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Philippines Faces Migrant Worker Dilemma

They often suffer injustices to support families back home, but leave their country short of skilled workers.
They are called the country's "new heroes”, but Filipino migrant workers – who sent home record remittances of 14.4 billion US dollars in 2007 – can pay a heavy price for supporting their relatives back home, often facing discrimination and exploitation.

Thousands of Filipinos mourned domestic servant Flor Contemplacion who was hanged in Singapore in 1995 after being found guilty of killing a fellow Filipino worker and her Singaporean ward. Her death moved the government to pass the Migrant Workers Act which seeks to protect the rights and welfare of Filipino workers abroad.

The Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs, DFA, is currently monitoring 29 cases of Filipinos facing execution overseas – 11 in Malaysia, nine in Saudi Arabia, four in China, three in Kuwait, one in Brunei and another in the United States.

May Vecina, sentenced to death by hanging in Kuwait after being found guilty of killing her ward in 2007, could be the first of these convicts to be executed.

According to DFA undersecretary for migrant workers affairs Esteban Conejos Jr, Vecina was convicted of killing her employer's youngest son Salem Sulaiman Al-Otaib in January 6 last year.

Her death sentence was confirmed on January 2008 and only needs to be signed by the Kuwait emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, to take effect.

Despite two letters of appeal from President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the Kuwaiti emir has not responded so far. That said, the DFA remains cautiously optimistic about Vecina's fate according to Conejos. As well as appealing directly to the emir, the government is also said to be seeking high-level interventions through the European Union and other influential groups to encourage the Kuwaiti leader to commute the sentence.

At her trial, Vecina alleged she suffered physical and mental abuse from her employer which led her to lose her mind.

Capital cases in the Middle East and elsewhere, however, only represent the tip of a massive problem which faces migrant workers overseas, causing some to commit crimes.

The Philippines is hosting this year the second United Nations Global Forum on Migration and Development on October 28-31 when the government intends to lead international discussions around the need to respect and protect the rights and interests of migrant workers.

In the presence of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and delegates from a majority of the 192 member states, the Philippines will press hard for countries to respect the rights of guest workers.

According to Conejos, the government will have a bilateral meeting with representatives from Arab states. While no binding agreements are envisaged, the meeting will be particularly important, he says, "given the most problematic issues regarding migrant workers happen there".

But while large international forums and bilateral meetings are welcome, much more needs to be done at the practical level in terms of implementing change. Unfortunately, most of the 36 countries that have so far ratified the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families are those nations which send out guest workers in large numbers.

The treaty was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1990 and came into force in July 2003, yet no single western country has ratified it nor have any of the Gulf states.

According to Conejos, the countries yet to sign up to it argue there is no need to do so as their own laws afford sufficient protection.

"Many receiving countries do not want to ratify the treaty as it imposes certain obligations that equally provide for the protection of the rights of workers both for legally and illegally staying," he said.

Former chairperson of the Commission of Human Rights Purificacion Quisumbing believes that unless a group of developed countries change their position and ratify, the rights of migrant workers will not improve.

She maintains the UN committee implementing the treaty has not functioned since 2003 because there is no panel member from a hosting – developed – country.

"We need reciprocity on this aspect," said Quisumbing. "If these countries really recognise the value of Filipino migrant workers then they should ratify and ensure the protection of our citizens."

Statistics from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, POEA, show that the Middle East hosts nearly 60 per cent of the total Filipino migrant working population. The region is also home to most of the reported cases of physical and sexual abuse, exploitation and inhumane treatment.

According to POEA, the top four destinations for Filipino workers in 2005-2006 were Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar.

These migrant workers are commonly deployed as domestic help, factory and construction workers.

UN statistics show there are now 192 million global migrants – 8.2 million coming from the Philippines.

The nation's strong sea-faring tradition and the English language capability of many means much of the global merchant navy is made up of Filipino crew. And this has led to many facing terror on the high seas at the hands of pirates and hijackers.

The country remains very heavily dependent upon remittances because of the troubled economy; very limited good employment opportunities at home; and the poor state of the welfare support system.

In the short-to-medium term, it helps to keep the country afloat as it is increasingly battered by energy and food crises, but in the longer term it does nothing to build real skills and capacity locally.

In his recent visit to the Philippines, Prince Constantjin of the Netherlands who chairs The Hague Process on Refugees and Migration admitted that the West had to help developing countries address the issue of "brain drain" and social disruption caused by a continuing exodus of professional and skilled workers.

The Philippines currently faces a shortage of skills in a whole range of areas.

As governments try to link migration with development during their meeting in Manila this October, they must get to grips with countries’ loss of talented citizens – a trend that limits prospects of sustainable growth.

The government, here, meantime needs to look beyond the positive impact of remittances and gauge the social impact of having millions of children growing up without mothers, public hospitals running out of doctors and nurses and remote schools in the barrios losing teachers.

Sophia Ann Torres is the pseudonym of a Filipino journalist based in the Philippines covering foreign affairs issues for the past six years.