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Hardship forces Filipinos to work in high-risk zones

Safety versus income is a permanent dilemma

<p>Workers demand 'more jobs at home' during a protest rally in Manila. (Photo by Rene Sandajan)</p>

Workers demand 'more jobs at home' during a protest rally in Manila. (Photo by Rene Sandajan)

  • Jefry Tupas and Joe Torres, Manila
  • Philippines
  • August 22, 2014
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Roje Garcia, an engineer from the southern Philippines, works in Libya.

He is one of more than 10,000 Filipinos who choose to stay in the embattled country despite threats to their lives.

During the conflict of 2011, he responded to the call of the Philippine government to come home. But once back home he found there were few opportunities for employment that compared with what he’d enjoyed overseas.

So on October 23 2013, he went back to Libya, hoping that the situation there would soon improve. Instead, it worsened.

On July 15, militiamen abducted a Filipino construction worker. His headless body was found four days later.

A Filipino nurse was also abducted from outside her residence in Tripoli by a gang of youths, who reportedly gang raped her.

Garcia refused to be shaken. The Philippine government again called on Filipinos to return home. But this time Garcia decided to stay.

“What did our government do for us when we first came home? There is nothing that awaits us in the Philippines,” he told ucanews.com.

Every day, about 4,500 Filipinos leave the Philippines to work abroad.

Data from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration shows that in 2013, there were between 9.5 million to 12.5 million Filipinos working abroad.

In 2013, the Philippine Foreign Affairs Department said that at least 883 Filipinos died while working abroad, and some 3,135 Filipino overseas workers are languishing in detention centers in different countries for various offences.

Still, Filipinos risk their lives to leave the country, hoping that a job abroad will improve their lot.

According to Emmanuel Jovellanos, advocacy officer of the Mindanao Migrants Center for Empowering Actions, most Filipinos leave the country "not because they want to, but because there are no opportunities for them here".

Venobia Carro, an officer of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration in southern Mindanao, admitted too that most Filipinos in Libya opt to stay there and risk their lives, rather than return home where incomes are much lower.

"They are earning dollars when they work abroad," Carro said. "Salaries in the Philippines are way too low compared to how much they are getting in Libya."

Carro, however, said the government would not turn its back on workers who decide to come home. The government has announced that some 3,400 Filipinos have already been repatriated from Libya.

"We are working to ensure an effective and successful reintegration of overseas Filipino workers repatriated from crisis or emergency situations in their countries of deployment," said Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz.

As of August 19, the Department of Labor and Employment has already assisted some 1,299 returning Filipino workers.

But Jovellanos calls the government's push for repatriation "questionable”.

"The country is facing a high unemployment rate, so we question the government's claim that returning workers will be given jobs," he said.

He also dubbed the US$228 "financial assistance" offered by the Philippine government to repatriated workers from Libya as “measly”.

"What can that amount do? Remember that they have children to feed," said Jovellanos.

Jessielina Tanda is one returnee who knows from experience that the level of government assistance is not sufficient.

A domestic worker for more than 12 years in the Middle East, Tanda decided to leave her US$350 monthly salary last year and come home, because of emotional distress that took a toll on her health.

She told ucanews.com that she was resigned to the fact that she would be starting from scratch. The single mother of two teenage boys arrived home not only with a draining bank account, but also with little help from the government.

The government provided her with little more than a ticket home and US$250 from the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

For six months, Tanda was jobless, relying only on relatives and friends to survive. She even thought of going back to the Middle East. "But I was ill and felt that I had been through a lot already," she said.

Perhaps it’s no wonder that workers such as Garcia in Libya choose to stay put. The government’s monetary aid is indeed paltry compared to the US$1,825 that an average Filipino worker earns every month in Libya.

"The government made so many promises to workers in 2011 that were never fulfilled," said Filipino priest Celco Laraccas, who lives in Libya. “It is singing the same tune this time around."

He says that if the government is serious about repatriation, it must offer permanent jobs to returnees.

This call is echoed by the Catholic bishops of the Philippines. Bishop Broderick Pabillo, head of the bishops' conference’s public affairs office, says that the cash support offered by the government is simply not enough.

"These are workers, not businessmen," he said. "They are not trained to be entrepreneurs. What they need is permanent work."

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