economic affairs inquiry

A joint inquiry by the Labor Committee and Economic Affairs Committee is seen likely. This, as concerned senators over the weekend took divergent positions on whether Duterte’s decision to ban deployment of overseas Filipino workers to Kuwait in the wake of widespread abuse of OFWs should signal a major tweak in the government’s labor export policy.

Sen. Sherwin T. Gatchalian, chairman of the Senate Committee on Economic Affairs, backed an immediate OFW deployment ban in countries known to have dismal track record in protecting Filipino overseas workers.

“Everyday, I personally receive cries for help from our families here in the Philippines for their relatives who are being abused abroad. Unfortunately, 100 percent of the reports of abuse and maltreatment of our OFWs emanate from the Middle East, especially from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait,” he said in a text message to BusinessMirror.

The senator added these two countries “have very weak policies on the protection of migrant workers, leaving all foreign nationality to defend themselves against abusive employers.”

Gatchalian said: “The protection of our OFWs is the primordial concern of our government. We should no longer allow OFWs in counties where we don’t have strong bilateral agreements to protect our migrant workers. More so, we should no longer send OFWs to counties where mechanisms and laws for the protection of migrant workers are nonexistent.”

‘Build, Build, Build’          

Sen. Cynthia A. Villar, Social Justice Committee chairman, however, proposed a two-track option: a total ban on countries that routinely abuse OFWs, and for the government to adopt a system to match jobseekers with the requirements of the Duterte administration’s job-generating “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program.

Villar last Sunday noted that domestic workers account for 80 percent of problematic cases, or those of distressed OFWs. She said many women have trained as welders in Technical Education and Skills Development Authority, noting “they are good and easily found jobs abroad.” In similar fashion, Villar said, jobseekers who have such marketable skills should be helped to find good jobs either in the Philippines or in countries where labor-hosting arrangements are good and humane.

Ople weighed in on this need to get away from stereotyping genders only for particular jobs, like women OFWs as maids.

“Finally, our women workers deserve a fighting chance to be considered for a broader variety of jobs. The older they get, the more limited their access to decent work becomes. A lot of soul-searching needs to happen and this goes beyond the traditional stakeholders in overseas employment into the households where every migrant worker is solely relied upon for financial support,” Ople said.

“There are now many vacancies in the construction sector because of Build, Build, Build, so why should they
still opt to work abroad or be worried about finding jobs here? We just need to point out to them the job opportunities available here,”  Villar said.

Villar added: “They just need to be trained or retrained so they could avail themselves of job opportunities in construction and tourism…where there is increasing demand under the Duterte administration’s economic blueprint.” In a separate statement, Villar said the OFW deployment ban to Kuwait issued by President Duterte “signals the need for us to reexamine the social costs of labor migration, especially for domestic workers.”

Villar suggested that the government “needs to strengthen our own domestic job market and increase the labor participation of women, especially those in rural areas.”

“As a woman and as a legislator, I support the President’s decision. The dignity and rights of our domestic workers should always be upheld,” the senator said, adding, “I believe that the entire overseas employment program needs to be reviewed because it is more than 40 years old. Much has happened in the global work force since its inception.”

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