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Overseas Filipino workers demand to be heard

Hong Kong's Central district is a popular gathering spot for overseas Filipinos on Sundays -- typically their only day off. (Photo by Kenji Kawase)

HONG KONG -- On a sweltering Sunday afternoon in mid-June, more than 200 Filipinos squeezed into a hall at Hong Kong's St. John's Cathedral. Despite the lack of air conditioning, they stayed for three hours, hashing out the issues that matter most to the community of overseas Filipino workers, or OFWs as they are known.

The debate grew heated at times, but the goal of the OFWs for Change Summit was unity -- to present a unified voice that new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte cannot ignore.

The result of the summit was a list of 28 requests, submitted to the Malacanang, the presidential palace, a few days prior to Duterte's inauguration on June 30. Of the 28 points, 13 were deemed urgent -- matters that should be handled within the president's first 100 days in office.

Why the urgency? The group's letter to the president explained that the 13 priorities "relate to outstanding problems that the previous administration chose to ignore for the past six years." These include abolishing the overseas employment certificate system, scrapping terminal fees collected at the airport and other measures that impose additional financial burdens on people who are generally not well-off.

A similar event was held in Hong Kong six years ago, producing a 24-point agenda that was delivered just before former President Benigno Aquino took the oath of office. "None of them were acted upon by the Aquino government," said Eman Villanueva, the chairman of local activist group BAYAN, who has worked in the territory for almost 25 years. His group was the main organizer of the summit.

Under Aquino, the Philippines became Southeast Asia's fastest-growing economy. Remittances from OFWs, which exceed $25 billion annually, played a major role in boosting domestic consumption and expanding foreign reserves. But people like Villanueva -- one of the 140,000 OFWs in Hong Kong who support their families and the country by sending money home each month -- tend to feel the government neglected them.

Similar sentiments prevail in Singapore, which hosts the second-largest number of OFWs in Asia. Jun Equila, a Singapore representative of Migrante International, a global network for OFWs, said the Aquino government did virtually nothing for overseas workers. "It was hard for an OFW to even replace a lost passport," he said. "We are still poor after six years [under Aquino] and there is no sign of improvement."

Duterte won overwhelming support from overseas Filipino voters in the May 9 election, as they perceived him to be closer to the toiling masses. Hong Kong and Singapore had the most registered voters in Asia.

Equila and his fellow Filipinos in Singapore are generally confident that Duterte will bring about positive changes. Their frustration over corruption, inefficient public services and imperceptible economic growth prompted them to seek a president who would deal sternly with criminals and otherwise exercise strong leadership -- a la Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's first prime minister.

In fact, following Lee's economic policies was one of the most popular requests voiced by OFWs in Singapore. They also called for jailing drug lords and corrupt officials, as well as overhauling the operations of Manila's international airport.


"there are no jobs"

Lory Jean Yungco, a domestic worker who has lived in Hong Kong for almost 19 of her 43 years, has high hopes for Duterte as well. She remembers feeling secure when she was attending college in the city of Davao, where Duterte was the mayor. Now she is counting on him applying his administrative abilities at the national level.

She "never felt" that the economy back home was better off under Aquino. The way overseas workers see it, a stronger economy ought to mean more employment opportunities. "We all want to go home, but we can't," Yungco said. "There are no jobs."

Annual deployment of OFWs stood at 1.83 million in 2014, up 25% from 2010, the year Aquino was sworn in, according to the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration.

Duterte's cabinet appointments are also stirring optimism among overseas Filipinos. Rafael Mariano, the new secretary of agrarian reform, is chairman of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, or KMP, a farmers' militant group. Disproportionate ownership of farmland is seen as a root cause of inequality and structural poverty, and many OFWs are from tenant farming families.

Another encouraging sign for overseas workers is the choice of Judy Taguiwalo for secretary of social welfare and development. A progressive scholar and activist with a doctorate in Philippine studies, she is expected to spearhead Duterte's efforts to disperse growth outside Manila and suppress crime and drug addiction. These goals sit well with many workers who hail from the impoverished countryside.

Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello, who is concurrently tasked with negotiating a peace deal with rebel forces, is hitting the right notes so far, too.

Duterte has yet to spell out his policies for overseas workers, but he is expected to crack down on illegal recruiters and encourage individuals to come home. The latter is always easier said than done, and Bello acknowledged that "for as long as we cannot provide them job opportunities in the country, we have to see to it that when they go out for work, they are properly protected."

The realistic approach is to "come up with long-term programs that will provide job opportunities and lessen the exportation of labor," Bello said. To do that, the Duterte administration will have to attract more investment. "The effect is not that immediate, but we will lay down the groundwork," the secretary added.


Bullets and boxes

To be fair to Aquino, his shortcomings are not the only reason overseas workers feel they are getting less than they give.

"Aquino had some successes, such as improving coordinated responses to OFW concerns in Philippine embassies and implementing financial literacy programs for OFW families at home," said Jeremaiah Opiniano, executive director at the Institute for Migration and Development Issues. "Unfortunately, his administration wasn't able to communicate them well."

The OFWs for Change Summit, held in Hong Kong on June 19, produced a 28-point list of requests for the new president. (Photo by Kenji Kawase)

Opiniano said Aquino's efforts were overshadowed by two issues that blew up into national controversies. The first was a scheme in which airport security officers allegedly planted bullets on luggage and later extorted money from the victims, some of whom were overseas workers. Duterte, during the election campaign, said he would make the extortionists "eat bullets."

The second was a customs bureau ruling last year that parcels from OFWs, locally called balikbayan boxes, would be subject to tighter scrutiny and taxation. The workers, who typically send big parcels of goods and gifts to their families, were infuriated, prompting the government to ease the policy.

Now, with Duterte in office, many overseas Filipinos see better days ahead. Some, however, are adopting a wait-and-see stance. "The changes he says he will make look good, but it is too early to tell," said Helben G. Degoma, a 36-year-old working abroad for a shipping company. "He has done a good job in Davao, but managing a small town and a [country] is different."

Villanueva, who submitted the 28-point list of requests from Hong Kong, insists he is not going to blindly follow the new president. "We would like to help this government to [make good on] its promise that change is coming, and we will support them," he said. "But we will protest if there is a need. We will continue to be critical."

He is planning a march on July 24, a day before Duterte's first state of the nation address, to make sure the voices from overseas are heard this time.


Nikkei staff writers Cliff Venzon in Manila and Tomomi Kikuchi in Singapore contributed to this story.

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