Workers’ woes
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - April 29, 2019 - 12:00am

This Wednesday being Labor Day, let’s take a look at the state of some of our workers overseas.

There’s a Filipina caregiver I know who’s working in Cyprus. At 14, she had dropped out of school in her province to work as a maid in Manila. She was the eldest of the brood and was assigned to help put food on the table for her younger siblings.

It’s a typical story in many parts of the country. Having nine children is still common in many rural communities. The brightest child is usually picked to finish formal education, with the rest of the siblings pitching in for the expenses by working as maids and blue collar workers even in their teens.

The eldest is usually the first to leave home to find work – unless he or she happens to be the brightest child. Even with free tuition, there are still many other expenses for formal education that poor families cannot afford: transportation, food, school supplies, uniforms, miscellaneous school fees.

The woman I know was able to continue her education some years later, with the help of her employer who sent her to a public high school near their home. The girl ignored the fact that she was the oldest in her class, and she finished high school in her 20s. Her employer then financed her training as a caregiver – a skill that was highly in demand at the time and a quick way to land a job overseas.

She found work in the Emirates, initially as a caregiver, but later as a hotel chambermaid. For some years now, she has been the caretaker of a spacious house in Cyprus that is visited only occasionally for vacation breaks by the wealthy Eastern European owner.

We often joke that the owner must be a gangster or a crooked public official in his country, but the caregiver says the elderly man and his wife are kind.

That somewhat allays fears that the caregiver might end up one day in the freezer of the house, murdered by the couple, with her body found only after a year, like poor Joanna Demafelis in Kuwait.

But now there’s fresh cause for concern: Filipinas have been targeted for murder in Cyprus, apparently by a serial killer. One of the slain Filipinas had a six-year-old daughter who remains missing.

It’s good news that the suspected perpetrator, Greek Cypriot army captain Nicos Metaxas, has been arrested and has reportedly admitted his killing spree.

Still, the gruesome murders once again highlight the risks faced by our large army of overseas Filipino workers. Many OFWs are women of that age when people tend to be most adventurous and can cope with the stress of being separated from loved ones. Their youthful inexperience, however, also makes them vulnerable to predators like Metaxas.

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Even with Metaxas’ arrest, people worry about the possibility that there might be more psychos in Cyprus. They might be drawn by the cheerful banter of the typical Filipina. Or they could be racists preying on migrant workers in their country, which was the subject of the mass protest staged over the weekend in the Cypriot capital Nicosia by OFWs.

There were Cypriots who joined the protest against racial discrimination, and the serial killer was arrested, so there’s hope that the victims would get justice. But there’s lingering concern about how widespread racism might be in that country.

The problem is not unique to OFWs in Cyprus. There are many other places, including in our own region, where Filipinos endure discrimination and abuse in exchange for wages that they can’t earn in their own land.

For the recipients of OFW remittances, among the priority purchases are mobile phones, a motorcycle or e-bike and a TV set. With more money, houses can be renovated.

The caregiver I know has bought a house and lot in Cavite. Her younger sister, who also became a maid in Manila, could afford to stop working and get married.

It would be even better if they could improve their standard of living by working in their own country.

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For this, reforms are needed for efficient governance. Many OFWs are working in countries that rank high in annual comparative studies on the quality of governance, happiness defined as quality of life, ease of doing business and other indicators on the standard of living. For sure, they understand what is missing in our country.

They can help effect change through the power of the vote. Our overseas voting system, however, needs modernization, to expand participation and save on snail mail expenses for both the government and voters. We have over 10 million Filipinos overseas and their election choices deserve to be known.

Cynics will say that it won’t matter much because the same family names are dominating the elections anyway and the same political system is in place.

Elections merely reaffirm the rotten status quo and the structures that continue to force Filipinos to find decent work overseas.

But even change in small increments is welcome. Rivulets carve out permanent paths on mountain rock faces.

Through the power of the vote, OFWs and the rest of us Filipinos can make the country a better place, for employment and the other aspects of life. And the change can be irreversible.

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Militias in our midst? Speaking of employment opportunities, authorities should make sure that Chinese from the mainland are not doing blue-collar work here and taking away jobs from Filipinos. Build Build Build is supposed to create jobs for Filipinos not foreigners. There are so many buildings going up these days with Chinese names and markings, and the construction workers look and talk like Chinese.

The latest development: there are increasing reports of sightings of Chinese men around the construction sites and Chinese-only restaurants – men with the body build, haircut and demeanor of soldiers.

I spotted one yesterday, and he was even wearing fatigue jeans and boots. Maybe it was just a fashion statement. But he may also be like the fishermen-militias who are gathering clams and keeping away our fishermen from Panatag Shoal.

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