The Philippines: Filipino migrants’ rights advocates join high level talks on migration

MANILA – Filipino migrant rights advocates are joining this year’s International Assembly of Migrants and Refugees, a parallel event to the United Nation’s High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development, to call for an end to the Global Forum on Migration and Development and bury the notion that migration will lead to genuine development.

Since 2008, the International Assembly of Migrants and Refugees (IAMR) has been gathering grassroots migrant organizations who seek to “expose the bankruptcy of the United Nation’s line of ‘managing migration’ as a tool for development.” The event, which will take place parallel to the United Nation’s High Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development on Oct. 3 to 4, will discuss issues affecting migrants and propose solutions to end forced migration.

In a statement, Migrante International said that it will present the Philippine situation to the IAMR as an example of how migration did not lead to genuine development.

“Large scale migration is a symptom of underdevelopment in the sending country. The structural causes of underdevelopment driving migration and exposing migrants to vulnerable situations must be addressed,” the group said.

“The global economic system has led to the commodification of labour as well as goods; and current neoliberal policies underpinning the prevailing economic order has driven the movement of peoples and goods from developing to developed countries. The Philippines is one example within a broader context of labour commodification and exploitation on an international level,” the group added.

Migrante International chairperson Garry Martinez is currently in New York to attend the IAMR.

Not a tool for development

During the first High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development in 2006, Migrante International said there has been global recognition that migration will benefit both migrant-sending and migrant-receiving countries through remittances these migrants will send back home and the cheap labor they offer, respectively.

“Because of this, no less than the United Nations has peddled the notion that migration leads to development and a country only needs to ‘manage’ migration to reap its benefits. Currently, remittances rank only second to foreign direct investments and are fast outpacing the rate of official development aid (World Bank 2011),” Migrante International said.

This has subsequently led to the formation of the Global Forum on Migration and Development, which aims to “facilitate dialogue between governments on migration for development.”

Migrante International said while the GFMD is mandated to promote the protection of migrant rights, the International Migrants Tribunal found out in Nov. 2012 that its policies have focused more on managing the economic potential of remittances. It has also pushed for migration policies for all related branches of government, which migrant rights advocates believe, will only serve the purpose of developed countries who will then receive workers from underdeveloped countries who are willing to do dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs or the “3D jobs.”

The Philippines, for one, is one of the largest sending countries of migrant workers, with some 1.5 million Filipinos leaving every year. And while it has managed to institutionalize and manage migration, “decades of exporting cheap Filipino labour have not led to any genuine development: the Philippines is still an underdeveloped Third World country,” according to Migrante International.

“Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) continue to experience physical, sexual, psychological abuse, are exploited, trafficked and discriminated against. Their families at home suffer the social burden while the Philippines experiences an unrelenting brain drain,” the group added.

World Bank data shows that the Philippines is the fourth biggest remittance receiving country next to India, China and Mexico. Remittances, according to International Fund for Agricultural Development, make up 12.5 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. But Migrante International noted that “there has been no ‘trickle down’ to the people at the bottom” and that 40 years of labor export policy did not result in the Philippines developing a sustainable local industry.

“Remittances have not been proven as a motor for development in the Philippines. In fact, inequality is as deeply entrenched as before. Economic growth in the Philippines has not translated to economic relief for the people. The income of the top one percent of families in the Philippines is equivalent to that of the bottom 30 percent of households, according to IBON Foundation,” Migrante International said.

The unemployment rate in the country, according a March 2013 Social Weather Station survey, is at 27.2 percent. Ibon Foundation, in 2012, estimated that there were 4.4 million unemployed and 7.5 underemployed Filipinos.

“The lack of development of the economy, resulting in high unemployment and low wages, means that Filipinos are trapped in cycles of migration generation after generation with no long term solution. ‘Human capital investment’ cited as a positive effect of migration is meaningless if children educated from remittances are unable to find work at home when they graduate,” Migrante International said.

Migrante International believes that the Philippines has also suffered socially from migration. “Families experience social conflict and children are vulnerable without close supervision and support from parents. An estimated 6 million children in the Philippines are growing up with at least one absent parent which has been shown to affect children’s emotional and psychological well being (UNICEF).”

Milking cows

Aside from benefiting from the remittances, the Philippine government, according to Migrante International, has also increased fees paid by Filipinos in order to secure permits, documentary requirements, among others to get work abroad.

“Each OFW has to pay at least P25,367 ($587) in fees before they are allowed to leave the country. From the 1,802,031 OFWs who left the Philippines in 2012, the Philippine government earned nearly P45.7 billion ($1.06 billion) from these state exactions,” the group said.

There are, however, hardly services to the hailed modern heroes of the Philippine government.

Migrante International said that in 2012, only 0.17 percent of the national budget was allocated to services for OFWs while the government reportedly received $23.8 billion in remittances.

During the last High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development, Migrante International said the Philippine government “boasted of having a Rapid Response Team to repatriate OFWs in time of crisis.” But the group said the recent crackdown on undocumented workers in Saudi Arabia showed how poor the services are for Filipino migrant workers. Some 4,500 Filipinos who wanted to be repatriated camped outside the Philippine embassy and consulate in Riyadh and Jeddah, respectively.

The group said few and slow repatriation also awaited Filipinos who were caught in strife-torn Libya in 2011, among other crises and uprisings that recently happened in Middle East countries.

Services for Filipino migrant workers in distress were all the more marred with the recently-exposed sex-for-flight scheme, where embassy officials reportedly offered “part-time jobs” to Filipino women workers so they could buy tickets to go home.

“The sex-for-flight scandal is not an isolated issue but rather an added example of the vulnerability of OFWs and abuse they are subjected to abroad,” Migrante International said.

Exploitative working conditions

Migrante International said that while the Philippine government prided itself in signing formal and informal agreements with migrant-receiving countries to supposedly protect the welfare of Filipino workers, “many agreements have been made with receiving countries only to facilitate the sending of more OFWs as cheap labour. The government has not ensured that those states meet their obligations to protect the basic human rights of OFWs. OFWs are frequently exploited and abused – physically, sexually and emotionally.”

The Philippine government, for one, continues to send Filipino workers to Saudi Arabia despite its skafala or sponsorship system, which even international organization Human Rights Watch scored for being anti-migrant. Human Rights Watch said the sponsorship system do not allow workers in abusive situations to easily change their jobs because their residency permits are bound to their employers, their sponsors.

“Employers often abuse this power to confiscate passports, withhold wages and force migrant workers into slave-like conditions. In effect, the kafala makes migrant workers more vulnerable to abuses and modern-day slavery,” Migrante International said.

Aside from this, there have been steady number of cases of Filipino migrant workers not getting the full promised wages once they reach their workplaces abroad, denied of day-offs, and even high rates of physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

The government’s aggressive promotion of migration, Migrante International said, has proliferated cases of human trafficking. While there is an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 Filipinos who have been trafficked, the migrants rights group said there were only 25 convictions for human trafficking last year.


Migrante International challenged the High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development to focus its resources to ensuring that human rights of migrant workers are upheld and to promote sustainable development policies in migrant-sending countries

“Migration should not be treated as a tool for development but rather as a development concern which should be addressed in the post-2015 agenda. Migration, as a choice or an obligation for family survival, should serve as a measure to see whether development goals are working,” the migrant rights group said.

They also urged the United Nations to open their forums to grassroots migrant organizations just as the International Labor Organization has opened its doors for trade unions.

In the Philippines, members of Migrante International danced in solidarity with the Millions of Migrants Mobilizing Worldwide (3MW) on Oct. 3 at the Liwasang Bonifacio in Manila. The 3MW, the main event held at Washington Square Park in New York City at 2:14 p.m. on Oct. 3, is a global cultural campaign consisting of a choreographed line dance that depicts issues migrants are facing around the world.

Mic Catuira, spokesperson for Migrante International, said, “Today, we dance in solidarity with migrant workers all over the world to end modern-day slavery. Today, we dance with OFWs all over the world in continuing protest against a corrupt, anti-people and anti-migrant government that has treated OFWs as milking cows for patronage politics and the interests of a few. Today, we dance with millions of Filipino modern-day heroes in the call to abolish the pork barrel system and for greater state subsidy for social services, including direct services for OFWs in distress.”