OFWs lose a champion
CERTAINLY coming as a shock is the news about the passing of former presidential candidate and OFW Family party-list Rep. Roy Señeres. Señeres, who had announced his withdrawal from the presidential race just a few days ago, died of cardiac arrest yesterday. His son, Roy Jr., said the former ambassador and member of Congress died of cardiac arrest “triggered by complication brought about by his long bout with diabetes.”
The younger Señeres said his father had been confined in hospital on Sunday night after experiencing difficulty in breathing and then suffered two cardiac arrests early Monday morning before suffering a third episode that resulted in his death.
In what now strikes many as a supreme irony, Señeres’ withdrawal of his candidacy, which was submitted to the Commission on Elections by his campaign staff, was contingent upon his personal appearance before the poll body. I guess his withdrawal is now a done deal.
Señeres himself explained that he was foregoing his presidential run on orders of his doctor, with his family agreeing that his failing health would not allow him to stand “the rigors of a campaign.”
Still youthful at 68 years old, the late ambassador had made the welfare of overseas workers his lifelong mission.
A long-time staffer of the Department of Labor and Employment, he accepted his appointment by then President Fidel V. Ramos as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates in 1994. It was during his stint in the UAE that he received public attention as one of the government’s point-persons in the cases of overseas Filipino workers Sarah Balabagan (she had been sentenced to death for stabbing her employer who had attempted to rape her), John Aquino and Wahida Malaydin. The death sentences on all three were later commuted, and much later the three were pardoned and were able to come home.
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IT was this experience, gained from negotiating the release of OFWs imprisoned or sentenced to death in the Middle East, that led Señeres to found the “OFW Family Club” to assist and counsel overseas workers and their families. Later, the OFW Family Club would transform into a party-list organization, with Señeres sitting as representative in Congress.
Last year, Señeres threw his hat into the political arena by running for president under the Partido ng Manggagawa at Magsasaka (the workers’ and farmers’ party).
Certainly, OFWs and their families and supporters have lost a voice and a strong advocate with the passing of Señeres. Despite proclamations by political leaders that overseas workers are the country’s “new heroes,” OFWs continue to face persecution, discrimination and exploitation abroad and, even worse, here at home. Incidents such as the “tanim-bala” (bullet-planting) scam perpetrated mainly against departing OFWs, the onerous fees and taxes levied on workers, indifferent officials who fail to respond to complaints of OFWs especially abused domestics, and the failure of diplomatic offices to quickly respond to the aid of workers arrested and imprisoned on mere suspicion of criminal activity—all these point to the failure of the government machinery to properly respond to the OFWs’ needs, and an attitude of indifference, if not exploitation, against them.
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OFWs have long been believed to present a potent voting block, what with their growing numbers, along with their families here and abroad, as well as all those who used to work in foreign shores or who are still hoping to be deployed abroad.
But for some reason, they have failed, as a sector, to exert the proper political pressure to win greater protection and privileges for themselves. True, there are small, almost token gestures to recognize them, such as annual awards handed out by both private and public bodies, as well as “welcome gifts” of cash and goodies upon their arrival, usually given out during the Christmas season.
And yet despite their vaunted strength as a sector—most evident in social media—OFWs continue to be viewed as sources of illegitimate income (the “tanim-bala” scam) or taxation.
Recall the plan of the Bureau of Customs to subject balikbayan boxes—those iconic containers of goodies from abroad most commonly used by OFWs to express their continuing love for the folks back home—to random checks, and to additional taxes if they’re found to contain items deemed of commercial quantity.
It took the concerted campaign of OFWs, with their funny photos of boxes with the goodies being sent taped to the outside to deter further inspection, for instance, to make Customs change its mind. Señeres as an OFW sectoral representative, was instrumental in calling the attention of Customs to this new aggravation.
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THE outcry raised against the random physical checks of balikbayan boxes is another indication of the lack of trust of ordinary citizens, especially OFWs, in government personnel in general. It was feared that with their boxes being opened for inspection instead of being subjected to X-ray screening, OFWs and their recipients risked losing an item or two or more to shameless thieves in Customs.
It’s deplorable that the public should have this attitude, but it is borne of painful experience with government workers—from postal workers openly pilfering items in packages to airport inspectors mulcting thousands from hapless departing passengers.
This cavalier attitude is what Roy Señeres was fighting against, and his death should serve to remind everyone who says he or she believes in the OFWs’ cause that the work, the struggle continues.
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