Protecting Filipino workers abroad

The “rescue missions” recently undertaken by Philippine Embassy personnel in Kuwait to free Filipino household workers from the grip of their abusive employers are, from a Filipino standpoint, singularly laudable. Done quietly — and with the knowledge and cooperation of the host government — these proactive moves affirm the state’s responsibility to come to the aid of its nationals when they are in trouble and wherever they may be.

But, what was our government thinking when it decided to film these risky operations and upload the video on social media?  Clearly, those responsible were trying to score propaganda points. They wanted to show Filipino workers abroad and their families that, for once, they have a fearless government that takes its duty to protect them seriously.

Did they think the Kuwaiti authorities would not see the video? Or, were they expecting that, out of goodwill, Kuwait would not object to such encroachment on its sovereignty, so long as these acts are well-intentioned? One need not be a diplomat to know that the wide dissemination of the video of these heroic rescues gave them a political color and nullified whatever humanitarian intent there was behind them.

No self-respecting government that believes itself to be in charge of its own affairs would tolerate anything that even remotely suggests that foreign governments may do anything they want to do outside their country in the name of protecting their nationals. That is exactly what the video of the rescue of distressed Filipino domestic helpers in Kuwait projected.

Of all people, it is officials of the Duterte administration who should have been conscious of this. This administration, after all, has been very touchy about foreigners commenting on Philippine affairs. The Bureau of Immigration had no qualms barring an Italian parliamentarian from entering the country on the ground that he had previously aired views critical of the administration. It recently ordered the deportation of an elderly Australian missionary nun who has lived among our people for 27 years on the ground that she has interfered in the political life of our country. Mr. Duterte himself has repeatedly refused to recognize the right of international bodies like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court to manifest their concern for the human rights of Filipinos, particularly in relation to the administration’s antidrug campaign.

This kind of parochialism and arrogance seems out of sync with the global presence of the Filipino migrant worker, whose basic rights are defined in various international instruments like the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. Where bilateral agreements between labor-sending countries and receiving countries have not been established, migrant workers are not without rights. The 1990 convention on migrant workers spells out in clear detail the minimum obligations and responsibilities of countries that host guest workers.

The sad reality we confront is that there is very little the Philippine government, by itself, can do to protect the interest and welfare of several million Filipinos who live and work abroad. Some countries accord foreign workers almost the same rights as their own. But the great majority treat their guest workers as though they belonged to an inferior category: Their labor is welcome, but their presence as members of the community is not.

Even if we wanted to, we cannot take unilateral action on their behalf without antagonizing the host countries. Relative to the sheer number of Filipino workers currently deployed abroad (between 9 and 10 million), our embassies and consular offices are hopelessly ill-equipped to handle the broad range of problems our workers encounter in the course of their overseas employment. We would have to reconfigure the  composition of our embassies and consular offices—if not the very purpose and vision of the whole Department of Foreign Affairs itself—if we wanted to meaningfully respond to the demands of our present engagement in the world.

This is a global presence no one ever anticipated or wished for—not even the Marcos regime that started it all in the early 1970s. Ferdinand Marcos had meant the export of contract workers to be a temporary economic measure to tide the country over in a time of skyrocketing oil prices. The first OCWs or “overseas contract workers”—that’s how they were referred to then—were deployed under the auspices of government-to-government agreements. They were typically sent as part of a Filipino construction contingent. They did not have to pay fees to labor recruiters.

Alas, it did not take long before the government began to focus only on the remittances, while turning a blind eye on the long-term social and economic consequences of labor export. Recruiters and private manning agencies sprouted overnight and took over this lucrative business. A migrant mindset emerged among our people. Everyone felt happy as the Philippines rode the crest of a rapidly evolving global labor market.

Torn from their families and thrown into incredibly strange work environments, these “new heroes,” as we have begun to call our OFWs, have transformed the landscape of Philippine society.  One cannot think of any economic sector that is not somehow dependent on their remittances.

We can neither adequately protect our overseas workers nor realistically hope to bring them back. The least we can do is to stop preparing their children for the next deployment.