Since the phenomenon of the OFW will be with us for at least the next decade or so (and possibly indefinitely into the future), it was indeed a wise move for the Government to create the Department of Migrant Workers (DMW), now headed by very experienced and knowledgeable labor expert Susan Ople. The Philippine economy is highly dependent on the OFWs for foreign exchange earnings, addressing the unemployment and, more especially, the underemployment problem (still at double-digit levels), and sustaining the consumption-led economic growth we have been enjoying for more than a decade.
The least the Government can do is to help the OFWs minimize the harm done to their children by their absence (as we have seen in the previous articles of this series) and prevent them from being victims of unscrupulous recruiters. Fortunately, Secretary Ople (true to the legacy of her father, Blas Ople, with whom I had the honor of co-authoring the provisions on labor in the Philippine Constitution of 1987) gave the highest priority, upon assuming the position of Secretary of DMW, to measures to protect OFWs from unethical recruiters. On June 9, Secretary Ople signed the new 2023 rules and regulations governing the recruitment and employment of OFWs.
Under the new rules, 20 unethical practices of OFW agencies will be punished with a one-strike policy or the immediate cancellation of their license to operate. Once closed, the agency can no longer resume operations after a number of months, as had been permitted before. Among the most serious offences are acts of graft and corruption, including attempts to bribe DMW officials and personnel, as well as the recruitment and deployment of minors. Other serious violations included the collection of placement fees in countries where no such policy is in place; passing on to the worker fees that are chargeable only to the employer; refusing or failing to act on cases of death, physical or sexual abuse, and psychological impairment; and engaging in recruitment for jobs that are harmful to life, public health, and human dignity. Other “cardinal sins” that are unforgivable are human trafficking; gross misrepresentation or giving false information; reprocessing workers through a job order for a nonexistent work or through a job order of another agency; changing ownership or control of a single proprietorship; and deploying workers whose records were not processed by the DMW.
Other unforgivable infractions are allowing a foreigner to head or manage a licensed agency; allowing a foreign manning agency to own or participate in a Philippine-based agency; deploying a worker recruited by a foreigner; allowing illegal agents to conduct activities on behalf of the DMW; altering a processed contract; imposing compulsory health exams or trainings from specific entities, unless the cost is shouldered by the agency; imposing compulsory loans from a specific institution or person; and becoming an officer or board member of any corporation or partnership in a travel agency by any of the proponents.
There are also new regulations about the board and lodging accommodations afforded by the recruiters to the OFWs. The DMW will make sure that these accommodations provide a minimum of comfort and decency to the OFWs. The agencies will also be required to hire a full-time welfare desk officer, who will monitor and assist in the resolution of the complaints raised by the OFWs. These are very positive signs that the DMW is living up to it mandate of removing unnecessary obstacles and suffering from the already harassed and suffering OFWs who are seeking employment abroad to be able to provide the minimum of comfort to their respective families.
The DMW, in cooperation with other departments like Justice and Foreign Affairs, should also exert a lot of efforts to promote the welfare of hundreds of Filipinos, the majority of them OFWS, who are imprisoned in foreign countries for crimes committed (real or alleged), such as in the case of Mary Jane Veloso who has spent more than 10 years in jail on drug trafficking charges in the city of Yogyakarta, Indonesia. In 2015, Velosa was given a last-minute reprieve from the death penalty after the late President Benigno Aquino III appealed to Indonesian authorities. As reported in an editorial in a Philippine daily, former Senator Ralph Recto has estimated that there are 3,827 Filipinos remaining in jail in 52 countries and territories. We have to listen to the appeal of the families of jailed OFWs who complain that there is an apparent lack of response from Philippine embassy officials to their requests for legal assistance for the detainees.
The OFWs who are also in great need of being protected against undesirable working conditions are the seafarers, who, by the nature of their work, will be OFWs forever. The Philippines will always have part of its workforce working as seafarers and they comprise that portion of OFWs who will always be leaving their respective families behind even if the Philippines reaches First World Status. The challenge to the Government and civil society today, when poverty is still a main driver for some of our citizens to want to become seafarers, is to protect them from what Bjorn Hojgaard, CEO of Anglo-Eastern Univan Group, called the “dark fleet.” In his words, as quoted by Justine Irish Tabile in a report in this paper: “I think you know that there are almost 1,000 ships sailing around now with substandard conditions, no insurance and no class and we somehow allow that to happen. I think that’s a real menace for the men and women serving on board ships.”
It is well known that Filipino seafarers account for anywhere from 20% to 30% of the world’s seafaring human resources, exceeded only by China and India. They are especially ubiquitous in cruise liners. In fact, despite an earlier controversy in Europe involving the alleged poor quality of Filipino seafarers, DMW Secretary Ople recently announced that the deployment of Filipino seafarers is expected to recover to its pre-pandemic level of some 505,769 seafarers in 2019. In the first quarter of 2023 alone, 150,000 Filipino seafarers were deployed. In 2022, still plagued with serious cases of COVID-19, especially in China, the Philippines already deployed 489,852 seafarers. As we witness the phenomenon of “revenge” traveling or touring all over the world, Filipinos will be in even greater demand in cruise ships. Transport Secretary Jaime J. Bautista recently reported that the US ship operator Carnival Corp. has committed to recruiting around 40,000 seafarers from the Philippines. Secretary Ople also said that she received a commitment from a Saudi Arabia-based shipping company to hire more Filipino crew.
President Marcos Jr. has assigned a very high priority to mandating government agencies to ensure that the country’s training (especially upskilling, reskilling, and retooling) programs and accreditation system for Filipino seafarers would pass European Union standards. This was a response to a warning from the EU last year about deficiencies in the country’s seafarer training and education. If such deficiencies are not addressed, Filipinos could be denied deployment because of a lack of European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA)-certified licenses. Fortunately, the crisis was averted when in March of this year, the appropriate EU authorities sent a letter to the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) that there is evidence of “concrete progress and improvement” in complying with the requirements of the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW).
There are now many ongoing initiatives of the Government working closely with industry and civil society to raise the quality of Filipino seafarers, a major component of which was to significantly increase investments for training of seafarers to cope with new environment-friendly technologies, including simulators and other training equipment that would make Filipino seafarers, especially the officers, world class.
In all this frenzy for upskilling and reskilling, however, we should heed the advice of Belal Ahmed, chairman of the International Maritime Employers’ Council who reminded the government and the private companies that over and above skills training, there should be even greater focus on the quality of the personal lives of the seafarers.
His words should apply to all the possible OFWs we are preparing for work abroad: “Behind these upskilling discussions, we are again forgetting how long they stay in the sea and how they are going to take care of their family when they are at sea. These discussions sometimes don’t come because we are talking about skill enhancement for them to be ready for future ships. But today we should be talking about seafarers’ personal lives, how we make them better.”
Since, as I wrote earlier, Filipino seafarers are “forever,” they will always be around even if the Philippines reaches First World status, these words should be embedded — also forever — in the minds of all government agencies and private companies that are involved in recruiting Filipino citizens for work abroad.
(To be continued.)
Bernardo M. Villegas has a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard, is professor emeritus at the University of Asia and the Pacific, and a visiting professor at the IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain. He was a member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission.