“We could experience a stronger Philippine Peso this December, all thanks to the remittances from our Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs).”

Former Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said in September 2018 that Malacañang is confident that the Peso can recover from its drop against the United States Dollar (USD) because OFWs remit more than the usual amount to their families during the holiday season.

OFWs are the biggest source of foreign exchange, followed by product exportation. This also makes the Philippines the highest remittance receiver in Southeast Asia. According to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, total OFW remittances in 2017 reached over USD28 billion, coming mostly from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany. This shows why they are hailed as “mga bagong bayani.” The government makes it a point to remember their sacrifice and suffering every National Heroes Day. Therein lies the problem because this very salutation institutionalizes the whitewashing of the savage truth about the incompetence of the government in serving those they laud as modern heroes.

According to Ateneo De Manila University Professor Graziano Battistella in his Philippine Labor Migration: Impact and Policy (1992), there have been three waves of labor migration since the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade. Prior to these, the Consejo de las Indias ordered the Indios to work in ships voyaging towards México—whose Aztec Empire was also conquered by the Spanish Empire just about the same time the latter conquered Las Islas Filipinas. To save themselves from the barbaric treatment of the Peninsulares, the Indios were forced to escape and settle in lands surrounding the Golfo de México. Its rich history of labor exportation made the Philippines one of the world’s biggest labor exporting countries today.

The Philippine Labor Migration Policy that we have now is greatly shaped by the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s, during the time when there was high unemployment among Filipinos. The Philippine economy during his administration was spiraling down; the increase in crude oil prices made it even worse. So, he took advantage of the oil-exporting countries’ demand for laborers. He started massive deployment and promotion of labor migration in the Arab region. It was supposed to be a temporary phenomenon—just until the Philippines recover from its economic downfall—but the same “pushes” continue to persist that the same phenomenon happens even after almost five decades. This has also been amplified when the East and the Southeast Asian regions joined the Middle East in demanding for migrant workers.

In Julius Babao and Bernadette Sembrano-Aguinaldo’s public service program ABS-CBN Lingkod Kapamilya sa DZMM, families of OFWs desperately ask for help from the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) about the concerns of their loved ones abroad. Although it is good news that these agencies are responsive to their needs, it is rather saddening to hear their plight. These are narratives that we wish to be mere fictions in AM radio drama, but they are in fact very real. One OFW narrated that she was ironed and beaten up while another said he was starved and made to work longer hours. There are those who were sexually assaulted or framed up for a crime. The injustices some of them endured range from being denied to make a phone call to their families back in the Philippines to getting murdered in cold blood. There are hundreds of reported missing OFWs who are said to have ran away from their abusive employers. Some of them are left with no alternative but to try jumping out of a condominium just to escape.  They left the country to do decent work in order to give a better life to their families, only for them to be treated inhumanely.

One of these stories was that of  Joanna Demafelis. After leaving to work as a domestic helper in Kuwait in May 2014, she returned to the Philippines February of this year, lying lifeless inside a wooden crate. Before leaving the country, she was a housekeeper in Parañaque where she earned enough to send money to her parents in Iloilo. In November 2013, however, her parents’ leased farmland was swept by Super Typhoon Yolanda, destroying their crops and leaving their land untillable. With no other source of income, their debts piled up, prompting Defamelis to look for a better paying job. There was an influx of OFWs in Kuwait when they posted a high demand for domestic helpers, followed by an influx of stories about worker abuse. Despite the risks involved, she left for Kuwait—a country so rich yet barbaric towards migrant laborers.

West Asia—or commonly called by the colonial tongue as the Middle East—has been generally notorious for exploitation and abuse. Their Kafala system mandates the employer to sponsor the working visa of the migrant worker. For domestic helpers, their employers would need to secure them their domestic servant visa—the very use of the word servant speaks a lot about their regressive consciousness. Their employers have full control over them because they take full economic and legal responsibilities, which makes migrant laborers essentially indebted to their employers.

One of the house rules Demafelis had to follow was to surrender her cellphone. She could only use it every three months. September 2016 was the last time her family heard her voice. They knew something was wrong when they could no longer find her Facebook accounts after that call. Her family turned to OWWA and to POEA for help, but they could not find her because her recruitment agency had shut down by then. It was only about a year since the report that she was found, and it happened by chance. When the Kuwaiti officers paid her employers a visit for their unsettled business dues, the officers found her corpse inside the freezer left running in her employer’s abandoned house. The temperature preserved the trauma she endured in her pelvis and kidneys, the broken state of her ribs, and the multiple lacerations on her skin.

President Rodrigo Duterte condemned the crime as a “national shame.” Her death hit both national and international headlines. It opened the 2018 Kuwait-Philippine diplomatic crisis and subsequent deployment ban. Are the deals signed in light of the diplomatic crisis and the laws put in place intended to protect the OFWs enough to stop the abuses? Is this even the solution?

Providing the “best education” for the labor export industry

During the discussions on K-12’s impending implementation, the Department of Education (DepEd) argued that the Philippines is the only country in Southeast Asia and one of the three in the world that only has a ten-year pre-university education. There was an urgent necessity to implement it despite the criticisms that the scheme needs further revisions because there is a “need to provide necessary educational system that will allow our students and our professors to actually integrate with the rest of the ASEAN,” said former Education Secretary Armin Luistro in an interview with Rappler.

Dr. David Michael San Juan, a staunch critic of the Philippine Labor Export Policy and an associate professor of De La Salle University-Manila’s Filipino Department, questions the genuine objective of the K-12 program in his research paper titled Kaisipang Nasyonalista at Teoryang Dependensiya sa Edukasyon: Ideolohikal na Kritik ng Programang K to 12 ng Pilipinas (2013). He condemns the K-12’s agenda to strengthen the dependence of the Philippines on first-world countries. Later evidence would point out to the correctness of Mr. San Juan’s hypothesis. As admitted by Manila’s 6th District Representative Rosenda Ann Ocampo during a congressional hearing on 17 October 2017, career paths outlined in the K-12 scheme are those with high demand in the global labor market, especially those by developed countries such as caregiving. Mr. San Juan further asserts that K-12 is an implicit encouragement for Filipinos to become laborers instead of becoming professionals—a step that only further pulls down the Filipino dignity in the global arena.

Labor exportation: an unwritten national policy

Whenever the government calls the OFWs as mga bagong bayani, remember that it is covering its incompetence to create a thriving environment for jobs. UP Associate Professor Dr. Jeane Franco of the Department of Political Science, explained in CNN, “The government will never admit that they are into labor export because you only export products, not people.” We need to reassess our economy and identify the industries we can develop to increase gainful employment and productivity.

For instance, there is a need to increase efforts in the development of the agricultural sector since the Philippines is essentially an agricultural country that demands for agro-industrialization. A little less than half of the 30 million hectares of our land area is for agricultural use. Coconuts have a harvest area of 4.25 million hectares while sugarcanes have 673,000 hectares. Vegetables and root crops have 270,000 hectares while fruits have 148,000.  Industrial crops such as abaca have 591,000 hectares. 404,000 are allotted for pasture and 133 hectares for cut flowers.

However, instead of cultivating more land for agriculture, these lands are being converted for industrial or residential use. They are converted into business districts such as the New Clark City and into exclusive gated subdivisions. Proponents of land conversion allege that there is a need to shift land use from agriculture to commercial to make land more productive, the country being prone to natural disaster because of geographical location and the lack of farming knowledge of the farmers themselves.

Ironically, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) based in UP Los Baños, working with Thailand and Vietnam to have more than enough for exportation and with Nepal and Bangladesh towards self-sufficiency, is a research center that has developed rice variants that are disease- and pest-resistant and resilient to extreme weather conditions such as drought and flooding. Our neighbors have already benefited from IRRI’s researches, and we should have too, way before they did.

Implementation of seed innovations should be supplemented with more well-thought-out land reforms. Among the many things that have to be changed, policymakers should go beyond land acquisition and distribution and provide much-needed assistance to agrarian reform communities, and also to other farmers like Demafelis’s parents. From the level of policy, government agencies should work at the program and project levels to provide our farmers access to valuable scientific and market information.

Very few people are aware that there is an agricultural office in every municipal hall and that people can ask for seeds. Even less are aware of the free training and seminars they can undertake courtesy of the Department of Agriculture (DA). Municipalities should also do their part by collaborating with the DA to set up these seminars in their localities and ensure that the seeds that they provide are suitable for the land being tilled by the farmers.

Cooperativization should be institutionalized so that farmers can leverage their collective production volume for better prices in the marketplace and ensure that they are getting their due profits. There is much to be done for the agricultural sector but pushing for these changes has effects further along the line such as food security, less inflation pressure from food prices, better rural economy and so on. Even if this is just one industry, the multiplier effect to other industries down the value chain will be enormous. This is one step forward in the right direction.

More researchers, scientists, and agriculturists are needed to invent machines and methods that can help our farmers, especially that we are shamefully stuck in the second agricultural revolution while the rest have already reached the fourth. We already have the natural resources to work on and the right team to guide those who would work in the agricultural sector. Giving agriculture a genuine chance will benefit the Philippines even more: self-sufficiency and stability, exportation of agricultural products, and jobs that do not require Filipinos to leave these shores only to be exposed to mortal risks. Hopefully, there will be one less Joanna Demafelis in the Philippines. ■

(Illustration by James Atillo.)

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