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Commentary

Second-class citizens

/ 09:13 PM December 31, 2011

THIS Christmas season, thousands of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) will have had their constitutional rights violated at the world’s worst airport.

I met Marc one Sunday evening at NAIA 1. He skipped dinner with his family, not wanting to risk a long Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) desk queue and miss the 10 p.m. flight back to Singapore. An elite Ateneo Management Engineering graduate now in a global investment bank, he is one of thousands of young professionals in Singapore and Hong Kong juggling priceless short trips home with an international career. He is one of thousands of young professionals resigned to sacrificing brief moments with their families for inane POEA queues.

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After my first Christmas home, I found myself begging a POEA officer to issue my clearance because my plane was taking off in 30 minutes. Without looking up, he sternly ordered me to return to the queue and wait. I boarded only after staring down the guard at immigration, claiming to be a tourist.

It is an open secret that the POEA was formed by torturers left jobless by Edsa. In Singapore, I must travel during office hours to our embassy, not the most accessible of places, to purchase an Overseas Employment Certificate (OEC). My papers are never checked and I routinely write conflicting information in the forms. (I will try “drug mule” on my next OEC). I must then have the OEC certified at NAIA’s POEA desk because it might be fake.

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Being the world’s worst airport, NAIA 1 requires Filipinos to queue outside to enter; foreigners have heralds who shout “Business class, business class!” and ask Filipinos, guards included, to make way. Because the POEA desk is brilliantly located outside the departure area, one better be early to first queue at the POEA desk then queue to enter NAIA 1 before one’s check-in counter closes. One may be forced to queue to enter, queue to check in, exit NAIA 1 to queue at the POEA desk, then queue yet again to reenter. Especially if a 747-load of travelers to Los Angeles intervenes, one can readily miss one’s flight and get fired.

The best part is check in, and immigration officers ask to see my Singapore employment pass anyway. Shown my hard-won OEC, they explain that it and the POEA certification may be fake.

Amid such silliness, picture OFWs clutching thick envelopes of documents and their last shreds of dignity as they make obeisance to the POEA. Picture a Filipino professional, trying to be taken seriously in an international team, forced to beg one’s colleagues to leave early for the airport because his OEC might be declared fake.

And this is just NAIA; imagine the hell that is the main POEA office that Stella Gonzales visited. (NB: The ultra-efficient Joseph Jose is the sole smiling POEA officer who never berated me for not printing my itinerary or not arriving three hours before my flight. Be sure to queue for the long-haired Malaysian rock star lookalike.) Ironically, an OFW may escape becoming a second-class citizen in one’s own airport by giving up his citizenship.

My parents walked to Edsa for our Constitution’s trivialized sentence: “Neither shall the right to travel be impaired except in the interest of national security, public safety, or public health, as may be provided by law.” The Supreme Court reiterates that the right to travel is a fundamental human right, and one recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The ruling Silverio v. CA emphasizes that the explicit list of exceptions “national security, public safety, or public health” is “a reaction to the ban on international travel imposed under [Marcos] when there was a Travel Processing Center.”

Phil. Ass’n of Service Exporters v. Drilon, in upholding a selective ban on female OFW deployment to specified countries, categorically stated: “Had the ban been given universal applicability, then it would have been unreasonable and arbitrary.” Thus, the POEA’s blanket curtailment of the right to travel is blatantly unconstitutional. So disenfranchised are OFWs that the right to travel only received attention when Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her neck brace tried to invoke it; balls and chains on every single OFW have long gone ignored.

There are undeniably difficult policy issues. Our Singapore consuls regularly work miracles for desperate Filipinos with an unbound knack for getting duped, down to sobbing detainees in Changi Women’s Prison who were promised waitress jobs. The Singapore embassy ministers to an OFW population three times the size its staff can theoretically support. Nevertheless, convoluted, inutile procedures imposed on everyone are an unconstitutional placebo, not a solution.

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Singapore’s OFW profile is evolving; even the CEOs of the Bank of Singapore and Credit Suisse are OFWs. The growing majority are now professionals who do not need or want the POEA’s so-called protection. OFWs remain treated as the perfect docile cash cows, voiceless in government as fee upon inane fee and procedure upon inane procedure are heaped upon us. It is not an option but a constitutional imperative to find a rational way to protect those who need protection while respecting the general population’s right to travel.

I have already accepted the burdens of proudly being a citizen of our screwed up country. But is it too much to ask that the POEA leave reunited families to have dinner in peace? The constitutional right to travel was intentionally strengthened after the Marcos-era abuse; is it too much to ask that it not be violated, in the cruelest of ironies, at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport?

Is it too much to uphold our right to be free from the POEA?

Oscar Franklin Tan was chair of the Philippine Law Journal in 2005 and student speaker at his 2007 Harvard Law School graduation. He twice won the Cortes Prize in Constitutional Law at the UP College of Law. He has worked as a corporate lawyer in London and Singapore and is an associate of Jones Day, one of the world’s largest law firms.

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TAGS: Christmas, employees, New Year, Overseas Filipino Workers, work
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