An endless funeral
It wasn’t anything more than a minor irritant at that time, when a POEA official asked for proof that my employer would pay for “remains repatriation” before granting my application for overseas exit clearance. How silly, I thought. I haven’t even booked my plane ticket and my government has already excused itself from bringing home my remains and personal belongings in case I die as an OFW.
This makes sense now. And it is infuriating. As we focus our attention on a mother of two whose dying wish is to bring her body back home, I wonder how many more out there are negotiating their fate and figuring out the practicalities of their deaths. At least 70 of them are in death row. Perhaps even more are on the verge of death due to illness, physical abuse, and psychological trauma. What we often celebrate as the backbone of the Philippine economy are also reduced to disposable beings – those who, if it weren’t for media coverage, often remain invisible.
Drug mules and hostages
The case of Mary Jane Veloso is both exceptional and usual. That she will be shot in the heart by a firing squad in spite of legal and political appeals is exceptionally tragic. But that is Indonesia’s shame, not ours.
Our shame lies not only in the recurrence but also in the increasing number of Filipinos at the verge of execution. From drug couriers on death row to oil workers kidnapped and beheaded by terrorists, they give you the sense that even the simplest desire to make a bit more money is often accompanied by a precarious future.
Some choose to diagnose these contemporary problems with individualistic solutions. Filipinos should learn their lesson – pack your bags yourself, don’t be naive, and never trust strangers. Only apply with legitimate recruitment agencies. If you don’t want to be exposed to terrorists, do not go to conflict-ridden areas. If you don’t want to get raped by your employer, do not wear revealing clothes. And, yes, get insurance that can cover the cost of shipping your casket in case things don’t work out for you.
The trouble with these “solutions” is that they place the ultimate blame on individuals. Surely there are those who actively manipulate and recruit unwitting citizens and these Filipinos deserve punishment. I wonder, however, if anyone who had a fair shot getting a decent life at home would even dream of swallowing packets of cocaine to smuggle drugs or even consider working overseas again after being raped by an employer.
Unfortunately, our problem – the black eye in one of the world’s fastest growing economies – is our complicity in a system that perpetuates precarity as a way of life.
When we live in a society where wages are deliberately kept low, contracts flexible, and rights negotiable, we are in effect told that we are on our own. When an honest day’s work is not enough to maintain the dignity of a Filipino family, we are pushed to explore our options elsewhere.
In our research on the character of labor of Calabarzon – one of the Philippines’ fastest growing regions – young male workers have set their eyes on saving up what little wages they make from contractual work so they can buy a bus ticket to Manila, apply for a passport, find a recruitment agency and migrate, first to the Middle East, and, hopefully, move somewhere less precarious like Canada or Australia. These workers know the risks of working in unfamiliar cultures, and yet still take their chances because the alternative is to remain entrapped in poverty.
When market-driven labor policies and workers’ risk-taking behavior are taken together, what we find is an entire generation of insecure workers whose biographies are marked by a series of short-term unsatisfying jobs and strained relationships. Ultimately it is illegal recruiters, people smugglers, human traffickers, and transnational organized crime syndicates – those who have no problem with sacrificing small lives to earn big money – that benefit from such state-sponsored vulnerability.
Millennials and precariats
A friend asked me why I am so affected by Mary Jane’s story. Have I not yet been desensitized to reports after reports of OFWs suffering from abuse and neglect? After all, I grew up hearing stories about Flor Contemplacion and Sarah Balabagan – what makes Mary Jane so different?
Part of my interest, I think, is due to a lingering sense of unfairness. While I knew of Flor Contemplacion and Sarah Balabagan as a child, this time, Mary Jane and I belong to the same generation. She is only two years younger than I am. The only thing that sets us apart – why I am in Canberra working as a research fellow and she in Nusakambangan Island waiting for her execution – is due to nothing else but the luck of the draw. Had I been born under her circumstances, desperate, untrained, uneducated, denied of support and options, then I could have been in her situation.
In an increasingly proud narrative of millennials romanticized for earning millions developing apps and choosing flexible work contracts so they can travel to find themselves, we must not forget that it is also our generation’s duty to remain rooted, to look after each other, and demand justice for what Guy Standing calls the precariats – those whose lives have been laid to waste by the vagaries of our times.
Half of today's OFWs are from this generation—between 25 to 34 years old. Just as millennials consider working as freelancers overseas because a regular 9-5 desk job in Manila has just become too boring, the precariats are increasingly trapped in a web of insecurity, lugging borrowed suitcases into the dangerous unknown.
It is the growing disparity between millennials who have too many options and precariats with very few choices that defines our generation. This is why Mary Jane matters just as well as the millennials – because people who have the power to demand change yet do nothing will always have blood on their hands. If things remain the same, the millennials will be nothing but spectators to precariats’ endless funerals. – Rappler.com
Nicole Curato is a sociologist from the University of the Philippines. She is currently based in Canberra for a post-doctoral research fellowship at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance.