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Workers for sale

08 October 2018

By Daisy Catherine L. Mandap

The first time I heard the word “commodification” I thought it was just a fancy word concocted to draw attention to the plight of migrant workers. That was, I remember, the time when the World Trade Organization summit was held in Hong Kong, and it seemed like the right word to use to denote how migrant workers are looked at as commodities by both their host, and home, countries.

But now I see why the word is so apt in describing the plight of migrant workers, particularly our own.

Nearly everyone they have to deal with on their way to taking up jobs abroad is out to milk them. From their recruiters to the training agents to our own government, migrant workers are squeezed for money in exchange for a little, or even no, benefit at all to them.

In Hong Kong, a foreign domestic helper is not supposed to pay anything to get here, except for the agency fee of no more than 10% of their first monthly salary. All other fees are supposed to be borne by the employer, and their contract is expected to have our government’s stamp on it only as a matter of courtesy, and not as necessity.

So why does our government put each overseas Filipino worker through the wringer before allowing them to leave and take up jobs abroad? More than the supposed protection sought for each of them, it is the money that stands out as the reason.

Funny thing is, Philippine laws are supposed to be more stringent than Hong Kong’s because OFWs are not supposed to pay any fee for jobs obtained for them by anyone, including the recruitment agencies. But in reality, they are made to shell out money every step of the way before they are cleared to fly out to their destinations.

These fees include, but are not limited to those charged for training, medical clearance, video and interview, photos, photocopying, mandatory insurance, Philhealth, Overseas Workers Welfare Administration membership, and just about anything their agencies tell them to pay for.

In recent years, the total amount exacted from each Filipino worker who came to Hong Kong appear to have dropped dramatically after authorities on both sides began cracking the whip on errant agencies. From more than Php100,000 on average, the cost of getting employment in Hong Kong dropped to about half that amount, or even less.

But lately, the vultures seem to have come out of the woodworks again. We are again hearing cases of OFWs being asked to sign up for loans at the behest of agencies that want more money from them.

In a recent batch of cases where we were asked to intervene, the workers spoke of each being made to pay for two medical examinations and training, on top of about Php65,000 in agency fees. This did not include the HK$10,000 loan that did not go to them, but for which they had to pay from their salaries in the first three months of their employment.

Another scam involves requiring ex-OFWs to undergo retraining, for which they have to pay between Php18,000 to Php30,000 each, on the pretext that the NCII certificate that they had obtained previously was no longer valid. It behooves us to think that someone who had undergone training, and actually experienced doing domestic work, could be required to go through the same process on the lame excuse that the certificate they had was no longer valid. If this is not scam, I don’t know what is.

But the biggest caper about to be pulled off will be at the instance again, of our own government. This involves compelling all returning OFWs, meaning even those who are renewing their contracts with the same employer, to pay for insurance.

The stage for this was set when Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello signed on Aug 17 a resolution by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration Governing Board adding proof of insurance coverage to the requirements for registration with the Balik Manggagawa Online so OFWs could go home and return to their work sites unhindered.

POEA Resolution No 4 series of 2018, states that the worker shall not be made to pay for the insurance; however, this begs the question of how foreign employers could be forced  to pay for the worker’s personal insurance, and why they should. In Hong Kong, in particular, this is bound to create outrage among employers as they are already required to take out insurance on their domestic helper, which should pay for the cost of medical treatment and repatriation, should these become necessary.

The little-known resolution which was circulated to overseas posts and other interested parties on Sept 4 is due to take effect 15 days after the publication of its implementing guidelines. That means there is time to resist this new money-making scheme that turns our own government into a big collection agency for insurance companies, and allows it to squeeze out of its primordial obligation to protect its workers abroad.

At about Php8,000 (or HK$1,120) per two-year coverage, this new money-making scheme would create additional hardship to our already burdened OFWs. It could even cost them their jobs, if employers decide to chuck them out in favor of other migrant workers whose government is not as greedy.

At a time when mostly poor Filipinos are suffering from a moribund economy, a rise in criminality and political uncertainty, OFWs who mostly support their families back home should not be made to carry these additional burdens.

Migrant workers are not slaves, nor are they commodities. It’s time we linked arms with them in fighting oppression and exploitation, even by the very government that’s supposed to protect them.

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