Passion For Reason

Tightened rules on OFW domestic labor

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On Thursday last week in Kuala Lumpur, I opened the newspaper and, lo and behold, saw the banner of Malaysia’s Star (“The people’s paper”): “Bye, Bye, Filipinas.” The report opens thus: “With the Philippine Government’s plan to phase out the sending of citizens overseas to work [as domestic helpers], it’s as good as saying goodbye to Filipina maids.”

In the inside pages, the focus of the accompanying articles was on how the tightened supply of domestic helpers would affect local lifestyles. The captions read: “Harder to get Filipina maids” and “Learn to live without foreign maids, people told.” Significantly, the paper said that “it will look bad for Malaysia if [the] Philippines becomes the third country to ban its maids from working in [Malaysia].” Cambodia has issued a formal ban, while new entrants from Indonesia have been reduced to a trickle. Just like the Philippines, they were concerned about the treatment of domestic workers in Malaysia.

The number of overseas Filipino workers in Malaysia has increased from 4,000 in 2009 to 10,000 at present. Significantly, the wages of Filipino maids were almost twice that of Indonesians: a monthly average of RM1,240 (or $400) for Filipinos and RM700 (or $226) for Indonesians. The up-front cost of hiring a Filipino maid is also much higher: RM9,000, as opposed to RM4,511 for an Indonesian maid.

Our labor attaché in Malaysia, Dr. Alicia Santos, was quoted as saying that we are now “stricter [in order] to ensure that [recruitment] agencies abide by all requirements,” referring to the problem of nonpayment of wages and ill treatment. She even mentioned the prospect of a total moratorium on the deployment of maids.

Apparently, this is part of a tightening of OFW deployment to 180 countries by the end of 2012, in order to counter the abuse of domestic workers. But our Kuala Lumpur embassy has cited an additional reason, namely, our “improved economy and the availability of quality jobs at home.” The Philippines prefers to send mainly skilled and semiskilled workers abroad.

It is one thing to be in Manila and read the news: “RP competitiveness up.” It feels different reading about our newfound economic spunk while in a foreign capital, and seeing it through foreign eyes.

In all candor, had I read about the phaseout of OFW deployment through official statements in Manila, I wouldn’t have believed it. I would’ve seen it as mere PR fluff. After all, we are an optimistic people who don’t draw bright-line distinctions between plans and hopes. My attitude is more like: Very nice, but who knows? Maybe in five years life would be so good for ordinary Pinoys that we can stay put in the homeland and still earn a living wage.

But reading about the tightening of OFW deployment while in a host country, the message I get is: This time, we mean business. If the local Malaysian recruiters of OFWs are worried about losing their accreditation because they had not kept their end of the deal, then our labor authorities indeed are serious about protecting our migrant workers. If the demand-side starts getting antsy that the supply-side is getting feisty, that’s even better.

The first lesson we learn here is that political will matters. And that holds true not just for the Philippines but for Indonesia and Cambodia as well. Governments have the diplomatic prerogative to protect their nationals abroad, but they must care more about their people and less about getting along well with foreign governments. Indeed, in Indonesia’s case, the cost of recruitment was fixed in a formal agreement signed by the KL and Jakarta governments. Because the problem of OFW abuses cuts across national boundaries, government action is indispensable.

The second is that it does help that our economy is picking up. Whereas before, our attitude was “beggars can’t be choosers,” now the stance is “first, let’s do this right.” Perhaps the beggars-can’t-be-choosers attitude was understandable before when we truly were the “sick man of Asia,” and we were not in any position to bargain at all. With the signs of an economic upturn now widely recognized, we are better positioned to protect our most vulnerable brothers and sisters.

Indeed, the best proactive measure to prevent OFW abuses is to create more jobs domestically. Then we can be picky about our OFW destinations and can direct the exodus to more enlightened host countries that respect their workers’ human rights. That won’t happen overnight but it’s good to know we’re moving in that direction.

Finally, one surprising lesson is that solidarity works. For Malaysia, the states of origin of its domestic workers are typically Indonesia, Cambodia and the Philippines. If the states of origin band together, they can negotiate more effectively. Conversely, the host state can even play them against one another. Admittedly, in this case, the states of origin were not acting in solidarity but were merely reacting defensively against mounting complaints. But just imagine if they had realized what bargaining leverage solidarity can bring! When the host society has organized its day-to-day life around the availability of cheap domestic help, it is actually hostage to the states that supply that cheap labor. It turns out that we, the states of origin, are not as helpless as we thought.

I am sure the experts have more precise ways of telling if our economy is doing better, but the voluntary tapering off of the OFW exodus is surely the most dramatic and the most heartfelt. The goal is to find greener pastures without having to leave the warmth of family. It is reason to rejoice when Filipinos, given the option to leave, choose to live at home.

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