Friday, November 14, 2008

Letters to an old comrade: First installment

Dear Ka Topits,

It has been more than twenty years since we left the Philippines. Our country at that time was reeling from one failed coup to another. Obviously, the feeble attempts by the military to destabilize and unseat the newly-installed Aquino government were just for show and nothing else. The struggle for genuine democracy had been momentarily stymied by the popular “people power revolution” that was supported and blessed by the Roman Catholic Church and its influential friends from the business elite. Ultimately, this led to the expulsion of the dictator Marcos from the Philippines.

Most of us in the struggle have looked up to you as a paragon of strength and resilience on account of the long years you have dedicated helping our people achieve their true democratic aspirations, from the time when, as a young lad, you joined the nascent peasant organization fight against the government that betrayed the peasants’ trust after helping defeat the Japanese army during the war, to that time when, in the cusp of your manhood, you linked again with the surging democratic movement comprising of peasants, workers and students. Remember that this was the time we caught up with one another in that sleepy town by the shores of Laguna de Bay. And from that time of brief revolutionary lull after the Marcos downfall to the continuing struggle to fulfill our people’s democratic dreams, I have always considered you as the most stubborn of all the revolutionaries I have come to meet in my lifetime.

We have lost contact since then, but news about you continue to reach us, some in mysterious ways, in this far away, safe and peaceful land we have come to call home. I have heard that your fragile condition brought on by a debilitating illness has slowed down your usual frenetic ways as you slowly inch towards the golden years of your life. This heartbreaking news has worried us deeply, but after having known you all these years, we know this would not be a reason for you to call it quits now, would it? Unlike me who ran away after spending only twenty years, you must have accumulated over fifty years of continuous and selfless service to the masses.

What has happened to our country, Ka Topits?

Labour migration has become the only remaining option for many Filipinos; the country has no viable domestic economy that can generate jobs for its people. Despite the government’s claim that it had implemented a successful land reform program, 70 per cent of agricultural land still remains in the hands of landlords, thus millions of farmers are unproductive and without a stable income.

Instead of building a manufacturing base, all the country can offer are assembly lines or repackaging plants that are integrated with the new global economy that exploits cheap labour and offers no job security because jobs are inextricably tied to government’s labour contracting policy.

We have seen an increasing deployment of caregivers and domestic workers, 90 per cent of them women, here in Canada. These are workers who have studied and trained to become teachers, nurses, medical workers or accountants who cannot find gainful employment in the Philippines. This labour migration from the Philippines has become a model for other developing countries mainly because of the remittances accruing from foreign employment.

Most contract workers pay exorbitant fees just to work overseas. The Philippine government has even installed an infrastructure that extorts these fees from every outgoing overseas worker, accredits recruitment agencies, and provides skills training and immigration lectures, and supposedly earmarks benefits for migrant workers and their families. Whether these workers and their families benefit from protections by the government is debatable. Oftentimes, these overseas workers are left to fend for themselves. Some Filipino nannies here in Canada, for example, have to beg for penny contributions from their fellow workers and friends just to send home the body of a deceased co-worker.

Labour migration as a pillar of economic sustainability is a very dangerous policy. When government continues to fail to stimulate its economy, it will not be capable of creating jobs and will depend more and more on overseas labour deployment. Over the long run, this dependence on labour migration will erode much-needed policy reform and new governance, which may ultimately push our people into complacency and defeatism. Already, the government is using it to evade comprehensive policy reforms that would make the economy more responsive to the basic social and economic rights of our people.

Besides the long-run economic limitations of labour migration, the deployment of our workers overseas has also some inherent social drawbacks. There are many instances of marital or family breakdowns because of forced separations between spouses and their children. A number of women workers have also been easy prey for sexual abuse and exploitation. In many cases, the Philippine government, through its diplomatic consular offices, has been largely inadequate in providing assistance, or worse, support is pitiful or nonexistent.

A close friend has disclosed to me recently that she had been approached by a group of nannies who came to Toronto through the backdoor or under a made-up contract as live-in caregivers. They were recruited in Manila and Hongkong by a Toronto-based agency which was able to secure visas for them to work as caregivers. After filling up their application forms, they paid the agency a huge sum for processing, and signed a contract for additional payments in monthly installments as soon as they were deployed for work.

Upon arrival in Toronto, the contract workers found there was no work waiting for them. Without financial means nor relatives who could offer temporary accommodation in the city, these women were forced to live in cramped spaces in the house of the recruitment agency owner. Meantime, they were assigned to an assortment of temporary jobs without pay in exchange for accommodation and food.

When the consular office of the Philippine government was contacted and informed of the workers’ situation, they were told nothing could be done, that it was up to their agency to live up to their contractual agreement. The workers wanted to tell Canada Immigration about their plight, but the threat of deportation loomed, forcing them to backtrack and to accept their fate without protest.

A recent survey by the independent think tank IBON Foundation reported that Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has received a failing mark for performance as leader of the country. More than 80 per cent said they were unsatisfied with her performance as president.

As president of a country which has relied on labour migration and the dollar remittances of overseas workers to prop up its economy, Arroyo has a moral obligation to help protect Filipino workers such as those kept like hostages in Toronto by unscrupulous labour recruiters. But given Arroyo’s unsatisfactory rating as president, a Toronto consular official’s quiet confirmation that nothing can really be done only bolsters the fear of many that our best expectation is not to expect anything at all.

There are other issues I wish to bring up in this letter, but I am afraid I have to write about them next time as I must leave for an appointment downtown.

Meantime, take good care of yourself and keep the home fires burning.

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