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Sisyphus’ Lament

OFW pays P26,000 to fly back to Singapore

/ 12:09 AM November 16, 2015

SINGAPORE—Overseas Filipino workers celebrating a birthday in Boracay were stopped from flying from Kalibo to Singapore. They were forced to buy new tickets to Manila to pick up small pieces of paper from a government desk there. Until we recognize these as institutionalized human rights violations instead of mere inconvenience, these will continue as they have for years.

Mere days ago, the Wall Street Journal bannered how provincial airports’ development will allow more direct international flights. In May 2014, Singapore Airlines added direct flights to Kalibo to its existing routes to Manila, Cebu and Davao.

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Alvin Miranda, a University of the Philippines alumnus and Singapore-based marketing manager, and his friend Jappy took this flight to Kalibo. They celebrated Jappy’s birthday with a happy four-day weekend on Philippine soil.

When they returned to the airport, they were stopped because they had no overseas employment certificates (OECs) from the Singapore Embassy. These are tiny pieces of paper required solely by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) rules to prove that one is a bona fide OFW. They are useless because immigration officers always check one’s foreign ID anyway—the same ID presented to get OECs.

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There was no POEA desk in Kalibo. Miranda made frantic calls to POEA officers in Iloilo then Manila. Someone asked them to postpone their flight by two days to get OECs at the POEA office in Manila. They missed their flight. They scrambled to buy new tickets to Manila then Singapore, just to get OECs at the Manila airport.

Miranda’s Facebook post ended: “We got back in our Singapore apartment around 3:15 am. More than 8 hours after our original arrival time, unnecessarily braving Manila traffic from Terminal 4 to Terminal 1, taxi extortion, long immigration lines, seeing fellow passengers desperately ensuring no bullets are planted in their luggage, forfeited non refundable, non rebookable Kalibo-Singapore SQ tickets, and 26,000 pesos poorer.” (Singapore Airlines refunded their return flight with no questions asked.)

Only GMA News Online ran the story. It interviewed POEA chief Hans Leo Cacdac. He merely offered to teach Miranda how to use the allegedly convenient online OEC system, implying it was his fault for not using this before his brief glimpse of home.

Is this unconcerned incompetence or outright insanity? It is worse.

Miranda’s ordeal is nothing short of state-sponsored kidnapping. Against his will and at his expense, he was forced to travel to Manila instead of Singapore from Kalibo. There was no compelling reason for this. He was never suspected of being an illegal worker, nor was there even any check with his prominent multinational employer or our Singapore Embassy.

The POEA would not dare prohibit Miranda from making a speech about the elections or saying a prayer. His effective kidnapping, however, elicited only an irrelevant speech regarding convenience in the face of Section 6 of our Constitution’s Bill of Rights: “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 objection becomes radically different when phrased as institutionalized human rights violations, beyond mere inconvenience. If the POEA cannot stop Miranda from making a speech or prayer no matter how politely, it cannot potentially detain every single OFW, even if its system were convenient. Indeed, OECs recall martial law-era travel clearances.

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An OFW travel ban ordered by then Labor Secretary Franklin Drilon was upheld by our Supreme Court in the 1988 Philippine Association of Service Exporters decision because it was a temporary ban on deploying female domestic workers to certain countries. The Court distinguished: “Had the ban been given universal applicability, then it would have been unreasonable and arbitrary.” OECs are precisely the universal, unreasonable and arbitrary restraint on every single OFW’s right to travel the Court prohibits.

OECs are abominable, further, because they blatantly discriminate against OFWs. Had Alvin and Jappy been foreigners, they could not have been kidnapped by the POEA. What can be more legally repulsive than giving foreigners more liberty to travel than OFWs?

In human rights jargon, the 2009 Serrano decision ruled that any system that discriminates against OFWs creates a “suspect class.” This means the system is presumed to be an unconstitutional violation of the right to equal protection. It must be justified under the same strict standards for racial or religious persecution, which are almost always legally impossible to justify.

OFWs have yet to confront the POEA with the language of state-sponsored kidnapping and institutionalized human rights violations, beyond mere inconvenience. They are so economically significant but politically disorganized that it takes a Senate investigation, our public defenders and international ridicule to defend the right to travel from “tanim bala.”

I have outlined the blanket violation of the fundamental right to travel since Jan. 1, 2012 (“Second class citizens”), as I myself braved post-Christmas POEA queues. Countless authors have documented days of agonized queuing at the POEA office during the holidays. Nevertheless, the POEA feels no shame in being labeled an institutionalized human rights violator.

The Senate or Commission on Human Rights must force the POEA to give the compelling justification required by the Serrano case for its institutionalized blanket violation of the right to travel. Or it must answer to our courts.

Again, rights go beyond mere inconvenience.

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React: oscarfranklin.tan@yahoo.com.ph, Twitter @oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan.

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