Photo: Philippine overseas workers assembling the tent for an event in the capital city of Brunei. Credit: CC BY-SA 3.0 - Photo: 2019

Scepticism About President Duterte’s New Unit to Protect Overseas Filipinos

By Kalinga Seneviratne

MANILA (IDN) – With his approval ratings at an all-time high for a Filipino leader, President Rodrigo Duterte has thrown his weight behind a proposal by his former aide and newly-elected Senator Christopher “Bong’ Go to create a new government department for Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) who are the major foreign exchange earner for the Southeast Asian nation.

Addressing the OFW Summit here on July 12, President Duterte vowed that he will not tolerate the abuse of Filipino workers overseas anymore. They voted in droves for him in the 2016 elections.

“We won’t allow recruitment from outside,” the President, speaking in Filipino, told his audience some of whom have travelled from overseas to attend the Summit. “If they want [outside recruiters], they will have to be under the supervision of the government and there will be no horrendous charges. I won’t allow that.”

Filipino recruitment agents working in consort with foreign partners have charged exorbitant fees from OFWs to find them employment overseas. Known as ‘placement fees’ these could go up to USD 5000 sometimes for jobs that pay as little as USD 400 a month.

Describing the new system that his government wants to introduce, “just go to the department and deal with the people there, they will have a list [of possible employers]”, Duterte explained. “I have the power to do that because that kind of (existing) mechanism of recruiting Filipino workers abroad has been abused and abused and abused.”

“If placement fees and other charges could be reduced it will help those seeking employment abroad,” says Papias Banados, author of ‘The Path of Remittance’, a book of short stories of OFWs that reflects the exploitative nature of the private recruitment agencies.

“When I worked overseas I encountered a lot of problems friends faced especially domestic workers. Normally when they have problems with employers not giving enough food and rest, treating them like slaves,” Banados, who worked in Kuwait and Singapore as a domestic worker for over 15 years, told IDN. “In fact I helped a few of them by sending them to a local Shelter (in Singapore). Recruitment agency nor the embassy was willing to help them. They keep on delaying taking any action”.

She said that in the research she did for the book (which is based on true stories) this was a common problem many OFWs faced with embassies in other countries as well. “Recruitment agents overseas charge these people a lot of money (to sort it out). Government agency should take action immediately, if there is a complaint from an OFW not ignore it,” she says.

Evelyn Agato, former station manager of Radyo Pilipinas  who used to produce a regular program to connect with Filipino workers overseas, argues the new department could make two existing government entities – POEA (Philippines Overseas Employment Agency) and OWWA (Overseas Workers Welfare Administration) – redundant. “These agencies might fall short of implementing the policies. Reason enough for the President to create a new department,” she told IDN.

“These agencies are government and laws are in place. It is just a matter of proper implementation and administration,” added Agato, who believes that cultural differences could be the main reason why OFWs are having problems. Despite the preparations suggrsted by POEA, OFWs tend to look for the same environment that they are used to in the Philippines.”

Ellene Sana, Executive Director of the Center for Migrant Advocacy in an interview with IDN pointed out that there are many laws passed over the past decade or more that are designed to control recruitment agents and even jail them if they violate these laws.

“The Philippine government even stipulated in the law that recruiters are jointly and severally liable as their foreign recruiters,” she noted, adding: “Recently POEA intensified measures for protection by requiring recruitment agencies to regularly report to POEA the whereabouts and situations of their workers.”

In June, POEA issued a regulation requiring all officers and personnel, including members of the Board of Directors of recruitment and manning agencies, to attend orientation seminars as a prerequisite in connection with the issuance of their license. 2016 POEA Rules and Regulations for land-based workers and seafarers provide that under its Agency Education Program, the Administration shall provide a Pre-Licensing Orientation Seminar (PLOS) and a Continuing Agency Education Program (CAEP) for the officers and personnel of licensed recruitment agencies.

According to the Philippines Statistics Authority, the number of Filipinos working overseas amounted to 2.3 million in 2018 with 56 percent of them female. Total remittances in the first six months amounted to USD 3,315 million.

Sana argues that OFWs continue to be exploited by recruitment agencies because they are desperate to find a job overseas and most of the recruiters approach them through trusted people such as relatives. Once they are overseas, especially if they have incurred huge debts to the agencies, they will not dare complain fearing it might jeopardise their job.

Sana does not rule out the possibility of some people from government being indirectly involved in the illegal and immoral practice of recruiting to their own benefit. Besides, implementation of the laws by concerned agencies is rather weak. But she feels that the biggest problem is that the 1974 labour code of the Philippines defines recruiting agencies as one that place/recruit workers for a fee.

This is charged directly or indirectly from the workers, and it is stipulated in the proposed bill of Senator Bong Go, she points out. This could lead to excessive (placement) fees, which might constrain workers to borrow money at usurious rates thus leading to debt bondage and labour exploitation, Sana adds.

When asked if the proposed OFW Department could act as a recruitment agency to avoid such exploitation by private agents, she notes that there are such government to government arrangements with South Korea, Germany and Japan, but even under these programs migrant workers have experienced abuse and exploitation.

According to a MOU between the Ministry of Employment and Labour of the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Department of Labour and Employment of the Philippines, only the POEA has the legal authority to send Filipino workers to the ROK. Involvement of any other private sector in the procedure for sending workers is strictly prohibited. It costs USD 24 for an applicant to take Special EPS-TOPIK tests to qualify to work in ROK. There is a stipulated amount of money POEA can officially charge from a worker to send him/her to work in Korea under the program once he/she passes the tests.

“What we need is to change the migration discourse to one where we say that employers must take responsibilities for costs and fees attendant to recruitment and placement,” argues Sana, adding that “migrant workers, as a matter of principle, must not pay to get a job”. [IDN-InDepthNews – 20 July 2019]

Photo: Philippine overseas workers assembling the tent for an event in the capital city of Brunei. Credit: CC BY-SA 3.0

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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