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Are OFWs the solution to economic woes, or a problem that needs resolution?

Last of two parts Even as the lives of many overseas Filipino workers (OFW) have significantly improved due to higher wages abroad, the success stories are often outweighed by dangers and threats — from physical abuse to racial discrimination to getting trapped in war-torn countries. Most recently, the gripping tales from Filipino workers who managed to escape the raging violence in Syria caught the nation’s attention. One of these harrowing stories is that of domestic worker Ruth Pana, 29, who said the windows of her employer's house in Damascus were riddled with bullets, killing one of her employer’s sons. Syrian rebels had occupied a military camp behind her employer's residence, Pana recalls. When the military launched a counter-attack, several people were killed. Pana said anyone who sees the bodies of the dead people "would be throwing up." In an interview with GMA News Online, Connie Bragas-Regalado, chairperson of the Migrante partylist group, also lamented the “steady rise in violations of migrant rights.” She said many OFWs and migrant organizations have gone so far as to describe the Philippine government “criminally negligent” for failing to protect migrant workers and their families. The group claims there is lack of accurate, comprehensive, and timely information about the migrant workers. And despite reports of abuses, Regalado noted that the Aquino government continues to promote labor export. “While it is also true that the country has a sophisticated and well-developed legal framework to protect the rights and welfare of migrants and their families, this has largely been pushed by force of circumstance of the rapidly increasing numbers of OFWs that have been victimized by violations of rights and the resounding clamor of a great number of OFWs, their families and advocates who have managed to organize among themselves,” Regalado said. Not labor export, but right to travel In an email to GMA News Online, however, the office of Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) chief Hans Leo Cacdac disputes Migrante’s assertion. “The government does not promote the overseas employment of Filipinos, but the right to travel as guaranteed by the Constitution is every Filipino’s right, and therefore should not be curtailed,” the POEA administrator’s staff said. “The Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995 (RA 8042) does not promote overseas employment as a means to sustain economic growth and achieve national development. The existence of the overseas program aims to protect the fundamental human rights and freedoms of Filipino citizens and ensure their welfare,” the agency added. Under President Benigno Aquino III, the POEA said the Philippine government is undertaking local employment programs “ to provide equitable distribution of wealth and the benefits of development, making migration not a necessity but a matter of choice.” $20-B in remittances The so-called “OFW phenomenon” or the mass migration of Filipino laborers traces its roots to the years shortly after Martial Law, when strongman Ferdinand Marcos issued Presidential Decree 442 or the 1974 Labor Code that formalized the deployment of Filipino workers abroad. As a result, in just one decade, the number of OFWs increased tenfold – from 36,029 in 1975 to 372,784 in 1985, according to POEA data. As of 2011, POEA data indicated that there were 1.32 million land-based and 330,424 sea- based Filipinos deployed in 190 countries. The number does not include workers that are not registered but are employed through various means abroad. “Filipinos working abroad contributes to Philippine development, not only to its economy, but also in terms of knowledge and technology transfer that takes place,” DOLE said. The huge number of Filipinos working abroad has also helped shore up the country’s economy, and enabled the government to weather financial crises in the region and globally, due to the large amount of remittances from OFWs. “In 2011 alone, the remittance has increased by 7.2% ($20.1 billion) as compared to the same period of the previous year,” the DOLE said. Indeed, Regalado of Migrante says one positive effect of labor migration “is that OFW remittances continue to keep the sinking economy afloat.” The Aquino administration is now trying to plow those earnings into local businesses that would allow former OFWs to earn a decent living in the country. “The government saw the need to incorporate into its reintegration program the advocacy to utilize these migrants’ earnings for enterprise development,” the POEA said. A matter of choice? Despite numerous assertions from OFWs that they are forced to seek better-paying jobs elsewhere to support their families, DOLE believes that Filipinos leave the country of their own accord. “Many Filipinos who work abroad have jobs in the Philippines, but they go abroad in search of higher incomes,” the agency said. In response to this phenomenon, DOLE said the Philippine government “established an overseas employment program that seeks to provide regulatory, protective and welfare measures for those who choose to work abroad.” The agency added that the Philippine government was continuously forging “bilateral labor agreements and multi-lateral arrangements, adherence to international conventions and other instrumentalities, development of standard employment contracts, continuous dialogue and liaisoning with host countries of Filipino labor, among others, to help in ensuring the protection of the rights of migrant workers.” But Migrante says the government’s efforts are not enough. “The Philippine government has been hailed for introducing migration policies that allegedly ensure the protection of its workers abroad and for displaying good practices that promote migrant workers’ protection. Its pre-departure orientation program (PDOS) has been commended as a useful model for offering protection that begins at home,” Regalado said. However, she added, “the truth is, OFWs are plagued with an assortment of issues and problems throughout the entire migration cycle yet the government has barely done any decisive action to support and protect its migrant workers and their families.” Alternative to labor migration Instead of encouraging the deployment of workers abroad during Martial Law to address unemployment and lack of foreign exchange, the DOLE said, “Priority should have been given to the manufacturing and agricultural sectors.” The agency added: “It would have generated the much needed jobs that would have bolstered improvement in the economy and countryside development.” Bragas-Regalado agrees, saying the government should have focused instead on “developing the national economy by advancing local industries, agriculture and basic services.” Forty years after the declaration of Martial Law, “Migrante International fully supports the call and struggle for national industrialization and genuine land reform as the ultimate solution to the problem of ‘forced migration’ and ‘labor export program,’” she said. “Only through taking steps in building the domestic economy and ensuring social welfare intervention can joblessness and ‘forced migration’ be truly addressed,” she concluded. – VVP/YA, GMA News Read Part 1 here: How Martial Law helped create the OFW phenomenon