Saturday, February 20, 2010

From distress to rage:

Serving migrants and the motherland

By: Migrante International

“They come like an endless stream of water.”

This is how Garry Martinez, Migrante International chairperson, describes the sheer number of migrant workers and their families who troop to the office daily, seeking help. He is proud of the fact that they have never turned anyone away, despite limited resources.

The Migrants’ Assistance Center (MAC) of Migrante, the largest and most militant alliance of OFWs worldwide, handles more than one thousand cases concerning the rights and welfare of migrants each year. These range from cases of illegal recruitment and labor contract violations, to cases of human rights violations involving stranded and detained OFWs, mysterious deaths of OFWs, and rape and sex trafficking of Filipino women.

When Martinez was a new member of the MAC, he knew that there were cases of migrants’ rights violations as he was an “undocumented” OFW himself but he still was unprepared for the gravity of the cases Migrante was handling. It was through these cases that his commitment to work for migrants’ concerns deepened.

‘We may not be earning dollars…’

Like many first-time OFWs, Martinez was also an unknowing victim of illegal recruitment. Hailing from a family of landless farmers in the province of Rizal, he went abroad in 1988 with nary an idea of his rights. Thus, he arrived as an undocumented worker in South Korea and was sold by his recruiter. Martinez was forced to work for 14 hours a day for a textile factory in a cramped and poorly lit basement, with unpaid salaries for up to six months. It was only two years after that he was able to escape his employer, and since then held various jobs as janitor, window cleaner, and garments and furniture factory worker.

It was in 1992 that Martinez first found himself thrust into the limelight as a migrant rights advocate. A fellow garment worker, Lorena Baxa, accidentally burnt herself when the heater exploded. Martinez was among those who rushed her to the hospital, but she was refused admission. The issue inflamed the Filipino community, and Martinez acted as their spokesperson. Since then, “my house was practically turned into an embassy, with 10 to 20 OFWs arriving each day to seek help,” he said. Also president of the Filipino Catholic Community, OFWs would also approach him after mass to tell of their problems.

In 2004, when OFW Angelo dela Cruz was taken hostage in Iraq, Martinez decided to dedicate himself to full-time work at Migrante International back home. In 2008, he was elected as its chairperson. “It is challenging, because I only finished high school, so I initially felt as if I was not equipped with the skills for such a position. But then I realized that my biggest advantage was that I was a migrant worker for such a long time. And nobody can understand an OFW in distress better than one who knew how it was like to be one,” he said.

Gina Esguerra, current Migrante secretary-general and MAC coordinator, also used to be a domestic helper in Hong Kong. In 2003, she returned to the country, after several years of being an organizer for Association of Concerned Filipinos in Hong Kong (ACFIL-HK), one of Migrante’s 136 chapters abroad. Having been treated well by her employer, she doesn’t own a sob story but she has seen how many Filipina domestic workers were being treated unjustly and cruelly and heard their stories through her work in ACFIL “It is difficult to work abroad and become someone else’s slave,” she said.

And so she exchanged the typical OFW’s dream of saving up enough money to build a house for her family, with the more egalitarian dream of building a better society wherein Filipinos wouldn’t have to be torn apart from their families just to have a decent life. “Though we can hardly pay our bills from the little allowance we get from our volunteer work in Migrante, the work is very rewarding,” she mused. “While we may not be earning dollars for our families, at least we are serving OFWs and our country.”

Handling numerous cases

Last year, the MAC handled a total of 1,293 cases. Of these, 413 were brought in by OFWs or relatives of OFWs who heard about Migrante from the radio or byword of mouth from other OFWs who have been helped the organization. The rest were referred by their chapters abroad, mostly from the Middle East.

Esguerra explains that the alliance serves by assisting OFWs in distress or their relatives in asserting their rights and demanding attention from government agencies- including embassies abroad, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) and the Overseas Workers Welfare Authority (OWWA) which normally and deliberately ignore their pleas for help. The concerned Migrante chapter abroad calls the attention or engages with the Philippine embassy and the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO).

John Leonard Monterona, Migrante-Middle East coordinator, tells of a case in 2008 where an OFW (name withheld) was allegedly raped by her male employer, ran away, and then sought refuge in the Philippine embassy in Riyadh. However, her plea for assistance in filing an appropriate case against her employer was not heeded by the embassy. With permission from the victim and her family, the group issued a statement about her case and exposed the neglect committed by government officials. “The following day, the statement landed in national dailies in the Philippines, as well as in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East,” he said. “It was only then that the embassy paid attention to the case.”

Instances wherein Migrante, instead of the government, takes the lead in assisting OFWs and publicizing their cases are becoming more frequent. Migrante-Middle East alone handles three to five cases daily, mostly of those who ran away from their employers because of abusive conditions. “They or their relative will call me up even in the wee hours of the morning,” Monterona said. Recently, it was the group who provided food and other basic supplies, even toothpaste, to the 43 caregivers of the Annasban Company in Riyadh who in January conducted a strike to protest various labor contract violations—while pressing the POLO and OWWA to work for their immediate repatriation.

Meanwhile, back home, Migrante urges OFWs to file appropriate charges against their recruitment agencies. Last year, the group assisted in the filing of 109 cases with the POEA and 259 cases with the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC). Migrante’s MAC staffers personally accompany the victims in hearings and refer them to lawyers. Sometimes, the victims win their case; sometimes they lose.

But it is most painful, said Esguerra, when a victim decides to settle a strong legal case for a paltry amount that government arbiters usually offer. Such was the case of Mylene Mandas, a domestic helper in Kuwait, who arrived at the office in May 2004 with ears bloated like cauliflower and arms burnt from the use of household chemicals. “Her employer regularly beat her and cut her hair every time she was allowed to eat. Her hair used to be long, but when we saw her it was cropped like that of a boy’s,” Esguerra recalled. “I accompanied her to government agencies. But in the end, she settled her case for a measly P4,000 because she could not afford the cost it took to go through with the long and tedious process of seeking justice in this country. Eventually, she applied again for work abroad.”

She, however, doesn’t blame those like Mandas, who are after all, only victims of the vicious cycle of forced migration fostered by the lack of real livelihood opportunities in the country. The government’s aggressive labor export program is no solution, at all, to its deepening bankruptcy and the economic crisis. This is the reason why Migrante does not stop with merely assisting OFWs in distress, but tries to address the root of the myriad problems of migration.

Confrontations and consciousness-raising

It has a comprehensive education program that informs departing workers of their rights. Migrante finds the government’s Pre-Departure Orientation Seminar wanting. “Many workers leave the country unaware that their rights have already been violated in the recruitment process, and are even less oriented on what they can do or where they can go to when they encounter trouble,” said Esguerra.

The group also holds regular discussions with OFWs on the situation of Filipino migrant workers, and critiques the government’s labor export program. This critique—that the program is geared towards milking migrants’ hard-income income through various exactions, and that the government is unable to protect migrants’ rights because of their sheer number and its concern over maintaining good relations with countries opening up their labor markets—was borne out of the experiences of OFWs that it had served.

“In reality, to thousands of OFWs, working abroad is not a personal decision but one forced upon Filipinos,” said Martinez. “Many OFWs realize that they are victims of an unjust system. This realization stirs their soul. They become more politically conscious, and start to question many things that they used to merely accept.”

Being advocates necessarily leads to dealing with, and often becoming confrontational with, government officials that show ineptness or neglect. Martinez, for instance, figured in prominent word wars with DFA and DOLE officials when these officials refuse to provide assistance, or are caught lying through their teeth or dilly dally even when there is an urgent situation such as rescuing an OFW in distress.

The three Migrante leaders all said that sympathy for OFWs goes hand-in-hand with anger, even rage, at the entire system that wrenches Filipinos away from their homes and into lives characterized by “dirty, demeaning, and dangerous” jobs abroad. “Keeping quiet means turning your back on your fellow Filipinos,” said Martinez. Monterona, meanwhile, said that he continues to spend all his free time away from his job in Saudi Arabia for assisting migrants.

Thus, the organization combines its services with the parliament of the streets. “Those who come to us learn that, under the current administration, they need to bang at the gates and shout their just demands, they need to get the help of the media in order for the government to pay even just a little attention to their cases,” Martinez further explained. “OFWs learn to assert and assert their rights. Many of those we have worked with say joining these actions have empowered them and given them back their dignity. In fact, on March 17, on the death anniversary of Flor Contemplacion, Migrante shall march once again to Mendiola together with a growing number of victims and their relatives who cannot wait to end President Arroyo’s term to end. ”

For Esguerra, fulfillment comes after a victory over a certain case, or when a victim becomes an advocate or a volunteer as well. “We maintain good relations with those whom we have helped. Sometimes, they would drop by our office with pasalubong. Then there are the victims who decide to work for Migrante as well, or become activists elsewhere in the wider movement for social change of which we are part,” she shared.

With the rising number of Filipinos leaving daily for work in foreign shores, it seems that distressed OFWs will continue to stream like water in and out of Migrante’s offices here and abroad. Their resources are a pittance compared to that of the government’s, and yet they have something far greater, and that is genuine concern and love for migrants and the motherland.

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