migrant workers

[OPINION] Questions on the migration policy of the Marcos Jr. administration

Carmel V. Abao

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[OPINION] Questions on the migration policy of the Marcos Jr. administration
'The reliance on OFW remittances – as a development strategy – is unethical'

Thank you very much Secretary Manalo for your presentation.  I appreciate your narration and explanation of the different facets of Philippine foreign policy under the Marcos Jr. presidency.  Thank you too to my colleagues Dr. Aldaba and Dr. Oreta for shedding light on concerns that surround the two pillars of Philippine foreign policy: economic security and national security.  

For my part, I will attempt to articulate concerns surrounding the third pillar, which is the protection of Filipino migrant workers.  

I have three questions. I developed these in consultation with colleagues in two organizations: the Working Group on Migration or WGM of the Department of Political Science of Ateneo de Manila University, of which I am a co-convenor and the Center for Migrant Advocacy Philippines or CMA, of which I am a member of the Board of Directors. 

Here is our first question

How does the current government view existing mechanisms for global governance of migration?  Does it see these mechanisms as necessary and sufficient? If yes, which ones and for what reasons?  What labor policy (or principle or values) does the Philippine government want to promote at a global scale? 

We ask because we think it is important to know how the new government will be positioning itself in the various international organizations and forums that discuss and debate and decide on migration policy.  You mentioned the Global Compact on Migration. 

We have been closely monitoring GCM developments ever since 2016 when the UNGA decided on the Compact.  We recognize the importance of getting all UN member states to agree on a common framework on migration, but we’d like to ask about the strategic value of non-binding agreements over binding ones.  And of setting shared objectives instead of setting global standards.  This might be a false dichotomy.  They probably go together but I think it needs to be discussed because the Philippine government has always taken the route of agreeing to standards that are rights based. 

We ratify ILO and UN conventions and then create national legislation in support of these conventions – from CEDAW to the Convention on Migrant Workers to the ILO core labor standards, etc.  This has always been the practice.  Until around 2007 when the Philippines, along with many other states, shifted attention to the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) which was an informal, voluntary intergovernmental body and then the GCM in 2016. 

So, we need to ask what the Philippine government thinks is the appropriate mechanism for the global governance of migration – and why.  And does the new Philippine government believe that global consensus can be meaningful given conflicting interests of states.  For example, the national security interests – and need for surveillance – of host countries in the Global North as against the employment and protection concerns of sending countries in the Global South.  Can one really talk of “global governance” of migration – or a global consensus on migration – given these conflicting interests and sovereignty concerns? 

Our second question is on the national governance of migration:  Given the challenge of post-pandemic recovery, will there be any shift in Philippine migration policy? Will the new government further outmigration or will it focus on job creation here at home? 

We ask because we need to take the numbers seriously: as of July 2022, 3.7 million Filipinos had been repatriated.  2.3 million of these were OFWs.  Do we advise 2.3 million Filipinos to stay here or return abroad for work? 

President Marcos Jr., even during his electoral campaign, has said that he will continue his father’s migration policy.  That policy is labor export.  Why continue a policy that’s 50 years old?  And why stick to labor policy of the past when conditions of the global labor market have drastically changed?  

Or perhaps the President doesn’t really mean this given that he has also claimed that he will prioritize jobs here.  So may we know what exactly is the current government’s priority: labor export or domestic job creation? 

This question of prioritizing either labor export or domestic job creation is important because efforts of Philippine government actually point to the former as the continuing priority – despite rhetoric on job creation.   

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There are at least two indications of this: (1) for the Global Compact on Migration, the Philippine government has committed to prioritizing Objective 6 – on ethical recruitment and Objective 12 – on reintegration.  Why did we not commit as well to Objective 2 – which is “to minimize the adverse drivers and structural factors that compel people to leave their country of origin;” (2) we have more institutions for deployment than for reintegration.  The POEA and the OWWA are more than 40 years old but the NCRO is only 10 years old. And now, we have the new DMW which is essentially the POEA.  The direction of this new DMW is again, deployment.  

In other words, government’s pronouncement on prioritizing local job creation is not reflected in its actual efforts. 

We in the WGM and the CMA have always been of the view that while migration cannot be stopped overnight, it should not be furthered.  We take this view on a matter of principle, i.e. migration should not be forced; it should not be the first or only option of Filipino workers, and no worker should migrate for lack of job opportunities here.  And we all know the social costs of migration especially on the cohesion of Filipino families.  And the costs on our women – who repeatedly suffer problems not just because they are migrants but because they are women.  

There are also ethical considerations.  The reliance on OFW remittances – as a development strategy – is unethical.  While government officially denies this in paper, we know for a fact that it is happening.  I don’t think anyone can refute the reality that remittances have kept our economy afloat – despite crisis after crisis.  And it is afloat because of our domestic workers and construction workers. In 2019, before the pandemic, remittances of these OFWs – those in elementary occupations – made up 27% of the total remittance for that year – which was P210 billion. This situation begs the question: is it ethical to put the burden of keeping an entire economy afloat on the backs of workers who, in the first place, had to go overseas because the local economy left them with very minimal job opportunities and low incomes? 

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Our third and final question is on the relationship between the DFA and the DMW.   We know that RA 11641 which created the DMW stipulates that the new department will coordinate with DFA on the following: building relations with counterpart agencies in host countries, forging of bilateral or multilateral labor agreements, representation in international bodies concerning migration, and assessing security risks in host countries. Our concern is not coordination because even before the DMW, coordination was already standard operating procedure.  Our concern is leadership: who will lead what, especially in host countries. 

How will the Migrant Workers Office or MWO of the DMW – which replaces the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) – operate vis-à-vis the PH Embassy and Consulate in host countries?  We know that bilateral relations can only be forged based on reciprocity and that it is the embassy that represents the Philippines in reciprocal relations with host countries.  Does this mean that the MWO will have to go through the Consulate to represent the country in concerns such as processing of end of term benefits, sealing the coffin of dead OFWs before repatriation, etc.?

This question of leadership is important because under RA 11641 the MWO is practically co-equal to the Consulate – but who exactly will be “the PH representative”: the head of the MWO or the head of the Consulate? If leadership is lodged in the MWO, will this new body be recognized by the host countries?  

Moreover, the MWO will focus only on OFWs and the Consulate will have to take care of the overseas Filipinos or OFs.  How exactly will this be operationalized in terms of representation – example: in in the ILO,  will the MWO be participating in labor conferences in Geneva?  And how about during overseas voting – will the COMELEC have to deputize both the MWO and the Consulate?  And what about assistance to nationals or responding to OFWs and OFs in distress – will that be separate too?

What will happen to the “one country approach” that has always guided PH embassies and consulates abroad?  

Finally, we want to ask how the Philippine government intends to cushion the effects of restructuring on affected government workers.  The new DMW will affect seven agencies:  the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA); the Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs (OUMWA) of the DFA; the International Labor Affairs Bureau (ILAB) and all Philippine Overseas Labor Offices (POLO) under DOLE; the National Maritime Polytechnic (NMP); the National Reintegration Center for OFWs (NRC) under the OWWA, and the Office of the Social Welfare Attaché (OSWA) under the DSWD. How can government restructure without displacing workers in these agencies? And how can government restructure while saving or maximizing the institutional memory and capacities of these agencies? 

Thank you for listening to us, Secretary Manalo.  We know we have raised many and difficult questions. But as they say: the devil is in the details.  We hope you won’t mind explaining the details to us.  Thank you. – Rappler.com

This piece is an excerpt from the presentation of the author at a forum dubbed the Amb. Rodolfo Severino Endowment Fund Lecture “Directions and Challenges of the Marcos Jr. Administration’s Foreign Policy” on October 13, 2022, organized by the Political Science Department of Ateneo de Manila University in cooperation with the Carlos P. Romulo Foundation for Peace and Development.  

The presentation was a reaction to the keynote speech of DFA Secretary Enrique Manalo. A recording of the forum can be accessed via the Ateneo de Manila University’s website and Youtube channel.

Carmel Abao teaches political science at Ateneo de Manila University.  

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