From migrant workers to undocumented settlers, the Philippine ambassador to Malaysia, Charles C. Jose, is doing all he can to make life easier for his fellow nationals who have come in search of greener pastures in Malaysia.
SEASONED diplomat Charles C. Jose oozes compassion when he talks about his fellow nationals who have come in search of greener pastures in Malaysia.
The Philippine ambassador to Malaysia is doing all he can to match his emotions with deeds, wanting to make life easier for Filipino workers since his posting here in April 2017.
Reforms introduced include granting 10-year passports – instead of five – to all Filipinos from January 2018, cutting down paperwork to extend the stay of Filipino workers here.
Many of the work-related processes have also been streamlined at the embassy with applications accepted online.
That done, the envoy is now looking into the plight of the hundreds of thousands of undocumented Filipino workers in Sabah.
A regularisation exercise is currently underway with the Sabah government, targeting undocumented Filipino workers and their families in the plantation and agriculture sectors in the state.
Jose, the former consul-general in Beijing who was also the spokesman of the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, explains that undocumented workers will be legalised once they obtained valid passports and birth certificates.
“After the Sabah government gave the go-ahead, the embassy immediately coordinated with the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) to conduct on-site registration of births in the state,” he reveals.
Last month, the embassy deployed a team consisting of embassy officials and PSA registration officers on its first mission to Lahad Datu in Sabah.
In an interview with Sunday Star, Jose unveils his plan of action, what his country can offer to Malaysians and the latest on the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.
> You have this catchy "It's More Fun in the Philippines" tourism slogan. Is it working?
Yes! We have a new Secretary of Tourism and she has decided to stick with the slogan as it has proven effective. Of course, tourism plays a very important part of the Philippine economy.
Our tourist attractions such as beaches have attracted tourists.
Last year, tourism contributed about 1.7% of our GDP (gross domestic product) which was about 2.2bil pesos (RM177.8mil).
That was a 14.3% increase, year-on-year. For foreign tourist arrivals, there were 7.5 million, which was 98.89% of the total. The remaining were overseas Filipinos.
> Your predecessor famously started the Ambassador's Tour, playing tour guide to Malaysians on two occasions. Are you keen to resume it?
I'm still working on it with my colleagues. In the previous tours, it also covered Cebu and Bohol. We would like to explore more destinations for Malaysian tourists.
I was supposed to lead one in April to Palawan, which is my personal favourite. It is very beautiful and I want to bring my Malaysian friends over.
Coron is an island-hopping destination. In one island, you hike up a hill and when you come down, you will witness a hidden lake which is very beautiful.
> Where do most Malaysian tourists head to?
Malaysians go to Cebu and Boracay. There is still a lack of halal restaurants and I think it's one of the factors that have limited Malaysian tourists to the Philippines.
If we can have more halal restaurants, we hope more Malaysians will visit. There are also very few Muslim tours.
> What are the figures like?
As for Malaysians, 145,242 visited the Philippines in 2018, which was 2.04% of the total foreign tourists.
We have consistently crossed the 100,000 mark in the past few years.
We hope to be able to increase this number. We have to work harder, especially on the halal issue.
There are more Filipinos visiting Malaysia, definitely! Every day you see Filipinos arriving at the airport.
I think they enjoy the proximity, food and shopping here.
> The President sensationally shut down Boracay for six months last year to clear up the mess created by tourists at the beaches and due to sewerage problems. How has the rehabilitation fared?
The feedback is very good. Tourists are back in droves, mostly Koreans and Chinese. The numbers are going up.
We have stricter management rules now. No more parties, so the image has changed.
Boracay used to be called the party town. Not anymore. Tourist can still enjoy the white sand and fine beach. It's an island and you can only handle so many tourists.
> What other spots do you want to promote to Malaysians?
There is another destination in the Bicol region in the south-eastern part of Luzon island.
There is a resort called Misibis Bay and the attraction there is swimming with whale sharks in the waters off Donsol. It's a unique experience.
It has just become famous but it's quite difficult to go there.
From Manila, you need to fly to Legazpi City and then you have to transfer by bus to get to Misibis Bay.
As consul-general in Shanghai between 2011 and 2014, tourism was a major focus of my work as I had to sign the tourist visas. There were so many tour groups going to the Philippines. There was a time when I signed 1,900 visas in a day.
> Which countries does the Philippines attract most of its tourists from?
The number one right now is Korea with 1.6 million tourists (yearly), followed by China at 1.3 million, the United States at one million, and Japan at 631,000.
There was a time when Japanese tourists would fly over during the weekends just to play golf.
> What about air connectivity between Malaysia and the Philippines?
We have no problem with that one. Right now we have four airlines flying between KL and Manila.
With Philippine Airlines alone, we've increased our number of flights in a week, once a day and some days we fly twice. There are 22 weekly flights both ways.
Malaysia Airlines has 42 weekly flights both ways and Cebu Pacific has 14 flights. Cebu Pacific also flies six times a week to and fro from Kota Kinabalu to Manila.
AirAsia does the KL-Manila-KL route 56 times in a week and also flies to Cebu and back eight times. So in terms of connectivity, there is no problem.
> Do you have any issue with Filipinos coming here on tourist visas and then applying to work as domestic maids?
There have been many coming in as tourists. But Malaysia allows it (direct hiring by employers).
Of course, in the Philippines, we prefer that they go through the proper channel. Existing Philippine labour laws ban the direct hiring of Filipinos for overseas work, especially as domestic helpers, with a limited number of exemptions.
For better regulation and protection of Filipino domestic workers, their recruitment and hiring should be done through embassyaccredited Malaysian maid agencies with their POEA-licensed Philippine recruitment agency-partner.
Both the Philippine and Malaysian agencies have joint and solidary liability with the employer for any violation of provisions of the employment contract.
The ban on direct hiring is a measure against human trafficking, illegal recruitment, human smuggling, exploitation and abuse, and other similar illegal practices.
> When they enter on a tourist visa and later apply for a domestic worker visa under our direct hiring programme, they will not need an employment contract endorsed by the embassy?
Yes, they can do that initially in the first year. But when they want to renew their passport and if they say they are working, we will ask them to produce their contract.
There is some built-in information that we want to make sure is being observed.
Secondly, if they go back to the Philippines for a vacation and later return to their overseas jobs, the Philippine Immigration at the airports will require the presentation of their valid and verified employment contracts and Overseas Employment Certificates (OEC) as exit requirements.
Without these, the workers run the risk of being denied exit and are offloaded. With the OEC, the workers are also exempted from paying the travel tax and terminal fee.
> What is your concern – that your workers will be mistreated?
The primary concern is to protect our workers from human trafficking and illegal schemes of unscrupulous agents.
Also, when employers encounter problems with the workers, they have nobody to go to.
If they hired them through agencies, they could refer to the agencies. Even if they come to the embassy with a complaint, we don't have anybody to go after.
That's why we want recruitment to be done through licensed and accredited agencies, so as not to burden both employer and employee. It's a mechanism by which we can better manage employer-employee relations and protect workers.
> The main obstacle is the very high fee that employers are forced to pay to agents, which in some instances come up to as much as RM20,000! Are you are aware of this?
Yes, it's a common complaint but the issue of high service fees charged by the Malaysian maid agencies can best be addressed by your Human Resources Ministry as it is the one which issues licences to these agencies.
Perhaps the ministry can take a closer look at this issue.
> What is the number of Filipino workers here, and which sectors are they allowed to work in Malaysia?
The latest figure we got from the Malaysian Immigration is that there are 64,523 legal Filipino workers in Malaysia, of which 42,186 are domestic workers.
The rest are general workers in the formal sectors of service, manufacturing, plantation and construction. This figure does not include Filipino expatriate workers estimated to number around 20,000 who are working mainly in the oil and gas, IT, manufacturing, construction and education sectors.
> What about the large number of undocumented Filipinos in Sabah?
We believe there are between 400,000 and 500,000 of them there. The Sabah government launched a Regularisation Programme for undocumented workers and their families in the plantation and agriculture sectors from April 1 2019, and it goes on until Sept 30.
According to the Sabah Immigration, the programme will legalise undocumented workers provided they obtain valid passports and birth certificates.
It is specifically meant for plantation workers and those in the agriculture sector. We have a special team in Sabah. They have been to the bigger plantations with the most number of Filipino workers, trying to give them papers and issue passports so they will be able to have the documents to show to the Sabah government, that can help them obtain work permits.
We have received many letters from plantation owners asking the embassy to go there to issue passports for the Filipino workers.
Based on the consolidated data, the team has processed 2,142 passport applications and 154 notarial requests.
Our civil registration officers also registered 1,311 applicants who were born in the Philippines and 509 applicants born in Sabah.
Besides Lahad Datu, the embassy has also programmed special missions to Sandakan and Tawau. Some 14,249 Filipinos have received assistance so far.
> What happens to the children of these undocumented workers?
The embassy has coordinated with PSA to conduct on-site registration of births in Sabah. We have also coordinated with various plantation companies to effectively plan special consular missions to provide birth documents and passports to undocumented Filipino workers and their dependents.
> You met Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal earlier in the year, mainly to discuss the problem?
Yes, the meeting went very well. It was cordial. We focused our discussion on undocumented Filipinos and how we could help them.
We also talked about the barter trade between Sabah and Mindanao.
It was suspended for a while and now it's been revived. Mostly involving rice, cooking oil and things like that. It worked well for both sides. You would send rice to the Philippines and because of the barter trade, prices went down in Zamboanga.
> On the Philippines' claim on Sabah. You were asked by the media in Kota Kinabalu and gave an affirmative reply. This invoked a rebuke from Wisma Putra.
I did not raise the issue in my meeting with the Chief Minister.
I was just replying to a media query and of course, I cannot say that there is no claim. I had to articulate the official position of the Philippine government.
> Finally, how is President Duterte faring midway into his six-year term?
With three more years, he can pass all the necessary legislation that he wants to push for all the reforms that he wants to happen, especially the constitutional amendments. He still enjoys a very high trust and approval rating among the people.
He had three handpicked candidates for the recent Senate elections and all won. All the administration's candidates won in the recent Senate polls.
This has further consolidated the President's administration.
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