The last straw that broke the camel’s back
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - February 14, 2018 - 12:00am

It was in 1974 when the late Labor Minister Blas Ople first implemented the overseas employment program during the martial law regime in our country. Ople launched the overseas employment program at a time when unemployment was rising and the world was in the grip of an oil crisis. Because of this, Ople was recognized as the “Father of Overseas Employment.”

Aside from having authored the Labor Code of the Philippines, Ople also created the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), and the Philippine labor attache corps (now called POLOs or Philippine Labor Officials) to carry out the overseas employment program.

The foreign exchange remittances of our overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) reach more than $20 billion yearly. For that, they are dubbed as “modern-day heroes” for keeping the Philippine economy afloat even amid the global crisis at times affecting our country.

Little did Ople perhaps knew then that our OFWs would become the chief booster of the engines of our country’s economic growth. As of today, there are at least eight million OFWs employed across the globe from domestic helpers (DH) to highly skilled workers.

The estimate does not include a sizeable number of our OFWs who are able to work abroad through illegal recruitment schemes that have caused many of the problems not only to their families but also giving headaches to our government.

Ople realized too late the social costs of deploying OFWs abroad, especially to countries with far different cultures and legal systems. So, when he later became a Senator, he worked with Congress to approve into law the Migrant Workers Act of 1995 that, among other things, mandated the national government to provide legal and other forms of assistance that will protect the rights and welfare of our OFWs abroad.

When he died on Dec. 14, 2003, Ople was then serving as Foreign Affairs Secretary still working for the benefits and protection of our OFWs spread across the world. He died of a heart attack onboard a commercial aircraft to join a presidential mission in Europe and the Middle East.

We have seen many cases of grief and sorrow among Filipino families when they suddenly find out their beloved breadwinners get injured or, worse, get killed while working far away abroad. Or, if our OFWs are not the victims of crimes and abuses, some of them commit crimes ranging from theft, illegal drugs trafficking to homicides and murders.

This is not to mention the social phenomenon of “broken homes” among the many OFW families as a result of prolonged separation of husbands and wives, fathers and mothers.

Like most Filipino workers who tried their luck abroad, 28-year-old Joanna Demafelis had her family’s welfare in mind when she left to work in Kuwait. She wanted to build a house for her family in Barangay Ferraris, Sara, Iloilo and send her youngest sibling to school. Joanna’s half-naked body was found inside a freezer in an abandoned apartment in Kuwait on Feb. 6.

On May 18, 2014, she left the country to work as a domestic helper in Kuwait. The victim had a three-year contract in Kuwait. Joanna used to work for a Lebanese employer and his Syrian wife. Her family assumed that her new contract was with the same employer.

But two months and with no communication with any member of her family, Criselda said they began to worry.

Joanna could not be contacted either through landline or mobile phone. Her Facebook account was apparently deactivated.

By February 2017, her sister Juliet went to the OWWA office in Manila to ask for help in looking for her sister. But it was only last week that Joanna’s frozen remains – which bore signs of physical abuse – were finally found.

Following the grisly murder of Joanna and the suicide of several others who were reportedly raped in Kuwait, President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the total ban of OFW deployment. More than 250,000 Filipinos work in Kuwait, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Informed there were about 2,229 OFWs stranded in Kuwait after they left their abusive employers, President Duterte offered last Friday to ship our countrymen who would like to leave that Arab country in the next 72 hours. Responding to the public appeals of the President, both Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific provided special flights to allow the repatriation of remaining distressed OFWs to fly out of Kuwait. 

The repatriated OFWs were each given initially P5,000 in financial assistance and another P20,000 for alternative livelihood.

Insisting that Filipinos are not slaves, President Duterte expressed yesterday his “personal outrage” over the latest death, that of Demafelis, and other similarly situated OFWs in Kuwait. As of this writing, the President was scheduled to personally meet yesterday at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport the latest batch of returning OFWs, mostly women, who were flown back by the Philippine government from Kuwait.

A very angry President Duterte likewise ordered Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) Secretary Silvestre Bello III to conduct a crackdown on illegal recruiters. “Not during my watch,” the President warned to send the strongest message to illegal recruiters that he would not allow them to continue with their nefarious trade, victimizing their fellow Filipinos being sent to such Middle East countries where slavery thrives.

The Chief Executive mobilized all concerned agencies including the Philippine National Police, National Bureau of Investigation, Philippine Coast Guard and the Bureau of Immigration, especially the components assigned at ports and airports, to be on the lookout for the illegal deployment of Filipinos for work abroad.

“It’s a continuing crime and we will have them arrested and detained without bail,” the President declared, citing that illegal recruitment is a non-bailable offense.

While she may not be a victim of illegal recruitment, the case of Joanna Demafelis was the proverbial last straw that broke the camel’s back.

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