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Unifil-Migrante eyes new aims as it marks 33 years

19 July 2018

By Leo A. Deocadiz

United Filipinos in Hong Kong (Unifil)-Migrante HK marked its 33rd anniversary with a day-long celebration on Chater Road on July 8, recalling past victories and setting new targets in its fight for the rights of overseas Filipino workers.

In between cultural presentations, Unifil-Migrante leaders also took turns exhorting fellow OFWs to participate in the fight being waged by the first militant organization of OFWs.

Eman Villanueva, Unifil-Migrante HK secretary-general, said each gain made in protecting OFWs, such as the yearly minimum wage increases since 2004, had been a result of struggle and were not given free.
Unifil affiliate organizations parade their colors.

Dolores Balladares-Pelaez, chairperson, said: “The challenge is for us to join organizations, not just going alone and sympathizing with Migrante’s battles in Hong Kong…. We are the mass action here in Hong Kong.”

She said the group will continue fighting for long-term changes that will resolve the problems in the
system of government in the Philippines. “Change where we will no longer go home for one to three years, and then return to Hong Kong and other countries because our families’ lives have remained miserable,” she added.

Villanueva said the group is now focusing its attention on winning government approval for its proposal for humane accommodation for OFWs and an uninterrupted 11-hour rest period every day, plus meal breaks.

“We need rest because we are not slaves, we are workers,” Villanueva said,

He noted that more than 120 OFWs died of various ailments in Hong Kong in 2016—many due to cancer, hypertension, leukemia and other illnesses that are due to stress.

He blamed lack of rest and the fact that people sleep on top of refrigerators and washing machines, in toilets, in hallways, on rooftops and on floors — after working for up to 18 hours daily.

“How could you not be stressed? You are working for 16-18 hours. You are also far from your family. And when it is time to rest, you sleep on top of the washing machine?” he added.

He said this was a natural progression of Unifil’s history of struggle. “The history of Unifil is the history of fighting for our rights. The history of Unifil is a struggle against racism, against excessive exactions, against low wages. Against long hours of work and against exploitation of migrants in Hong Kong,” Villanueva declared.

He recalled instances when Unifil’s protest actions benefited not just OFWs but also migrant workers
from other countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and Nepal.

When it introduced the two-week rule in 1987, for example, the Hong Kong government was very strict: after an OFW is terminated or finishes her contract, she had to leave within two weeks. But efforts of the group led to a more lenient policy in which three exceptions were allowed: the employer’s death, financial incapacity and departure from Hong Kong. “OFWs are now allowed to find new employers without leaving Hong Kong,” he said.

In 1997, Villanueva said, a legislator proposed a 35 per cent wage cut for migrant workers. Unifil, along with migrant workers’ groups from Indonesia, Thailand, Nepal and other countries joined in the fight against it. “While the wage was still cut,” he added, “it was reduced by only 5%.”

In succeeding years, proposals for more wage cuts were filed, but were opposed by labor groups, until Hong Kong fell into an economic slowdown that forced it to reduce the domestic helpers’ pay in 2003 by $400 to $3,270 – a rate that was level with pay in 1992.

But economic recovery the following year prompted militant migrant groups to fight for pay increases. “Since then, until last year, the government has increased wages every year,” he said.

Villanueva also noted that the group was able to fight off efforts of some Hong Kong officials to denigrate foreign workers.

He cited Chip Chao, who called the Philippines a nation of servants; New People’s Party legislator Regina Ip, who said migrant workers were home wreckers, for snatching the husbands of their empoyers; and her fellow NPP lawmaker Eunice Yung who said foreign workers taking a rest in public places were a nuisance. Villanueva said protest actions led by Unifil forced these people to apologize.

He repeatedly took potshots at other groups criticizing them for holding protests: “They do not know what they are talking about.”

Vicky Casia Cabantac, chairperson of Migrante HK, enumerated other Unifil victories against a
Philippine government that saw OFWs as milking cows.

She cited the abolition of the rule of the government of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, under its labor export policy, of forcing OFWs to remit their income to the Philippines on pain of being fined.

Unifil also formed in 1998 a coalition against government exactions. The result had been reductions in passport and authentication fees, the Consulate staying open on Sundays, and direct hiring being allowed (although the government reimposed a ban in 2006).
The fight for OFWs who were victims of injustice and tragedy has resulted in the enactment of the law known as Magna Carta for OFWs, Cabantac said.

Shiela Tebia Bonifacio, vice-chairperson of Unifil-Migrante, said Unifil is an organization fighting for the welfare and rights not only of migrants in Hong Kong but also of their families left behind in the Philippines.

That is why, she said, Unifil has been vocal against policies that have driven millions of Filipinos to go abroad to find jobs they could not at home.

One of them is the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion or TRAIN law, which imposes additional taxes on the poor and not on the rich. “We should oppose this because the additional taxes imposed on goods bought by our families are an added burden for migrants, too,” she said.

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