Modern slavery threatens OFWs, national economy

THE recent United Nations report on the rising incidence of modern slavery should be a cause for concern in the Philippines, where remittances from foreign Filipino workers (OFWs) are driving growth. In addition to their economic contribution, SAWs represent an important political sector and they have been called heroes because they bear high social costs when they choose to work abroad.

The UN study released last week says the number of people involved in forced labor and forced marriage increased by 10 million worldwide between 2016 and 2021. That was a setback as the UN hoped to eradicate all forms of modern slavery by 2030. The report also mentioned that by the end of last year about 28 million were in forced labor and about 22 million were involuntarily married.

Obviously the problem is global, but the part that should affect the Philippines was the reference to migrant workers. According to the UN study, migrant workers were three times more likely to find themselves in situations of forced labor than non-migrant workers.

More than 40 percent of migrant workers around the world are from Asia, about 115 million in 2020, based on a source citing the International Organization for Migration. Of these, about 20 percent come mainly from just six countries, including the Philippines. The others are China, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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High expectations

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Luckily, virtually everyone in the Philippines cares about OFWs. For example, government policy often takes SAW issues and concerns into account. And local media, being private, are always looking for their safety and well-being when covering foreign news.

Also, the most recent addition to the government bureaucracy is the Department of Migrant Workers (DMW), headed by longtime advocate of OFW rights, Secretary Susan “Toots” Ople. As she leads the newly formed DMW, there should be no learning curve in identifying priorities, strategizing and executing them.

She has assembled a “dream team” to help her take care of OFWs. “DMW’s dream team is now in place and we pledge to serve our OFWs faithfully and with the utmost professionalism,” Ms. Ople told the media. “Together we will make the DMW a safe home for our OFWs and their families.”

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These assurances, combined with the powers of those responsible for SAW affairs, pose an unintended challenge to government. That is, they raise public expectations. If the UN can suffer setbacks, so can any individual government.

Still, the Marcos team seems more than capable and even grounded in their approach to migrant workers. In several interviews, Ms. Ople explained that the government’s priority is to promote a better business environment in the country so that Filipinos are less inclined to look for jobs abroad. However, she also said that raising high barriers to international recruitment would be harmful as it could drive people into illegal recruiters and human traffickers.

Nonetheless, the DMW may wish to review the placement policy for unskilled workers, particularly those recruited as domestic help. They appear to be more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. In comparison, Filipino professionals such as nurses have additional layers of protection offered by institutional employers and professional groups. Of course, nothing is completely provable.

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In this context, the DMW Secretary seems inclined to broaden the definition of human trafficking. As expected, criminals are changing their tactics to avoid the attention of the authorities. Law enforcement agencies must adapt quickly, or better yet, anticipate the loopholes traffickers might exploit.

Coordination with other government agencies will also be a major task for the DMW. It must work with the Department of Labor, Department of State, Commission of Filipinos Overseas (CFO) and various law enforcement agencies. Attached to the Office of the President, the CFO is the agency that looks after millions of Filipino migrants, including those married to foreigners.

In addition, local authorities must also coordinate with their counterparts in foreign governments. That too will be critical.

Protection of SAWs requires, to use a cliché, a whole-of-government approach. And the fight against modern slavery is a global effort.

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