Filipinos worldwide – journey of sacrifice

Ariel Nepomuceno - The Philippine Star

The construction of the OFW Hospital in San Fernando Pampanga is a welcome recognition of the sacrifices and significant contributions of Filipinos working and living in countries across the world. Next to India, the Philippines has the largest number of citizens who have joined the continuous bandwagon of people who courageously explore their chances of getting the needed break in foreign lands. This saga has a combined narrative of successful conclusions and for many, tragic endings.

According to the official 2019 data of the United Nations, Indian diaspora has at least 17.5 million job-seeking migrants. They are scattered all over the globe. Just like our citizens, the economic promise of more advanced countries lured them into leaving their homes and ignoring the risks that go with the journey. Mexicans have more than 11 million. And in our case, according to the Philippine Statistics Office, more than 12 million Filipinos are abroad as residents and workers.

The first OFW Hospital is a specialty facility with at least a 100-bed capacity. This aims to primarily provide medical and mental health services to Filipino migrant workers and their dependents. This was championed in 2019 by former president Gloria M. Arroyo in Congress when she was the House Speaker. This was supported by the current administration when President Rodrigo Duterte signed EO 15 in December 2021 to fast track its construction and to be able to accept patients by June 2022.

We must credit Department of Labor and Employment Secretary Silvestre Bello III for pushing hard this legacy project that would benefit the workers who directly help sustain our economic resilience because of their annual remittance of at least $12 billion, which accounts for around 9.6 percent of our country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

More help is needed. We fairly credit the proponents and supporters of this initiative. This hospital is concrete proof that we acknowledge the basic medical needs of our Filipino workers who have gone to foreign territories without certainty of their safety and protection. For the interest and welfare of their loved ones, they have ignored the perils and expected loneliness in being thousands of miles away to work and send the regular financial relief back to their families.

We will not diminish the value of the first OFW Hospital. This is a big accomplishment, a relevant feat and timely gift for our workers and their dependents. However, this is not enough. A good step forward, yes. But not sufficient for the list of grave problems that our OFWs are hardly enduring.

Problems that must be addressed. First in the long list of difficulties that many OFWs confront is the notorious contract switching that deprive them of enjoying the original terms of their employment contracts. In many cases, they have complained of the arbitrary adjustments that worsen, not improve, the conditions of their official engagements. They are on the receiving end of blatant disregard of the finality and sanctity of contracts. However, they would concede to this abuse for fear of losing the chance to work abroad, even in the most inhuman and slave-like working environment.

Employers’ abuses are the most common problems that OFWs, especially women, are suffering from. We lost count already of the fatal deaths of Filipinas who were sexually abused or raped by their modern-day masters. The terrible conditions of many migrant workers are all over the news.

Sadly, some of our consular services are remiss in their task of securing immediate rescue or justice. We will not forget the extreme case of Flor Contemplacion who, in 1995, was executed in Singapore. She was hanged but later believed to be innocent of the crime of murder.

Social nightmare is included in this list. Discrimination is almost normal. This is on top of the usual broken family phenomenon, extra-marital affairs, children of migrant workers failing to finish their formal studies and workers being duped by strangers online or even their supposed friends who have fraudulently stolen their hard-earned savings in the guise of investments.

Political instability and violent conflicts have also trapped many Filipinos in their working areas. They could not readily escape from the sudden eruption of hostilities. Evacuating them into safety had been a big challenge for our government. The least that they would encounter are the mass layoffs in these war-torn battlegrounds.

Lastly, illegal recruiters still prey on unsuspecting or desperate applicants for work. Many have been victimized by this rampant crime. We have yet to see a substantial number of these criminals meted the maximum possible penalty allowed by our laws. On the other hand, even some legitimate recruitment agencies also join the fray by charging exorbitant placement fees that they ramp up to as high as P150,000 per applicant.

Towards a safer journey. The first OFW Hospital is a good signal towards the right direction. Perhaps, if our national budget can accommodate, we can probably build another one in Mindanao and the other in the Visayas.

Maybe the new Department of Human Settlement and Urban Development, under my former boss in the Office of Civil Defense, retired general Eduardo del Rosario who’s known for relentlessly working hard to accomplish all missions assigned to him, can innovate a similar program for the OFWs. A good, specialized housing project will be timely and laudable. All our migrant workers, for sure, would be elated by the prospect of providing decent homes for their families.

Meanwhile, the National Bureau of Investigation, and the Philippine National Police must double their campaign against illegal recruiters and other syndicates involved in human-trafficking.

Our government, with the help of civic organizations that pursue the protection and interests of our OFWs, must exhaust all remedies in managing the long list of problems that beset our migrant workers who are given the accolade of being our modern-day heroes. Time to treat them as such.

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