Short-term OFW action
Once again, lawmakers and key government officials have expressed anger over the death of an overseas Filipino worker, Joanna Demafelis, whose body was found in a freezer in an apartment in Kuwait.
It’s a media-oriented ritual that is reprised whenever an OFW, particularly in the Middle East, is reported to have been killed or seriously injured by his or her employer.
At the Senate inquiry into Demafelis’ death, the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration reported that 196 OFWs died in Kuwait in the past three years due to accidents, health problems and suicides. The latter cause of death is often described as suspicious.
Upon President Duterte’s instructions, the Department of Labor and Employment banned further deployment of OFWs to Kuwait until its government signs the two-year-old pending migrant labor agreement with the Philippines that aims to prevent the exploitation of OFWs.
But the ban has not sat well with some Kuwait-bound OFWs, who claimed they should be exempted from the prohibition because they are professionals, not domestic helpers, and that there are no equivalent jobs in the Philippines that can match the salaries they expect to receive from their employers.
In response, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III asked the protesting OFWs to be more patient as the agreement, in his estimate, will be signed soon by the Kuwaiti government.
It is reasonable to expect the Kuwaiti government to sign the agreement because it needs the OFWs to meet the household requirements of its nationals. The cheap labor that OFWs who can speak passable English can provide is not easy to secure elsewhere.
But after the agreement is signed, what?
There is no assurance that its signing will put an end to the abuse of OFWs in Kuwait or that their employers will suddenly become paragons of good behavior. Centuries of social and cultural bias against so-called infidels cannot be changed overnight.
The Owwa and DOLE staff based in the Middle East countries with which the Philippines has labor migrant agreements should closely monitor these countries’ compliance with the agreements. But that action should not be viewed as a permanent solution to the problems of the subject OFWs. At best, it’s a band-aid or short-term cure.
There is no “forever” in foreign employment. It cannot be relied upon as an infinite source of foreign exchange for the Philippines or an alternative for thousands of Filipinos who graduate from our schools every year and want to have gainful employment.
In the 1960s, in the aftermath of the Korean War that devastated South Korea, thousands of its citizens were obliged to go to Europe to work as miners and nurses to help bring foreign exchange to their country.
Aware that such an arrangement was not sustainable in the long run, and as a matter of national pride, then President Park Chung-hee worked hard to improve South Korea’s economy so its citizens didn’t have to go abroad to find a living. He succeeded, and the majority of those Korean workers came home for good.
Except perhaps for household helpers, the time will come when host countries will restrict the entry of OFWs for economic or nationalistic reasons, as what is happening now in the United States and some European countries.
Sooner or later, OFWs will cease to be welcome in some countries or will be forced by political policies in their host countries to uproot themselves and return to the Philippines.
It’s sad that the so-called modern Philippine heroes have been used as fodder in election campaigns since Ferdinand Marcos was kicked out of power. The presidents who came after him, Mr. Duterte included, have promised to implement economic programs that would encourage them to come home and get employment here that can sustain a comfortable life for their families.
Until that roadmap for the return of the OFWs is drawn and implemented, and not simply talked about, they may have to endure their absence from their families for a longer period.
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