Why do only 3% of 8 million OFWs vote?
SINGAPORE—Days after the absentee voting for overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) began, I stood in a Singapore Chinatown bar, in a large, impromptu reunion of young Ateneo alumni. I asked why OFWs should vote. Those around me spontaneously cursed the long lines that form each Christmas at airport counters for OFW permits called overseas employment certificates (OECs).
There are about eight million OFWs, 1.38 million (17 percent) of whom are registered to vote next month. But only around 220,000 (less than 3 percent) will actually vote, assuming the 16 percent turnout in 2013.
Eight million is astoundingly large. Eight million is almost 10 percent of the population, not to mention the almost 10 percent of our gross domestic product from OFW remittances. Eight million is several congressional districts, more than double Cebu’s population, and more than triple the Iglesia ni Cristo’s (INC).
Eight million can elect a senator—the 12th senator elected in 2013 received 13.2 million votes. And there are millions more of OFWs’ parents, siblings and children.
Several painfully obvious OFW issues would not be issues if more than 3 percent of OFWs actually vote.
The most obvious is, of course, the institutionalized human rights violation called OEC. Any OFW on vacation in the Philippines may be physically stopped from leaving unless he holds an idiotic scrap of paper called OEC.
Last November, I wrote how an OFW manager in a multinational flew to Boracay. He was stopped from boarding his return flight and forced to buy new tickets to Manila to get an OEC (“OFW pays P26,000 to fly back to Singapore,” Opinion, 11/16/15).
Our Constitution enshrines a right to travel. An OEC requirement that prevents eight million Filipinos from traveling freely can only be an institutionalized human rights violation and, in the Boracay example, state-sponsored kidnapping. A blanket restriction on eight million Filipinos is legally indefensible.
On top of the human rights violation, OFWs risk missing flights or skip a last family dinner to queue for OECs at airports. OFWs based in Hong Kong and Singapore on Manila business trips look stupid in front of foreign colleagues—last week, I met the OFW CEO of a top Singapore company securing travel papers at our airport!
And if an OFW stays in the Philippines for more than five days without getting an OEC beforehand, he must queue at that reenactment of a martial law torture center called the POEA (Philippine Overseas Employment Administration) main office. Travel restrictions on OFWs are in fact a vestige of martial law travel restrictions.
Why is it more convenient for even the most patriotic OFW to travel to the Philippines with a foreign passport? Of course, a human rights violation is still a violation even if made convenient.
Would our government create a Cebu Overseas Employment Administration that prevents anyone from leaving Cebu without a Cebu employment certificate? Or an Iglesia Overseas Employment Administration that prevents any INC member from traveling without an Iglesia employment certificate? This is as absurd and unconstitutional as it sounds, yet there is such a law for the eight million OFWs.
Beyond OECs, consider last September’s “laglag-bala” (bullet-planting) scare. Gloria Ortinez, a domestic helper in Hong Kong for over 26 years, almost lost her job when she was prosecuted over a planted bullet. The bullet presented to prosecutors was obviously different from the one allegedly found in her bag.
Even international media publicized how travelers began wrapping their bags in plastic in paranoia. But again, if an alleged airport syndicate targeted Cebuanos or Iglesia members, would our government dare to dismiss their fears as exaggerated?
On still another airport issue, OFWs are legally exempt from terminal fees, but are forced to pay anyway. They must queue yet again for a terminal fee refund, which they skip so as not to miss their flight.
Even the OFWs’ very right to vote is not sacrosanct. In 2003, the law providing for overseas absentee voting was legally challenged, even though this is required in our Constitution itself. Senate President Franklin Drilon was a key supporter of this law and, 13 years later, is still calling for online and mail voting to make OFWs’ right to vote real.
Even the legal terminology is insulting. To vote, OFWs who secure more stable permanent residence instead of employment contracts must declare themselves as “immigrants.” Consuls in nearby cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore know that the context of such permanent residents is completely different from that of US green card holders, and smile knowingly when OFWs curse when they are labeled immigrants.
And beyond these OFW issues, it could only elevate governance if OFWs finally flex their political muscles. OFWs have seen political accountability in the United States and Canada, and amazing infrastructure and education in Dubai and Singapore. One day, they may demand these of Philippine leaders.
Beyond voting, it would enrich our society if OFWs’ experiences intertwined with national discourse. We cheer the achievements of Manny Pacquiao, Pia Wurtzbach and anyone 1/64 Filipino abroad. But when an OFW laments how the trains run in Tokyo, how one can choose bicycle over car in Amsterdam, or how professionally challenging New York is, he is dismissed as mayabang (arrogant).
OFWs face more common political issues than they think despite being scattered over dozens of very different countries. They follow events back home closely, from livestreams of presidential debates to Instagram photos of Manila traffic at midnight. However, all this is meaningless until they transform a fragmented 220,000 votes into a conscious eight million, backed by millions more relatives back home.
And it is not too late for candidates to promise to scrap OECs.
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