The Philippines’ first and only industry magazine that deals with safety and security matters pervading the environment today.

Christmas in a strange land

My cousin’s parents were veteran OFWs. For many years, both her father and mother spent years in different countries such as Saudi Arabia, Canada and the U.S. for work. And because she was an only child, she was perpetually left to relatives who took charge (or didn’t take charge) of her. She remembers graduating from elementary school without any family member even being there! It was only the mother of her childhood friend who watched over her and who took the usual graduation pictures.

At Christmastime, she would receive the much awaited “Balikbayan Box” which was filled to the brim with every imaginable material thing a child could desire. There was the peculiar scent of plastic and mint wafting from the balikbayan box, a smell that doesn’t seem to be characteristic of purchases from toy stores in the Philippines. And she always had wads of cash. Imagine an 11-year-old having so much cash that bills would fall out of her pockets without her noticing. And because her relatives were too busy minding their own affairs, most of the time she was left to her own devices. Imagine what a child with a lot of money and freedom can do.

To make a long story short, she was a typical OFW offspring who had plenty of material things, but was severely lacking in parental guidance. And she is not alone in this experience.

Another friend of mine spent years of her youth and adult life living off of her OFW father’s “remittances.” The long-term separation didn’t do good for this family, and eventually her father found a mistress during his overseas stay. My friend and her three other siblings were so discouraged by this that two siblings were always dropping out of school, one sister got pregnant out of wedlock, and all of them, including my friend, did not strive to get decent jobs even when they entered their 20s. All adult children lived off the remittances.

When the father came back from his stint abroad, there were no savings waiting for him, because his mistress also sucked his earnings dry. My friend and her siblings were also always arguing about dividing the amount of the remittances between them. Meanwhile, my friend’s mother had gone momentarily insane and set fire to the family house, leaving the family with no choice but to rent. Their father was earning big bucks abroad, but ironically, couldn’t provide a house for his own family.

Dia Arroyo, a reasonably well-educated woman in her 40s and a mother with four children, left her children with her husband when she worked as a SPED teacher for a Lebanese couple in  Dubai. She was tasked to be the private tutor and nanny for a severely autistic 7-year-old boy. Her relationship with her mistress at best could be described as complicated; though they had a speaking relationship, Arroyo was not given any suitable food and was made to sleep in a room big enough to be a closet, without a suitable bed. When some friend bought her some food from a fastfood restaurant, her employer would question her on how she was able to acquire this food. She was also blamed for not being able to cure the disabled boy, who could no longer recover due to a lack of early intervention.

For all of these people, the highlight of their lives was getting a chance to come home to a peaceful family for Christmas.

Abuses in exchange for dollars

These examples make one wonder whether the suffering and damage endured by both the lonely overseas worker and the family left behind is really worth all the dollars or dinars being received from these overseas “heroes.” Though both men and women are placed at risk, women and children are more vulnerable to the various risks. The Survey on Overseas Filipinos (SOF) conducted in October 2009 recorded a total of 1.9 million Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in the country during the period April to September 2009. Of this total, 47.2 percent or approximately 900 thousand were women.It’s not difficult to imagine the incidence of abuse that can result from this, which includes children of OFWs who go astray and get hooked on vices or are subjected to sexual abuse from relatives following the disappearance of their mothers. Meanwhile, many female workers (though not all) must face an existence of maltreatment and abuse from their foreign masters. One foreigner even commented that when on a plane, she could always tell who the Filipina (and other Asian) domestic helpers were. They would invariably always be the ones who are ashen-faced, crying or are feeling sick from the prospect of returning once more to their abusive employers.

Government renews calls to protect OFW rights

In June this year, Senator Edgardo J. Angara renewed calls for the protection of the rights of overseas Filipino workers, following reports that a 24-year-old Filipina was physically abused by her Kuwaiti employer. The abuses involved weeks of beatings and starvation.Much has been said about the government’s inability to provide jobs to the population, thus forcing millions of people to look abroad for greener pastures. Improving labor conditions in the country and increasing opportunities is such a deep-seated problem that may not be immediately alleviated. Economic difficulty is the main reason why Filipinos seek jobs overseas. But when the demand is affected, the government may be forced to step up plans to keep our workers in place.

Shrinking overseas job market

Last November, during a forum on exchange rate management at the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman, Loreto Soriano, CEO of LBS Recruitment Solutions, stated that we may soon see a “substantial downturn in demand for OFWs” due to the fact that countries with brewing economic crises may soon reduce their demand for overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) because of the ongoing trend of economic woes in North America, Europe, and parts of Asia, and the political problems in the Middle East.Soriano went on to cite data from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), pointing out that the healthcare industry employed only an annual average of 11,000 nurses from 2001 to 2010, which represents only four percent of new hires. Meanwhile, highly skilled workers and professionals covered only 12 percent of newly hired OFWs in 2010. This shows a steady decline: from 97,448 in 2001 to 41,835 in 2010.Though changes may not be immediately put into place, these figures should serve as strong factors for government to focus on stepping up work opportunities in the country. Another strong concern should be providing stronger support in the Philippine embassies and turning them into more powerful safe havens for the hapless OFW.Human rights abuses being suffered by OFWs is just one facet of the matter. We should also look into how this phenomenon is destroying families and corrupting neglected children, ultimately resulting into a more damaged society. Until parents are reunited with the children who need them and workers can securely work at home without the need to exile themselves at the risk of their lives to provide for their families’ needs, Christmas will not be a very merry one for these unsung heroes.