Don’t let them come home in a box

For once it seemed that the foreign secretary got things right when he noted the catch-22 situation in which overseas Filipino workers are trapped. “We will get out everyone who wants to get out and return to poverty in the Philippines to stare at their starving loved ones while bullshetters talk about the most dynamic economy in Southeast Asia,” Teddyboy Locsin said on Twitter on Sunday in the course of announcing that the Department of Foreign Affairs was prepared to get Filipinos out of harm’s way in the badlands of Baghdad.Following the lead of President Duterte who claimed a certain nervousness regarding the condition of OFWs in the aftermath of the American drone strike last week on Iran’s Qassem Soleimani, government officials are making noises about getting the modern-day heroes out of the Middle East. Mr. Duterte has sought a “standby fund” for repatriation and said he wanted all Philippine military ships and planes to be used for the purpose.

The administration’s stance looks good on its face—an attempt at assurance that contingency measures are in place, to be implemented if and when. You’d think all those Filipino families made doubly anxious about the safety of their loved ones in the tinderbox at which Donald Trump had flung a stick of dynamite—as Joe Biden so aptly put it—have no cause for worry. But there’s the daunting task of rounding up the OFWs (or at least those who want to be found), herding them into creaky military planes and ships—and taking them home to an unpromising, downright gloomy, future.


This is the context of Locsin’s tweet, with the unmistakable hint of contempt that the classist in him constantly employs, and in which he also twits those singing praises to a supposedly burgeoning economy that, to the toiling majority, is nourishing an entirely different planet.

But the administration’s figures aren’t even surefire. In Iraq alone, the DFA pegs the number of OFWs at 1,640, including 450 undocumented mostly domestic workers. Yet according to recruitment and migration expert Emmanuel Geslani, the undocumented domestics in Iraq are more than twice that official number. And in fact, Geslani says, the DFA has been basing its count only on the OFWs who pass through the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration as rehires of the bases and international organizations in Baghdad. The POEA has no record of any new deployment to Iraq since 2014, he says, adding that the estimate “for undocumented [workers] is merely a guess.”


Geslani issued his statement on Jan. 5. There is yet no report of any official tweet calling him a lying SOB.

At any rate, the administration has now raised alert level 4, or mandatory evacuation, in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon. But there is the stark problem of Filipinos refusing to be repatriated despite clear and present danger to life and limb in their places of work. The prevailing sentiment is apparently this: Better to embrace the manifold perils of employment overseas, even in a failed state like Iraq, than to clutch the knife’s edge of impoverishment in the motherland. And if push comes to shove, “Relocation, not repatriation” is the battle cry.

This country’s Marcos-era policy of labor export has become as entrenched as the absence of livelihood opportunities for its citizens.

The administration’s exertions over the repatriation of OFWs are part of the global tumult resulting from the Trump-ordered assassination of Soleimani. But there is as well the terrible crime committed on yet another OFW in Kuwait, which in 2018 signed an agreement with the Philippines to uphold and protect the rights of Filipinos employed there. Neither the President nor his foreign secretary has been heard swearing at the Kuwaiti government to express the Philippines’ “outrage,” no matter that the manner of Jeanelyn Villavende’s death is astonishingly brutal: Autopsy results were said to have showed that her heart and lungs gave out as a result of the beatings inflicted on her: Bumigay ang puso at baga…

A ban has since been imposed on deployment of Filipino workers to Kuwait, but those issued employment certificates as domestics before the cutoff date of Jan. 3 will still be allowed to fly out. Dismayed, the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines has called for a total ban, pointing out that in the last four years, some 200 Filipino domestics have died in Kuwait under suspicious and yet unresolved circumstances.

And at the airport in the early days of 2020, throngs of Filipinos waited to board their flights away from family and country. A number were new travelers: It showed in their new shoes, new suitcases, documents in clear plastic folders. As always there were tears, spilling so profusely that the observer had to look away.

Don’t let them come home to their children in a box.



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