The Philippine overseas employment program requires a holistic review in light of emerging realities on the migration front. Online recruitment websites connect employers and job applicants worldwide. Popular social media sites like LinkedIn enable companies and international organizations to spot talent with a click of the mouse. Interviews are done via Skype. Budget flights make it easier to fly talents from where they are to places where they are needed.
When should a complete review of the Philippine overseas employment program take place? Next year, would be apt. A series of dialogues and roundtable discussions on how to improve the program can be conducted prior to the 40th anniversary of the overseas employment program on May 1, 2014.
It was my father, the late Labor Secretary Blas F. Ople, who spearheaded the overseas employment during the Marcos era. Back then, the recruitment and deployment process was straightforward and simple. Private recruitment agencies were of a manageable number, and the owners of these agencies knew the names, faces, and attitudes of the foreign employers that they dealt with. Today, the supply chain is more complex with brokers, foreign agencies, and lending companies joining the fray.
Decades ago, one speaks of foreign workers with Filipinos foremost in mind as the dominant source of labor particularly in the Middle East. Today, Filipino overseas job applicants compete with other nationalities from Asia, Africa and even Europe for work. Third world countries have seen the economic value of dollar remittances while grappling with the social costs attached to such monthly bonanzas. Still, the Philippines has become a role model for other labor-sending countries given the full complement of institutions, services, and programs in place for migrant workers.
Unlike other labor-sending countries, our laws mandate the Philippine government to help overseas Filipino workers in distress. The labor and foreign affairs departments are required to report to Congress its accomplishments in this area. Legislators, civil society groups, and the media are quick to call the attention of the executive branch whenever the life of an overseas worker hangs in the balance.
But with a daily average of 4,000 Filipinos leaving the country to work overseas, the capacity of each embassy or consulate to fulfill such a noble mandate often falls short. The Saudization program itself gave a sharper context to this problem as long lines and makeshift tents within and beside diplomatic premises highlights the need for more staff and resources to service our OFWs. At any given crisis, the embassy or consulate concerned finds itself undermanned and lacking in resources.
No review will be credible unless legitimate Filipino community leaders are allowed to participate. They are in a better position to discuss the ease by which contracts signed in the Philippines are set aside once they set foot in another country. When that happens, the OFWs become extremely vulnerable because they have already traveled so far for a job that was promised in the Philippines only to have the entire description and salary scales changed upon arrival. Under Philippine laws, the recruitment agency must assist the aggrieved workers or face preventive suspension or the outright cancelation of license. The mandatory insurance provision of Republic Act No. 10022 must form part of this review. Many workers leave the country without knowing what they are covered for. Air tickets for distressed workers are included as part of the benefits. Yet, how many distressed OFWs are not even aware of this provision? How many continue to languish in welfare centers because they could not afford a ticket home not knowing that the insurance company can pay for it?
A thorough review of the decades-old Philippine overseas employment program will yield vital and perhaps even disturbing information on how labor migration has transformed the national life.
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