THE LEGAL FRONT
By JUSTICE ART D. BRION (RET.)
OFWs are once again in the news as calls for revenge and bugles of war fill the air in troubled Iran and Iraq. They could be in harm’s way as a they work, not only in Iran and Iraq, but also in the neighboring countries of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, Jordan, and Israel, where turmoil can potentially spread.
This region has not been the most peaceful in the world, a fact we have always known since we began sending workers to Saudi Arabia in 1973. Time and again in the past, we evacuated our workers from the region’s troubled areas.
I was an active participant in one of the earlier evacuations, when Israel invaded Lebanon and besieged Beirut during the first Israel-Lebanon War in 1982. We again evacuated our workers during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s; during the Iraq-Kuwait and US invasion in the early 1990s; the Iraq War in 2003; and in other incidents of turbulence in the region.
These experiences made us see the stark realities and risks of working in the troubled Middle East.
As background on the magnitude of our OFW situation, a good 12% (or approximately 12 million) of our countrymen have immigrated or are temporarily working overseas.
The most numerous are in the U.S. (about 4,030,000) and Canada (approximately 850,000). Many are permanent residents or have become US or Canadian citizens, but a good (but undetermined) number are still illegally staying in their host countries.
We have about 1,020,000 workers in Saudi Arabia; approximately 680,000 in the United Arab Emirates; about 276,000 in Kuwait; 240,000 in Qatar; and 31,000 in Israel. Almost all of them are on time-specific contracts that, unless renewed, require them to return to our country.
DOLE Secretary Silvestre Bello has been quoted as saying that while there are only 1,600 Filipinos in Iraq and 1,000 in Iran, there are more than 2,000,000 Filipino OFWs in the whole Middle East.
Another OFW reality is the amount of remittances that they send home – an all-time high of US$32.21 billion from worldwide sources in 2018, up from US$31.29 billion in 2017. These remittances support and provide stability to their families and are major contributions to our economy.
While evacuation of Filipinos from Iran and Iraq may be manageable in terms of numbers, their extraction from politically turbulent areas can never be simple as our experiences have shown. The spread of hostilities to OFW-intensive areas (such as Saudi Arabia) could render OFW evacuation a nightmare. The economic impact on their families and to the country could also be disastrous.
Fortunately for us, the President has assigned retired Gen. Roy Cimatu (now, of the DENR) to oversee our evacuation efforts. The general has brilliantly undertaken this task before and will no doubt hit the ground running.
On site in the Middle East, of course, are our corps of ambassadors, foreign service officers, and labor attaches, all of them trained and attuned to the plight of our OFWs.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has specialized agencies attending to migrant workers’ concerns – the Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs (OUMWA) and the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO).
At the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) end are the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) with their separate OFW-related tasks. The POEA handles OFW deployment while the OWWA looks after OFW welfare. Both are supported by the DOLE’s corps of labor attaches and overseas labor officers.
In an emergency situation, the private sector has always helped; this time, both PAL and Cebu Pacific Airways have already indicated their readiness.
The ample available support in looking after our OFWs in the Middle East in the present emergency renders further comments on the actual evacuation plans and operations unnecessary.
I shall take this opportunity instead to comment on related OFW concerns, in particular, on the consequences of evacuation and on otherwise hidden but deeper OFWs concerns. The first, among these, is the reintegration of our returning OFWs.
Aside from the POEA and the OWWA, the DOLE has established the National Reintegration Center for OFWS (NCRO) whose operations may extend overseas but whose concerns are largely local – what happens when the OFW comes home and how do they affect the country they return to.
Reintegration is a scenario that arises, not only in emergency evacuation situations, but in all other situations when OFWs return to the country after their overseas work. Smoothly sliding back into our society is not an easy task to undertake, more so for OFWs with few local linkages and sparse resources and skills.
The NCRO is now a fully functioning office with core programs to assist returning OFWs reintegrate themselves into our society after their years overseas.
Unfortunately, it is not yet seen as a major player in the OFW scene. In fact, it is not a major DOLE office at all; it is still an office within the OWWA which has a broader OFW mandate and is not totally focused on reintegration at home.
To its credit, the NCRO has developed from 2011 to 2019 a whole structure for start-up and livelihood assistance; employment facilitation; advocacy, communication, and network building. The extent of its actual reach, however, is still far from its fullest potentials considering the number of our permanently returning countrymen.
I am sure the NCRO could have reached more returning OFWs and provided vaster reintegration assistance if it only had better funding; ampler staffing; fuller flexibility; more effective campaign communications; a wider network of branches nationwide; and wider support from the private sector.
Under these circumstances, reintegration may perhaps be an area ripe for the Duterte administration’s greater focus, not only for the soon-to-return OFWs, but for all returning OFWs who have skills and job experiences to contribute, and whose business or workplace participation or non-participation could affect our local employment situation.
Another ripe area for focused re-examination, after 5 decades of sending contract workers overseas, is our overall deployment policy.
The time is perhaps right to fine tune our policies to consciously keep our overseas workers out of potential harm’s way. This is a conscious and deliberate decision we have to make; market forces cannot solely guide our deployment decisions.
Last but not the least, we should perhaps also revisit the plight of our women OFWs many of whom are in domestic services in countries whose cultural regard for women is different from ours.
Evidence of abuse of OFW domestic helpers are now too glaring to be ignored. Our neighbor, Indonesia, has responded by banning the deployment of women for domestic services since 2015. We have so far been blind to realities.
An administration with the will to frontally confront illegal drugs should likewise be able to face up to deeper OFW-related challenges.