Lifeblood of the nation

HIDDEN AGENDA - Mary Ann LL. Reyes (The Philippine Star) - November 22, 2020 - 12:00am

The only thing that is certain about the state of both our and the  global economy  is that there is going to be a lot of uncertainty in terms of the negative impact of the pandemic.

As if the pandemic wasn’t enough, our country was battered by numerous calamities this year. For many provinces dependent on agriculture, the typhoons provided the so-called final nail in the coffin.

Recovery efforts are not cheap. While still assisting those who lost their jobs and struggling businesses due to the pandemic, our government, especially the local government units, now have to scrape for what’s left to repair infrastructure and housing damaged by the recent typhoons.

Imagine the pressure on our government agencies, especially the Bureau of Internal Revenue, to meet collection targets.

The main centers of commerce, trade, and industry are lucky. Business activities in Metro Manila, Metro Cebu, and Metro Davao continue inspite of the pandemic. In Cebu City, while most businesses were affected, they managed to survive because it is the main trading post that connects the Cebu province to other Visayan cities, Luzon, and Mindanao.

As a result, BIR Revenue Region 13, which includes Cebu and Bohol, posted strong revenue collections even though Bohol is  still lagging behind.

Some business people, however,  are not happy. Recently, a group called Alliance of Chambers of Businessmen and Entrepreneurs have complained to the Office of the BIR Commissioner  that BIR officials of the region, led by the regional director,  have seriously wreaked economic havoc in Cebu and Bohol.

Their complaint, however, seems misplaced. According to BIR records, BIR Revenue Region 13 is performing quite well among the 20 BIR regions in terms of revenue collection. Their records show that Cebu and Bohol businessmen, along with other taxpayers, for the first time, were being made to pay the correct taxes and to comply with tax laws. They  were also made to pay arrears because of their violation and non-compliance with the law, including non-registration of business, non-issuance of receipts, maintaining two sets of book of accounts, among others. In fact, several warehouses and stores have been closed because of such violations.

Perhaps there are businesses that  do not agree with the manner by which the law is being enforced or the taxes are being collected, or maybe, they simply do not want to pay taxes now because of their current difficult situation.

But taxes, being the lifeblood of the nation – without which the government would be paralyzed, have to be collected. It is our civic duty to pay our taxes, the right amount at that, as our way of aiding our nation win the war against COVID-19, inspite of the situation we are in right now.

Nevertheless, the Office of the BIR Commissioner is looking into the issues raised by the complaining Cebu businessmen on alleged non-observance of due process, as well as illegal enforcement procedures and  their request to have the BIR official replaced.

End to kafala system

Abuses committed against our overseas workers in some Middle East countries have been linked to the so-called kafala system which continues to this day.

What is this kafala or sponsorship system?

This system defines the relationship between migrant workers and their local sponsor. It was used in the Gulf Cooperation countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as in Jordan and Lebanon. The state gives local individuals or companies sponsorship permits to employ foreign laborers.

One article (cfr.org) observed that “because the system falls under the jurisdiction of interior ministries rather than labor ministries, workers have no protection under the host country’s labor law, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. And because worker’s employment and residency visas are linked and only the sponsors can renew or terminate them, the system endows private citizens with control over workers’ legal statuses. In fact, in most situations, workers need their sponsor’s permission to transfer jobs, end employment, and enter or exit the host country.”

The word “kafala,” the article explained, traces back to Islamic jurisprudence on legal guardianship, with the system expanding in the 1950s as newly oil-rich Gulf countries sought foreign laborers to work on large-scale infrastructure projects. In time, however, the system has been abused, with employers going to the extent of confiscating passports, visas, and phones, confining domestic workers to their homes. Worse, workers were overworked and not paid, and even subjected to  physical harm and sexual abuse.

In 2009, Bahrain became the first country in the Gulf Cooperation Council to announce the abolition of its kafala system, with foreign workers no longer sponsored by employers, but by the Labor Authority.

The abuses were once again placed under the spotlight after Joanna Demafelis, a domestic helper in Kuwait, was found dead in early 2018, with her tortured body frozen at her employer’s apartment and kept for over a year.

Her death prompted outrage and resulted in President Duterte ordering a total deployment ban on Filipino workers to Kuwait, as well as a repatriation of migrant workers already in that country.

The Philippines, under then foreign affairs secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, and in partnership with Bahrain, started talking about putting a stop to the kafala system. The DFA provided the leadership that resulted in the international adoption of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration or GCM, the first-ever United Nations global agreement on a common approach to international migration in all its dimensions. It was officially adopted on Dec. 19, 2018 when Teddy Locsin Jr. was already the DFA chief.

Cayetano reaffirmed the Philippines’ commitment to the GCM, not only for the more than 10 million Filipinos living and working overseas, but also for migrants from other countries.

While some European countries refused to adopt it, it was a victory for the Philippines nonetheless because most Middle East countries decided to adopt the GCM and abolish the kafala system.

Other countries have started reforming their system. In 2018, an agreement was signed by Cayetano and Kuwait’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Shaikh Sabah Khalid Al Hamad Al Sabay, under which employers cannot keep the passports and other travel documents of Filipino workers, allowing them to use their phones, and transfer to another employer with the consent of the Filipino worker, or with the approval of the Philippine Overseas Labor Office.

Qatar also made amendments to its labor law to allow migrant workers to change jobs without the need to obtain their employer’s permission, and increase the minimum wage, effectively abolishing the kafala system in September this year.

The DFA, this time under Locsin, also partnered with the UAE on the pilot-testing of a program that aims to provide up-to-date information on rights and obligations of employers and workers, grant access to remedies for abuse, and establish standard working conditions particularly in domestic work and in the hospitality and retail service sectors.

Recently, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced that it would  ease the contractual restrictions on its foreign workers, including Filipinos, beginning March next year, giving workers the freedom to change jobs or leave the country without their employers’ permission.

A lot remains to be done to improve the lot of migrant workers, but we are already off to a good start.

For comments, e-mail at mareyes@philstarmedia.com

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