IAPS Dialogue: The online magazine of the Institute of Asia & Pacific Studies

Trouble Overseas for Filipino Foreign Workers

Written by Chris Weeks.

Protecting overseas workers from modern-day slavery is a serious business for the Philippine government. The scale of employment migration and the resulting economic benefits cannot be overstated as remittances soar to a record high, representing nearly a tenth of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. At the same time, government records reveal a catalogue of unpaid salaries, physical abuse and maltreatment facing workers abroad.

To get an idea of the current extent of overseas exploitation, data from Tacloban’s regional Department for Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) office shows that – in this region alone for the first three months of 2017 – eight overseas workers were rescued from human trafficking.

A visit to any City Hall in the Philippines shows the extraordinary array of government departments, agencies and groups charged with protecting migrants. For example, in Tacloban – a typically crowded and bustling hub in the central Visayas – there’s a veritable acronym soup of offices clustered along a short stretch of road next to the port. To name a few, the DOLE (Department of Labor and Employment); the OWWA (Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration); the POEA (Philippines Overseas Employment Agency) which issues overseas employment certificates and regulates recruitment agencies; and the DSWD (Department for Social Welfare and Development) which supports trafficked overseas workers and runs awareness campaigns.

Yet can these efforts to protect overseas workers ever be enough? Economic desperation means people will always take employment risks and slip under the radar, according to Meriam Balmocena, Head of the Eastern Visayas’ Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) in Tacloban. “They’re the ‘willing victims’,” she says. “They just keep their mouths shut, close their eyes, and pay the recruiters because they are desperate. Some of them will process in another country. For example, they will process their documents to go to another country from Dubai, because you can just go to Dubai and receive your visa. Dubai and Qatar are not that strict; you can go there as a tourist and find a job there.”

The protection process starts well before workers leave the country, emphasises Ms Balmocena. I was speaking to her at a Job and Business Fair in Tacloban City. There’s a carnival-like atmosphere as dance troupes and singers open the event with rousing music amplified around the arena, perhaps setting the mood for the economic promise that may lie ahead for overseas job-seekers. Ms Balmocena was keeping a watchful eye over the recruitment agencies, offering 3,000 overseas vacancies primarily in the Middle East. “Our overseas recruitment agencies can’t take part in this job fair without a letter of authority,” she says. “We check if their status is OK, no reported complaints or violations committed, and they’re in good standing.”

It was in this astrodome that thousands of people took shelter from Typhoon Haiyan (local name: Yolanda) which struck the city back in November 2013, claiming at least 7,000 lives. While several years have passed, the link between natural disasters such as Haiyan and migration remains an interesting line of inquiry, as does the assertion that natural disasters lead to human trafficking – a claim which surfaced within days following Haiyan. This link makes good theoretical sense, particularly as there are likely to be more ‘willing victims’ facing dire economic desperation following a disaster. However, paper records were washed away during Haiyan, thwarting researchers’ initial attempts to compare migration data before and after the disaster.

To get an idea of the current extent of overseas exploitation, data from Tacloban’s regional Department for Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) office shows that – in this region alone for the first three months of 2017 – eight overseas workers were rescued from human trafficking. Throughout last year, the same agency received 17 reports of overseas workers being exploited, including cases of slavery. There are many more cases across the Philippines and, as many Filipinos work in menial, solitary jobs which increase the risk of abuse, we can be sure of further exploitation behind closed doors that goes unreported. “Most of our victims served are distressed Overseas Filipino Workers who are repatriated,” says Eva Jocson from the DSWD, who’s also the Regional Co-Ordinator for the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking. “We’re continuing our efforts at Local Government Units in every barangay, conducting massive advocacy campaigns to institute local ordinances that will prevent trafficking.”

There are currently 60 active prosecutions for human trafficking at the local courthouse in Tacloban City. It is believed most relate to trafficking within the Philippines. Yet Roberto Golong, Tacloban’s City Prosecutor and Regional Chair of the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT), points out that many complaints fail to make it to court. “I know for a fact there were so many incidents of trafficking reported to the Department of Social Welfare and Development, although these did not mature into actual cases filed with us. Sometimes the victims just get lost – or the victims refuse to pursue the case.” Others in the city speak of a culture of impunity, including several independent references to one case that was reportedly dropped after intervention from a senior politician.

Meanwhile, the troubles for Filipino foreign workers continue. In April, in a highly publicised act, Duterte ‘brought home’ 138 stranded Filipino workers from Saudi Arabia during a visit to the Middle East. Clearly the government PR exercise of reassuring overseas workers is as important as ever. After all, the contribution they make to the country can’t be overstated.

Chris Weeks is a PhD student from London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). His research explores how migration can morph into human trafficking – particularly following natural disasters including Typhoon Haiyan (local name Yolanda) in the Philippines. Image Credit: CC mohammadaasim/ Pixabay.