Organising the migrant workers

By Marites Sison

BENG Los Banez woke up shortly after dawn to be among the first to line up at the Philippine government agency mandated to process 800,000 Filipinos who leave to work overseas each year.  

Los Banez, who was a domestic worker in Taiwan for seven years, wanted to follow up her papers for a caregiver position she hopes to cinch in London. 

When she got to the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), however, she was met with kilometric queues on the first Monday of the new year. Los Banez could only sigh as she joined a long line.  

“The fun is over,'' hollered one man above the din of anxious voices. Some laughed, others appeared preoccupied with their own thoughts.  

What the man meant was, with the Christmas holidays over, overseas workers like himself – some seven million from this country of 80 million people work abroad – have to go back to their jobs and earn those precious dollars, dinar, euros and ringgit that enable their families to survive in the Philippines.  

Los Banez's last job in Taiwan paid her the equivalent of 16,000 pesos (RM1,100) a month, with no benefits. She says it was not enough for her family – her three children are under her mother's care.  

When her contract ended last year, the 40-year-old Los Banez decided to take a six-month caregiver course, with the goal of landing a better-paying job in London.  

A university graduate who majored in hotel and restaurant management, Los Banez said her job as a domestic helper did not offer any room for advancement.  

“That is the most I can make there,'' she said of her salary in Taiwan, adding that her contract did not entitle her to medical and other benefits. 

Los Banez has also worked in Singapore and the Middle East – both key destinations for Filipino workers. There, she said, the situation among domestic workers is not much different.  

Much as she would have wanted to join a union similar to those formed by Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong, Los Banez said there was no such effort in the places she has been to.  

“I would have been interested in joining,'' Los Banez said, but figured that Filipino domestic helpers find it hard to organise themselves because many are not given regular days off from work.  

Others, she added, are simply glad to have jobs and do not wish to complicate matters by joining groups. In the absence of unions, she said those who get into trouble turn to church-backed organisations that minister to the spiritual needs of migrant workers.  

Although Los Banez counts herself lucky because she has not suffered any abuse, she is hoping that being a caregiver would give her more leverage in terms of pay. She is not aware, however, if caregivers in Europe are allowed to form unions.  

Odie Reyes, a designer for an engineering company in Malaysia, is also not part of any union or workers' group. He says the moment he was hired, his employers told him that he was not indispensable.  

“With the economic situation in your country, we can easily replace you,'' he quoted one of them as having said.  

So for the last three years, Reyes has not received nor asked for a salary increase. 

Still, he feels he has no choice since he cannot expect to get the same salary if he works in the Philippines. Los Banez and Reyes are not alone in their predicament. 

While some Filipino migrant workers have managed to form unions in Hong Kong and Japan, majority of overseas workers are not unionised, or at the very least, members of groups that lobby for migrant workers' rights.  

Fear of deportation, loss of jobs and in many instances, the banning of unions by host countries, hinder Filipino migrants from forming and joining unions.  

“Any form of assembly is prohibited here in Saudi Arabia, so any form of organisational activity is considered a clandestine operation,'' Tony Ranque, a migrant worker, said in an interview.  

“To have a semblance of security, most organisations are under the auspices of the Philippine Embassy. This is the main reason why most Filipinos shy away from joining any organisation, fear.''  

Activists hope that the tide will change once the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families take effect this year. It enshrines the human rights of migrant workers, including the freedom to form associations.  

Rudy Dianalan, another worker based in the Middle East, said: “In Jeddah, there is no shortage of efforts to organise Filipino workers. But since unions are banned in Saudi Arabia, what has thrived are professional, cooperative, economic, home province-based, and other social associations.''  

Dianalan is president of MAISA, a group formed by Filipinos who have worked in Saudi Arabia since the start of the Philippines’ labour export policy in the 70s. He is also vice chairman of KASAPI Congress of Filipino Associations, which had helped Filipino evacuees during the 1990 Gulf War and later evolved into an advocacy group.  

In the 90s, the congress’ advocacy work helped send two migrant-worker representatives to the House of Representatives, shape the Philippines' migrant workers act, and lobby for measures like tax exemptions for Filipinos overseas, said Dianalan.  

Ranque added that Filipino workers' groups in Saudi Arabia have been certified as an “accredited community partner’’ by the government-run Overseas Workers Welfare Association (OWWA) that helps workers with their problems.  

Dianalan stressed the importance of organising Filipino migrant workers. 

“Many workers share the same sentiment, but if they just talk and not unite toward a solid front, the government will not give better attention to their needs.’’  

Ranque agreed, saying that while some migrant workers join cause-oriented groups, “there is still a need to educate (them) on the essence of volunteerism’’. Some, he said, “only join to have a sense of belonging’’. - Inter Press Service  

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