(STAR) HIDDEN AGENDA By Mary Ann Ll. Reyes - Vice President Noli de Castro reflected what appears to be the county’s collective response to the plight and fate of several Filipino seafarers who were maltreated by the Taiwanese captain of the vessel which employed them.

The response has been one of commiseration over their misfortune, as well as anger over the injustice perpetrated by their cruel employer and by the characters who illegally recruited them. At the same time, there is serious disappointment over the reported decision of four out of the nine maltreated seafarers not to pursue complaints against the recruiter.

This column learned that Vice President De Castro is helping the maltreated seafarers in their legal action against the illegal recruiters. They are also training as welders and are being matched with jobs in Saudi Arabia with the help of the POEA and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA). De Castro is shouldering the cost of their board and lodging while they are training.

Recently, De Castro’s office helped rescue three Filipinas who lured into prostitution in Malaysia. The three were promised jobs in hotels and restaurants but instead they were imprisoned in a sex den miles away from Kuala Lumpur.

The saga of the nine seafarers and of the three Filipina OFWs in Malaysia summarizes the current state of our kababayans abroad. Hailed as modern-day heroes, there are now more than one million of them deployed in about 197 countries.

More than one-half of our overseas workers are in the so-called high value skills category. The interesting development is the so-called feminization of our labor export. Last year, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) reported that some 70 to 75 new hires into the overseas worker force were women. They are mostly in the service sector.

Filipino nurses, mostly women, make up a significant portion of our labor export. They are mostly in the United States, Oceania, Australia and the United Kingdom. The Middle East, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Israel and Italy, however, continue to be major destinations for our countrymen seeking job opportunities abroad.

The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas reported that last year that total remittances by the OFW sector reached $12.8 billion. That figure is expected to be even higher this year and has been a major factor in boosting local consumption and the national economy in general.

The economic and inspiration roles of our OFWs are perhaps the major reasons why President Arroyo appointed Vice President De Castro as presidential adviser on OFWs.

That is an important signal that the government is not about to take this sector for granted. In this job, the Vice President brings with him his many years of experience covering, documenting and acting on the complaints of OFWs and their families through his radio and television programs. He is not a stranger to rackets perpetrated by illegal recruiters who prey on hapless Filipinos, many of them from the provinces.

In fact, he had uncovered some of these rackets during his years as a crusading broadcast journalist.

When the Vice President was named presidential adviser for OFW concerns, he must have discovered that the needed systems for ensuring the welfare of this sector are mostly in place. The POEA and OWWA have both the programs and financial resources to respond to OFW welfare needs. De Castro’s initial move had been to propose policy guidelines to restrict the deployment of OFWs to countries that would comply with minimum pay and working condition requirements, and to mandate the strict review of the employment contracts of our OFWs.

The legal protection of our OFWs appears to be likewise in place. The labor code provides deterrents to the crime of illegal recruitment. There is a constitutional mandate for the promotion of full employment “without prejudice to justice and development”. This mandate is given life under the punitive provisions of the Labor Code.

With the legal, legislative and policy frameworks already in place, what else is needed to insulate the OFW sector from predators? How could a repeat of the recent Filipinos seafarers’ saga be prevented?

The view is that there needs to be full cooperation from OFWs, from prospective foreign-based workers themselves, as well as from local government officials. There needs to be a bayanihan of sorts in the battle against illegal recruitment which is the most bitter scourge of the OFW sector.

Illegal recruitment is like cancer cells. They can be staved off if they are starved. And they will starve if local government officials prevent them from operating within their respective communities.

It appears these illegal recruiters proliferate also because many of their victims refuse to turn them in or cooperate in their prosecution. We are glad the three Filipinas had pledged that they will cooperate with De Castro in the prosecution of their illegal recruiters.

At the end of the day, De Castro and the rest of the government machinery can only do so much for our modern-day heroes.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved