Last September, the president called them “modern-day heroes”. Months later, he sends one of them a signed photo of himself as condolence.
When the burnt body of Jullebee Ranara, a Filipino domestic helper in Kuwait, was found buried in the desert last month, the news came as just the latest in a long line of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) abuses that have gone unpunished for years. In 2018 and 2019, Joanna Demafelis and Jeanelyn Villavenda were also murdered in Kuwait. Because of this, the Philippines banned deployment to the Gulf country for some time, but it was eventually lifted after negotiations were made. The move may have prevented more cases from arising for a while, but Ranara’s death was proof that the halt only delayed the inevitable.
OFWs have always been the country’s pride—heroes, as we hail them, truly, because they get nothing but empty platitudes and parroted praises. But words mean nothing to the dead.
Despite how often reports like these arise, no policy protection has alleviated the occupational risks they take when venturing into foreign lands, as if we have not been sending millions of OFWs abroad for decades.
The current Philippine migration policy does fill in for the intention of bettering OFW protection against violations. There are measures that ensure workers’ protection against abuse or exploitation and commit access to benefits and services such as healthcare and social security, including consular assistance in medical or legal emergencies. These, however, are limited to memoranda of understanding (MOUs), which are not as legally binding as bilateral agreements (BLAs).
BLAs are a less common type of agreement between the Philippines and destination countries because they are much harder to establish and actually require the political will and drive to enact—things that the Marcos Jr. administration sorely lacks. As of writing, we have BLAs with only 25 countries, a tiny fraction of the hundreds that hire Filipino workers.
The Philippines, being the job-seeker in a labor market scenario, is in a poor negotiating position when seeking agreements with host countries. After all, destination countries have ready access to migrant labor from other countries and can discard us so easily if we dare assert our rights.
However, the enforcement of BLAs is imperative for the safety of our OFWs and for the sustainability of these international partnerships. These BLAs would also help delineate the border between humane treatment and downright abuse in the OFW workplace. Unless labor-receiving countries commit to such agreements, OFWs have no guarantee that their government’s security will be upheld in a foreign land.
The Marcos Jr. administration must provide a clear-cut plan for our OFWs and use his foreign visits to do something that lives up to his admiration of them. The growth and preservation of the labor migration market was already consigned to private recruitment agencies, which has emphasized capitalistic, market-focused approaches than rights-based ones.
And the truth of the matter now is that it is already too late—it has been since the first ever OFW death. It was too late for Grace Santos, Mary Jean Alberto, and Constancia Dayag—more OFWs who have lost their lives abroad due to abuse.
How many more too-lates should we endure before our government takes action? It is our duty to protect and defend our OFWs, who should not have to live in constant fear while working hard to support their families back home.
Foreign countries will continue to abuse us as we continue to function in a modern colonialist society. We have nothing but our own government to fend for ourselves, yet here we are, hoping against all hope and against all current mishaps under Marcos Jr.’s presidency that, this time, our Filipino heroes don’t come last. After all, they are heroes, not martyrs.