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Sisyphus’ Lament

DotA and POEA as institutionalized rights violation

YOU COULD have been Team Rave, the video game athletes offloaded from their flight last April 3 and prevented from competing in a high-stakes international tournament. Any Filipino, particularly an overseas Filipino worker, can be arbitrarily offloaded. Yet only Sen. Bam Aquino, an avid gamer, protested and made it a (lamentably short-lived) national issue. Why?

Professional Defense of the Ancients players Ryo “ryOyr” Hasegawa, Mark “Cast” Pilar and Djardel “Chrissy” Mampusti were offloaded from a flight to Korea despite having flown there several times. They maintain a training base there because of its far better Internet infrastructure, and were supposed to compete in the qualifiers of a German DotA tournament from there. They tried to compete from a Manila Internet café but lost due to the poor connection. Further, they lost the chance to compete in tournaments in Bucharest and train for others, and they won $150,000 from the last DotA Asian Championships.

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Immigration officials offloaded them for not having OFW documents. This was clearly incorrect because they were competing on their own and were not employed. Still, the blatant violation of their right to travel would have been ignored as yet another inconvenience in the Philippines had Bam not spoken up. One wonders if there might be more widespread indignation had immigration officials instead offloaded members of the University of the Philippines College of Law team who taught themselves European human rights law and recently won a prestigious international debate competition in London.

The right to travel is a fundamental human right, but it remains supremely frustrating how Filipinos subconsciously refuse to frame it as such. We should be presumed free to travel unless it is shown that there is a compelling reason to restrict this fundamental right. Supreme Court doctrine is crystal-clear. The 1988 case Philippine Association of Service Exporters Inc. vs Drilon questioned an order by then Labor Secretary Franklin Drilon temporarily suspending the deployment of female domestic helpers, given numerous reports of maltreatment and abuse of such female OFWs. The high court upheld Drilon’s power to issue a temporary travel ban covering a limited category of OFWs but cautioned: “Had the ban been given universal applicability, then it would have been unreasonable and arbitrary.”

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The current POEA (Philippine Overseas Employment Administration) framework is precisely a universally applicable prohibition on OFWs from departing the Philippines unless they can present a useless piece of paper called an overseas employment certificate, purchased from the Philippine consulate of the country where they work. I have personally presented OECs to immigration and have been asked to present a foreign work ID anyway, since the OEC might be fake.

I know exactly how Team Rave feels because I was almost offloaded several years ago, when I first flew to London to join an international law firm. I had no idea what an OEC was because I received a job offer while studying in the United States and would have gone straight to England instead of returning home had I known about the POEA’s requirements. I narrowly avoided Team Rave’s fate by staring down the person checking my passport at the boarding gate and insisting I was a tourist, before he found the page with the UK work visa.

Numerous writers have captured the agony of not getting an OEC beforehand and having to spend at least half a day—with professionals such as doctors and architects who clearly do not need government protection—at inane queues at the POEA instead of spending precious time home with their loved ones, penitence repeated just last month during the long Easter holiday. The second commentary I wrote for the Inquirer, “Second-class citizens,” emphasized the blatant human rights violation and was intentionally published on New Year’s Day of 2012, right before OFWs would brave the long queues at POEA airport checks that might cause them to miss their flights back to work. Nothing has changed since, nor does anyone appear to think that there is a problem other than OFWs themselves.

The POEA has never responded to being called an institutionalized human rights violation, even though the accusation of unconstitutionality has been made for several years. It typically describes what is being done to make the silly drill of getting an OEC more convenient, which completely misses the point because a convenient human rights violation is still precisely a violation. Arguing that measures are needed to prevent Mary Jane Veloso stories do not justify blanket measures, even assuming they are effective. It would be unimaginable to require all Filipinos to obtain an articulateness certificate before exercising the right to free speech, or to obtain a sincerity certificate before exercising the right to religion, yet no one bats an eyelash at the mass violation of the right to travel at the world’s worst airport.

At UP painter Manny Garibay’s last law-themed exhibit at the UP Vargas Museum, he posited to me that it is meaningless to accuse a Filipino of violating law because law has become so malleable to us that we perceive the accusation as taking harmless liberties to smooth life along. It has far more bite to accuse Filipinos of blasphemy, as they still pause in fear of the divine. Until this mindset changes and we think in terms of rights, unfortunately, we, or at least our OFWs, will continue to travel under the shadow of blanket restrictions that blatantly violate our Constitution wholesale and immigration officials who have very great discretion to offload.

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React on Twitter (@oscarfbtan) and facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan.

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TAGS: DotA, news, POEA, Team Rave, Technology, video game
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