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Filipino workers still look overseas despite danger, threats

Government claims fewer migrants a sign of growth, but critics say problems persist

Filipino workers still look overseas despite danger, threats

In this file photo, Filipino seafarers take a rest as they wait for the approval of their papers that would allow them to work on ships that will take them to other countries. (Photo by Vincent Go)

Ronald Reyes and Joe Torres, Manila
Philippines

August 11, 2015

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Cecilia* was a domestic worker in the Middle East until she decided to fly home last year.

"I could not stomach the threats and constant verbal abuse from my Arab employer," she said.

She returned to the Philippines expecting to see her husband and their three children. The children were home but not the husband.

"He left me for another woman, and they already have a child," Cecilia said. It was painful, she said, "but I have to continue living".

Fahima Alagasi Palacasi also tried her luck abroad. Unlike Cecilia, she hasn’t been able to return.

Fahima, 23, a mother of two, hails from the southern Philippine town of Pikit, North Cotabato province.

She arrived in Riyadh in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in March 2014. Two months later, she was found in a clinic with second-degree burns. She said her employer poured boiling water on her after she made a mistake preparing coffee.

A year after the incident, Fahima is still in Saudi Arabia, living in a Philippine government center with some 200 other Filipinos who are waiting to be repatriated.

The stories of abuse faced by Cecilia and Fahima are not rare. Still, they have done little to deter millions of Filipinos each year from seeking work abroad.

 

A question of choice

Filipino migrant workers are a key engine of the country’s economy. Last year, Filipinos abroad sent home at least US$28 billion in remittances, according to the World Bank — the third-highest sum in the world.

These funds are crucial to the Philippines — personal remittances also account for 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. But for many observers, such significant numbers are also an indication that there are few viable alternatives at home.

Fr Restituto Ogsimer, executive secretary of the bishops’ Commission on Migrants and Itinerant People, said what is particularly saddening is that most of those leaving are young mothers.

"It's saddening because they have no other choice but to leave," the priest said. "There is no work here, so the easier solution is to send Filipinos abroad where there is work.”

The government, however, claims that the number of Filipinos leaving to work abroad has declined "due to [the] country's sustained economic growth".

"For me, this is a good indication that our people have seen how our lives are already improving in the Philippines," said President Benigno Aquino in a speech before Filipino workers in Japan early this year.

Citing data from the Department of Foreign Affairs, Aquino said there were about 8.36 million overseas Filipino workers last year, down from more than 10 million in 2010.

Others dispute the correlation.

"If there is a decline in the deployment of Filipinos abroad this is mainly due to the shrinking labor market," said John Leonard Monterona of Migrante International, an organization of Filipino migrant workers.

Monterona said the government’s findings are “superficial,” and the poor, like Cecilia and Fahima, have not benefited from the economic growth Aquino has touted.

Migrante also pegs the number of overseas Filipinos at 15 million — far higher than the official statistics.

Father Rex Reyes Jr of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines is critical of the government’s dependence on overseas workers.

“In most cases, the intent to work abroad is less of the right to migrate and more of being forced to seek jobs elsewhere,” he said.

Fr Reyes said the government seems to be interested only in the sum total of the money sent home by overseas workers.

“The remittance of overseas workers is not a sustainable indicator of a sound economic policy,” he said.

 

Filipino migrant workers join millions of people who welcomed Pope Francis during his visit to the Philippines in January. (Photo courtesy of Migrante)

 

Women bear brunt of risk

To the priest, high rates of labor migration represent a form of modern-day “slavery”.

“[It is] slavery because the government is negligent when it comes to providing protection to its citizens abroad and protecting them from greedy recruiters and human traffickers,” Fr Reyes said.

He cited the case of Mary Jane Veloso, the Filipina facing a death sentence in Indonesia after she was convicted — unjustly, her supporters say — of drug trafficking.

Women have become the most vulnerable group when it comes to overseas employment.

A 2013 survey by the Hong Kong-based Mission for Migrant Workers reported that 58 percent of female domestic workers surveyed in Hong Kong suffered from verbal abuse. At least 18 percent reported experiencing physical abuse, while six percent claimed to have been victims of sexual abuse.

There are about 150,000 Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong, most of them female, according to the women's group Gabriela.

Rowena de la Cruz, vice chairwoman of Gabriela in Hong Kong, said the vulnerable condition of women "stems primarily from the forced migration of the Filipino people".

"Filipino women domestic workers all over the world are trapped in debt to agencies and loan sharks, vulnerable to different forms of violence inside households, and abandoned by the government," said De la Cruz.

 

Challenge for the Church

Fr Roy Cimagala of Cebu, who monitors the plight of Filipinos overseas, said working abroad and leaving the family behind "is not the ideal thing to do".

"But if serious reasons demand it, so be it, as long as the potential dangers and problems of the decision are also taken care of," the priest said. Cimagala said the challenge for the Catholic Church is to give due attention and care to workers who are far from home.

The Philippines government may be touting economic growth, but Filipinos still continue to bear the risks and burdens of life abroad for the promise of a better future.

Early this year, Cecilia once again left her three children — ages 10, 12, and 13 — for a household job in Singapore.

"I am caring for an elderly Chinese who suffered a stroke," she told ucanews.com in a telephone interview.

For a job far from home and her loved ones, Cecilia earns about US$500 a month, enough to send her children to school.

"This is much better compared to my situation in the Middle East," Cecilia said. "I am doing this for my children."

 

* Cecilia’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

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