In the 16th century, as a colony of Spain, Filipinos started working abroad as conscripted sailors, slaves, soldiers, refugees, or adventurers.
In 1970, faced with the twin problems of increasing unemployment and poverty, government started to encourage the export of manpower as a temporary solution to the lack of domestic job opportunities and avert the social volcano from erupting. In 1974, Marcos institutionalized the migration of workers as their dollar remittances became a pillar of the economy.
However, reports of murder, rape, sexual assault, subhuman treatment, contract substitution, withholding of wages, and others started trickling in. To protect our overseas Filipino workers (OFW), Republic Act 8042 of 1995 entitled Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipino Act (and amended by RA 10022) was enacted which imposed strict rules and penalties to safeguard their welfare.
Government views OFW deployment as a vital industry (although some quarters claim it is not an industry) and any offence against the migrant worker is deemed economic sabotage, hence the draconian provisions in the act.
Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE) is mandated to protect all Filipino workers, both domestic and foreign-based, but to emphasize the primary importance of OFW it created the Philippine Labor Office (POLO) all over the world as its operating arm to monitor 24/7 the working conditions of Filipino workers in their host countries. It is headed by a labor attaché reporting directly to the Secretary of Labor and the de facto head of all Philippine government agencies in host countries under the one-country team approach (OCTA).
As early as 1982, Executive Order 797 created the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) as an agency of the Ministry of Labor and Employment (now DoLE). It is responsible for the welfare of OFW and tasked to monitor and supervise all manpower recruitment agencies for overseas workers.
Yet despite the policies, rules, public extolling of their heroism, and aggressive monitoring by POLO officers, abuses and criminal acts by foreign employers against OFW continue, mostly in the Middle East countries. Countries found to be negligent in protecting our OFW are included in POEA’s regularly updated advisory list of banned or reinstated countries as OFW destinations.
In 2013, OFW were officially hailed as bagong bayani for their emotional strength, self-sacrifice, and perseverance to provide a better future for their families. Of course, their much-needed economic contribution to our GDP was left unsaid.
Labor Secretary Bello prompted the NBI to conduct an autopsy on Jeanelyn Villavende when he suspected a cover up in Kuwait’s death certificate which stated that she died of acute heart failure.
The autopsy revealed she was tortured, raped, and murdered. Jeanelyn Villavende’s murder followed Joanna Demafelis who was killed and stuffed in a freezer. These were the latest murders in Kuwait together with the 196 deaths due to suicide, murder, and medical reasons along with 208 rape and sexual assaults since 2016 (all in Kuwait) are too numerous and too horrible that diplomacy may be inadequate to resolve.
As of 2019, there are an estimated 12 million OFW in the world and 276,000 of them are deployed in Kuwait. The hideous murder of two Filipinas prompted the Philippine government once more to ban deployment of OFW to this country. However, as reported, the ban was lifted on Valentine’s day after Kuwait arrested the guilty employers.
The brutal killing and maltreatment of our OFW require a serious and immediate review on the extent of our economic, diplomatic, and moral duty to our OFW. In the meantime, employers join the call to maintain the deployment ban on Kuwait until its government can adequately guarantee the security and safety of our 276,000 OFW in its country.
With Kuwait’s spotty track record in protecting our OFW, an isolated swift justice for Jeanelyn and a litany of new promises to do better should not be reasons to rush the lifting of the ban. Of course, the possible loss of almost a billion US dollars in yearly remittances and the prospect of jobless OFW returning from Kuwait maybe hard to ignore.
Perhaps like soldiers suffering battle fatigue, it is time to bring home our OFW. Admittedly, our country and the rest of the world cannot stop workers’ migration because of globalization but at the very least, our OFWs should be able to seek overseas work as a matter of choice and not as a necessity. Only then can we do justice to the oft-repeated tagline, bagong bayani.