OFWs Still Being Deployed in Danger Zones
In spite of President Arroyo’s statement that it is government policy to “allow our citizens to work only in safe places,” some 1.1 million Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) are still working, and many more are being deployed in danger zones all over the world.
BY AUBREY SC MAKILAN
Two Filipino truck drivers were killed in a span of two months in Iraq. On Aug. 12, Rogelio Alere Saraida, 47, of Bacoor town, Cavite province, died in a grenade attack in Mosul. Saraida worked for the Kuwait-based Parsons International.
Earlier, on July 30, Carlito Sotes Mainit, 52, of Malabon City was killed when the truck that he was driving was hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Mainit’s truck was part of a 20-vehicle convoy that was bound for Baghdad from Kuwait. Aside from Mainit, Migrante International said that 10 other drivers in the convoy were Filipinos. The Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration (OWWA) has only recently confirmed Mainit’s death.
In February, overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) Abel Monterela and Felix Llorando, along with three others, died in Saudi Arabia after being wounded in a shootout between Saudi police and a militant group there.
Meanwhile, 20 Filipino seamen were seized by Somali rebels who held them hostage for 108 days since March 29. They were finally freed, and nine of them were back in Manila on August 5.
Despite previous incidents of hostages and deaths, many OFWs have decided to work and stay on in strife-ridden or war-torn countries.
At present, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) has suspended deployment in Lebanon and Iraq and restricted work in Afghanistan.
But POEA data showed that deployment of OFWs in Iraq and Afghanistan even increased since 2003 (see Table 1).
Based on the July-December 2004 Report to Congress prepared by the Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs (OUMWA) of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), there are about 6,020 OFWs in Iraq. Of this, about 2,000 OFWs are undocumented.
Migrante International chairperson Connie Bragas-Regalado said that although OFWs are not deployed directly to Iraq, many of them cross over to this war-torn country for higher-paying mercenary jobs.
Based on the DFA report, majority of OFWs in Iraq are semi-skilled workers like laborers. Some are professionals, like engineers and accountants, and skilled workers, like carpenters, and administrative assistants.
In 2003, the Department of Labor and Employment issued a suspension of deployment in some Middle East countries, yet records show the increase of documented OFWs within that year. (See Table 2)
Garry Martinez, spokesperson of Migrante Sectoral Party (MSP), said that aside from the three countries, there are many other countries the government should consider as danger zones, considering the history of being at war or internal conflict in these places.
Migrante said that countries which are considered danger zones are Iran, North and South Korea, Nigeria, Somalia, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Liberia, Israel, and the countries in the Balkan Peninsula.
About 1,160,132 OFWs are in danger in these countries, and in Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan, said Martinez (see Table 3).
In Saudi, Kuwait and Lebanon, most of the OFWs work as domestic helpers. Women in production work as dressmakers while men as construction laborers. Aside from domestics, most women in Israel work as caregivers and nurse aides.
In the Balkan peninsula, OFWs are skilled workers in companies. Some women are domestics for diplomats.
Martinez said that although only seafarers, and no other permanent OFWs are in Somalia, ships carrying Filipino seafarers pass through the Somali waters where several boats have been held hostage by Somali rebels.
In Afghanistan, Iran, Liberia and Nigeria, most OFWs are engaged in construction and oil industries.
Anthony Santos, is an OFW who worked for the American oil service firm Willbros Group in Nigeria. Santos, along with eight other foreign workers, were held hostage by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).
The nine foreign workers were on a pipe-laying barge in Nigeria’s Niger Delta when they were abducted on Feb. 18. The incident reportedly took place after a militant commander declared “total war” on all foreign oil interests in the Delta. They were released after 11 days.
Despite the hostage taking of OFWs in Somalia and Nigeria, the POEA issued no restriction of work or deployment ban to these countries.
No bilateral agreement
Bragas-Regalado said that the government should ensure that they have bilateral agreements with host countries to protect the welfare of migrant Filipinos.
But based on the OUMWA-DFA 2004 Report to Congress, the Philippine government has no bilateral agreements with these countries, except Iraq.
But the same report stated that the RP-Iraq labor agreement signed in early 1980s was “hardly implemented because of the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988), Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait (1990-19991), Gulf War (1990), United Nations sanctions (1990-2003), United States invasion of Iraq (2003).”
“Interestingly, even Iraq’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials are not aware of the bilateral agreement concluded between the Philippines and Iraq during the Saddam Hussein’s regime,” the report said.
The report added that countries like Lebanon and Syria “are not keen on signing an agreement exclusively focused on labor related issues.”
Unfortunately, these countries did not sign or ratify the United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, said the same report.
The OWWA reported that most, if not all, of the host countries insisted that their national laws were enough in protecting the rights of migrants and that there was no need for bilateral agreements. Ominously, the U.S. government tried to pass an anti-immigrant bill if not for the groundswell of protest actions it created.
Bragas-Regalado said, “The fact that many OFWs continue to languish in jail in their host countries, with some in death row, proves that national laws are not enough to protect the rights of migrant workers.”
Korea then and Israel now
Martinez said that the slow response of the government to repatriate the OFWs in Lebanon showed its lack of a crisis management plan.
Martinez was a factory worker in Koyang-Shi, Kyunggi-Do in South Korea from 1991 to 2003, and he was there when the country went to its highest state of alert in 1996 following an announcement by the North that it no longer recognized the demilitarized zone (DMZ).
From 1994 to 1997 violence resulting in casualties erupted along the border every year.
He recalled that he went to the Philippine embassy there and asked about its plan if the war intensified.
“Talagang walang kahandaan,” (They are really not prepared) he said after the ambassador at that time, instead of informing them what the evacuation plan was, allegedly just told them not to worry since the war would not intensify.
As more and more Filipinos asked about the embassy preparations, Martinez said the embassy only issued a Certificate of Identity to OFWs. He, however, said that many were not able to avail of it since many OFWs used another name in their passport to enter Korea that time.
After being aware of his rights and organized by other migrant leaders in 1996, he said, “Dati parang nagmamakaawa ako sa embassy, pero simula nung mamulat ako, nagde-demand na ako. Buhay ko ‘yun eh.” (Before, I would plead at the embassy, but ever since I was organized, I learned to make demands. It’s my life that’s at stake.)
Martinez worried that his plight then is being experienced by his wife Jocelyn.
Jocelyn, 36, works as a caregiver in Kadima, a three-hour trip away from Israel’s capital Tel Aviv. Martinez echoed his wife’s complaint that she has not heard of an evacuation plan for migrant workers like her if strikes against her host country escalates.
Of the 34,000 OFWs, only about 6,000 OFWs have been repatriated from Lebanon. Martinez stressed that this being a Lebanon-Israel crisis, a crisis management plan should have also been in place for about 30,000 OFWs in Israel.
Although his wife’s employer, a Swiss-Israeli, promised to take Jocelyn out of Israel in case of a worse scenario, Martinez designed their own plan.
He instructed his wife to contact OFWs she knows in Israel, keep huge Philippine flags, assign among them street coordinators and spread Migrante’s hotline number (632) 911-4165.
At present, he said three street coordinators have been identified, two in Tel Aviv and one in Kadima. In case of an intensified war, each street coordinator will lead about 10 OFWs in a bunker where a huge Philippine flag will be put up. The leader will inform Migrante’s office of their location and condition which will be echoed to the DFA officials and other concerned agencies for possible rescue.
Martinez worries that “if the government could not repatriate the 30,000 OFWs in Lebanon, has no plan for those in Israel, how could it save the other OFWs in other Middle East countries in case of a region-wide war?” There are about 1.5 million OFWs deployed in the Middle East.
But Lorenzo Jungco, OUMWA special assistant, said that each post “definitely” has its plan for evacuating OFWs in these countries. However, he did not elaborate further about the plan aside from saying that they have “varying plans in varying conditions.”
Jungco said there are currently 85 posts covering 194 countries and territories.
Despite the dangers in these countries, many OFWs decided to work and stay on in strife-ridden or war-torn countries. They say, “Di bale nang mamatay sa ibang bansa basta may pera, kaysa mamatay sa gutom ang pamilya namin sa Pilipinas” (We would rather die in another country rather than allow our families to die of hunger in the Philippines).
For IBON Foundation, an independent think tank, “the fact that many OFWs would prefer to risk their lives in war-torn Lebanon than return home only highlights how the Arroyo administration has failed to create sufficient livelihoods locally to enable them come home permanently and make a decent living.”
From April 2001 to April 2006, IBON said the government has created an average of only 787,000 jobs annually, which is “not even enough to absorb just the average new entrants in the job market of more than 978,000, much less make a dent in the growing number of unemployed Filipinos, currently pegged at over 4.4 million workers.”
Meanwhile, the government has deployed a yearly average of 900,000 OFWs from 2001 to 2005. The share of OFW remittances to the gross national product has grown from nearly 8 percent in 2001 to 10 percent in 2005, said IBON. (see Table 4).
“Until sufficient jobs can be created, overseas workers will have to continue risking physical and psychological abuse, and even death, in order to feed their families and ensure them a decent life,” the think tank said. Bulatlat
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