In search of good news

The article below was my Panorama column last Sunday.

A dip in the approval ratings of President Benigno Simeon Aquino has prodded the Palace communications team to intensify its search for good news. No less than the President had noted that quite a few of the administration’s accomplishments have failed to make it to primetime news. It is always difficult to project good news when we have long been used to the exact opposite. Higher expectations for a popular leader result in a public that desires not just good news, but extraordinary achievements.

Thus, the administration must take all of these surveys with a grain of salt – the campaign season is over; what matters more are milestones produced because of the willingness of our people to help government. And that willingness is certainly there.

One such important milestone is the turn-around in the perception of the Philippines in relation to its efforts to fight human trafficking. Since 2009, the Philippines has fallen into the Tier 2 Watch List, a category reserved by the US State Department for countries that have not done enough to stem trafficking in persons. Under its Trafficking Victims’ Protection Act, the US government can withhold non-humanitarian assistance to countries under the Tier 3 category – a category usually reserved for countries that have been in the Tier 2 Watch List for 2 consecutive years.

A synergy of efforts and purpose between and among government, civil society, and the media resulted in a positive assessment on our country’s anti-trafficking campaign based on inputs and research gathered by the US State Department. Its interim assessment report which is but a prelude to the final, official Trafficking in Persons Report for 2011, contained the following:

“The Government of the Philippines demonstrated significant progress in combating trafficking in persons since the release of the 2010 TIP Report. Philippine prosecutors and NGO lawyers convicted nine sex trafficking offenders, with prison sentences ranging from six years to life imprisonment. The government, however, has yet to obtain a labor trafficking conviction since the 2003 anti-trafficking law’s enactment. In June, the Department of Justice ordered prosecutors to make trafficking cases a priority, and on October 26, the Supreme Court issued a circular calling courts to expedite the disposition of trafficking cases and requiring that cases be decided within 180 days of arraignment.”

The good news is clearly written in a comparative study of conviction rates, past and present. For example, in 2005, the Philippines was able to obtain only 7 convictions involving six persons engaged in human trafficking activities. Within the first quarter of 2011, the Philippines have had 8 convictions involving 12 human traffickers. In 2010, the number of convictions reached 14 cases involving 12 persons.

As of April 1, 2011, the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT) has reported 47 convictions involving 51 persons since the law was enacted in 2003.

Considering that in the year 2007, the Philippines only got 3 human trafficking convictions, the current record shows that momentum is on our side and that the war against trafficking in persons is now being fought on all fronts.

There is one glaring weakness, however, in the national campaign against human trafficking, based on the assessment of the US government. It seems that the Philippines still needs to address the growing problem of labor trafficking. Forced labor trafficking takes place when a worker is required to work long hours, under slave-like conditions, with little or no pay. The US State Department considers this a weakness given the daily barrage of reports and complaints about overseas Filipino workers seeking repatriation due to maltreatment and abuse by foreign employers.

Aside from the surge in convictions, the US State Department also noted the unprecedented allocation of funds to fight human trafficking, offloading of suspected trafficking victims by immigration authorities, and continuous training of government personnel and diplomatic officials on the anti-trafficking law.

Credit for the positive developments on the anti-trafficking front must be shared by both government and civil society. Special mention must be made about the personal advocacy of US Ambassador Harry Thomas. He made it his business to highlight the dire effects of human trafficking on Filipinos here and abroad, in bilateral and multi-lateral talks, media engagements and in his meetings with civil society groups.

Congressman Manny Pacquiao and other legislators deserve kudos for taking this campaign seriously. Former justice undersecretary Ric Blancaflor who now heads the Intellectual Property Office, current justice undersecretary Jovy Salazar, and all the other members of the IACAT which is chaired by DOJ Secretary Leila de Lima deserve commendations as well.

Finally, let me also give credit to civil society groups such as the Association for Child Caring Agencies of the Philippines, Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy and of course, to Visayan Forum Foundation for sticking together, and reaching out to as many institutions as possible to keep the war against trafficking alive.

Author: Susan Ople

Susan "Toots" Ople is the President of the Blas F. Ople Policy and Training Institute. She's an OFW and labor advocate based in the Philippines.

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