OFWs in Russia, China
China and Russia aren’t places we usually think of as favored destinations for overseas Filipino workers, but there are now reports coming out of those two countries showing them to be new OFW targets.
Not only that, deployment in those two countries are shrouded by controversies around illegal deployment, even human trafficking, reminders that after more than 40 years since the Philippines adopted overseas work as a major economic program, with many advances, we still continue to face new needs and challenges.
The illegal deployment to Russia is fairly small, but is worth looking at because of a new twist: The illegal recruitment takes place in Hong Kong, among Filipinas already working there.
Jalilo dela Torre, the Philippine labor attaché in Hong Kong, first went public with the problem on Nov. 9, citing the case of an OFW who paid HK$43,000 (P280,000) for a “commercial visa” to go to Russia. The illegal recruiter had promised the Filipina a job better than as a domestic helper in Hong Kong, with a company in Russia endorsing the visa application and having the OFW listed as a professional.
What we’re seeing here is human trafficking and it turns out there have been many more victims with one anonymous Philippine official telling the South China Morning Post that there were as many as 4,000 illegal OFWs in Russia. Once these victims reach Russia, they are left on their own. They find out their “commercial visa” actually did not allow them to work, and they have to renew the visa every three months. The illegal recruiters also have their connections in the Philippines, where their people harass families of human trafficking victims to make them pay back huge debts.
Dela Torre named a couple, involving a Filipina married to a Pakistani, as being so brazen as to continue to advertise on Facebook, inviting applicants for nanny positions and offering monthly salaries of 55,000 to 60,000 rubles (P47,000 to P51,300).
When Dela Torre went public, he appealed to the Hong Kong government to do something about this illegal recruitment and no less than Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that the government would take “vigorous enforcement action against any agencies that conduct illegal activities in Hong Kong.” She was referring not only to illegal recruitment but also to enforcement of Hong Kong’s Employment Ordinance, which has many provisions to protect foreign workers, for example, a provision that job seekers should not have to be charged more than 10 percent of the first month’s salary.
The Hong Kong government did raid three recruitment agencies on Nov. 17, but no arrests were made.
The illegal recruitment activities have caught the attention of the Hong Kong media, resulting in investigative reports saying that human trafficking is going on also in Singapore. Victims end up not just in Russia but also in Mongolia, Turkey, Kazakhstan and Brazil.
‘Ayi’ and English teachers
It seems, too, that another major destination now for illegal workers is China, with Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III estimating — based on a speech he gave in Hong Kong last year — that some 200,000 illegal OFWs are in the mainland.
Not all of these illegal OFWs are victims of human trafficking. As OFWs go, word of new work opportunities tend to spread quickly through the grapevine, with bolder Filipinos going first, and then creating networks to support additional illegals.
The new work opportunities have been around domestic work as well, with mainland wages of 7,000 to 8,000 yuan (P53,600 to P61,200) per month, higher than Hong Kong’s monthly HK$4,410 (P28,700) as ayi or nannies. Those who specialize in the care of newborn babies are called yuesao and can get more than 10,000 yuan (P76,500) a month.
Several years ago I was already hearing about this new demand from mainland Chinese friends, who say there’s even prestige in having a Filipina nanny or domestic worker. Some work legally, but most belong to an underground economy. Under current Chinese laws, only foreigners (and, in Guangzhou, expats from Hong Kong and Taiwan) can “import” domestic helpers.
Filipina domestic helpers are said to be in demand because they work harder than the local Chinese, and are better educated, including having the ability to speak English. In fact, another niche for Filipinos is working as English teachers. Again, a few years ago I was already hearing of Filipinos who would use tourist visas to move back and forth between Hong Kong and the province of Guangdong (Canton), where they would offer English language classes.
I also found an article dating back to 2016 in an English newspaper in China, Global Times, featuring a Filipino teaching English in an international kindergarten, with favorable comments from Chinese employers who are trying to meet a growing demand in China for English teachers.
But the status of these Filipinos has been unclear because they are classified as non-native English-speaking teachers. In the 2016 Global Times article, Filipinos spoke of their hopes that the Chinese government would soon classify Filipinos as “native English speakers,” which would then qualify them for higher pay, certainly higher than domestic helpers, who are classified as semiskilled domestic workers.
But last September, the Chinese government issued rules barring “non-natives” from teaching English at any level in China unless they have at least a bachelor’s degree from an English-speaking country and two years of work experience in English language education. The question remains: Is the Philippines a country where English is native?
Hopes rose that Filipinos would be classified as native English speakers at the last Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting, with high-level Chinese and Filipino government officials finalizing many new government-to-government agreements. The matter of English teaching, however, was not among the issues discussed.
All these developments remind us of the continuing changes in the difficult terrain of overseas work. We depend so much on deploying overseas workers, but pay a high price for this in terms of social cohesion, especially at the level of the family. Add on the risks of human trafficking as we see now for OFWs in Hong Kong and Singapore. There are of course many more OFWs who move from one country to another looking for better jobs.
In Hong Kong, it is well known that domestic helpers may have degrees in education, midwifery, even nursing. We need to lobby for OFW jobs that offer better wages and options for the future. Teaching English in China is one such niche, and will not be tied to English competency alone but also to work attitudes, and the ability to speak Chinese, a skill that can also better protect Filipinos when they are in China. A handful of local colleges and universities have the foresight to offer a degree in education, major in English and Chinese.
In the long run, I hope Filipinos will not need to leave in such large numbers to survive, but in the meantime, let’s learn to anticipate the needs overseas, and to bargain for better jobs and working conditions for our OFWs.
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