Senate calls for review of labor export policies

Reexamination of PH’s labor export policy should be considered to provide OFWs with opportunities and access to gainful employment in the country.

Senators condemned the rising number of deaths and abuses among overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), especially in the Gulf States, as they called for a review of the country’s labor export policies to prevent such incidents from happening again.

The call was made during the joint hearing of the Senate committees on labor, employment and human resources development; foreign relations; and economic affairs into the gruesome death of 29-year-old Joanna Daniella Demafelis, as well as other OFW deaths and abuses, in Kuwait.

Senator Joel Villanueva, chair of the Senate Committee on Labor, Employment and Human Resources Development, denounced the abuses inflicted upon OFWs under the “kafala” or sponsorship system adopted by Kuwait and other Gulf States, where most cases of deaths and abuses are reported.

"I would like to mention that our migrant workers based in Kuwait are experiencing very different and difficult working conditions. Like other Gulf countries, Kuwait has adopted the notorious ‘kafala’ system or sponsorship system," he said.

"The ‘kafala’ system has facilitated the abusive practice of altering the terms of employment contract of migrant workers or taking their passports and identifications as leverage," Villanueva added.

Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Ernesto Abella and Presidential Adviser on OFW and Muslim Concerns Secretary Abdullah Mama-o confirmed during the hearing the poor working conditions of migrant workers under Kuwait's “kafala” system, comparing the activity as "slavery".

While the government has ordered a total ban on the deployment of migrant workers to Kuwait after Demafelis’ body was found in a freezer at an abandoned apartment in Kuwait City, Villanueva said concrete policies should be instituted on who are covered by the ban.

He pointed out that only household domestic workers enter into the “kafala” system, and the ban has caused panic among Filipino engineers, skilled workers, and professionals working in Kuwait who feared being forced into repatriation. “There is a need to revisit this and most of all, improve this so we can give justice to our modern day heroes who are working for other races just to have a better future,” Villanueva said.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon urged the government to strictly implement the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act to prevent further death and abuses of OFWs. "The government should mull over the ways for full and strict implementation of our labor laws," the former labor secretary said. Drilon also warned against the proliferation of illegal recruiters and scalawags who would try to go around the law to send OFWs to countries where there is an employment ban.

In the meantime, Senator Sonny Angara said a reexamination of the country's labor export policy should be considered with the end in view of providing OFWs with opportunities and access to gainful employment in the country. “We can no longer disregard the social costs of our labor export policy. We are exposing our kababayans to dangerous and deplorable working conditions abroad," he said.

The lawmaker has filed a resolution urging the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) to institute a reintegration program for returning OFWs.

"That is why in the new OWWA law, we made reintegration a core program because we aim for them not to leave the country anymore. We must ensure that our OFWs would benefit from the current programs and services for them," Angara said.

He said that among the reintegration programs the OWWA should be offering to returning OFWs is the free skills training under the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) to assist them in finding new jobs here at home.

The senator further urged the government to improve the country's capacity to absorb the growing Filipino labor force. "Definitely, if there's Build, Build, Build, we are expecting that there would be Jobs, Jobs, Jobs. We should fast-track our infrastructure programs to create more jobs for our countrymen," Angara said.