Repudiating modern-day slavery


Former Senator Atty. Joey D. Lina

“The white man’s happiness cannot be purchased by the black man’s misery,” wrote social reformer Frederick Douglass in 1849 so that slavery would be “forever abolished.”

Yet, sadly, the misery of being tortured, raped, butchered, and subjected to various indignities suffered by black slaves during the time of Abraham Lincoln still exists – this time to Overseas Filipino Workers.

Long after the US Civil War ended slavery more than a century ago, horror stories still abound in many parts of the world where OFWs are continually abused and deprived of basic necessities by foreign employers who apparently delight in the misery inflicted upon fellow human beings treated as modern-day slaves.

There was the 2018 case of Filipina domestic helper Joanna Daniela Demafelis, whose lifeless body was recently found in a freezer in an abandoned apartment in Kuwait. She was physically abused, starved, and not paid for her work. A Lebanese and his Syrian wife were tagged as suspects, the Kuwait Times reported.

“We send to you a Filipino worker, hale and hearty, determined to work his heart out in order to give his family a decent and comfortable life in the Philippines. Do not give us back a battered worker or a mutilated corpse,” then President Duterte said. “I implore you. Nakiki-usap ako sa lahat ng Arabo (I appeal to all Arabs), the Filipino is no slave to anyone, anywhere and everywhere.”

But his appeal did not stop further deaths. In 2019, domestic worker Jeanelyn Padernal Villavende was sexually abused and battered for weeks before she died at the hands of her employer.

The latest OFW who got killed, also in Kuwait, was 35-year-old Jullebee Ranara whose burnt body was found dumped in the desert last January. She was allegedly tormented by her employer’s 17-year-old son who is now in jail.

Why the killings continue despite an agreement between the governments of the Philippines and Kuwait supposedly protecting OFWs is not surprising if one considers what sociologist Randy David said: “Filipino women working in Arab households as domestic helpers found themselves not only at the epicenter of a cultural clash that runs across gender, ethnic, religious, and class differences but in a world that assigned them no basic rights as human beings.”

Thus, putting a stop to the deployment of OFWs to countries where risks to their safety are so great seems to be the only viable option. Of course, intensifying the creation of local jobs and livelihood opportunities so that Filipinos are not compelled to find work abroad is certainly the best.

The apparent failure of government and private sector to provide local opportunities for people to make a decent living has forced some 12 million Filipinos to seek their fortunes elsewhere, even in war-torn countries and in areas where they face discrimination, outright abuse, or inhumane treatment.

Since the 1970s, Filipinos have lived like modern-day gypsies. Go to the ends of the earth and chances are there’s a Filipino. Every administration in the post-Marcos Sr. era has hoped foreign employment would only be a stop-gap measure to keep our economy afloat and enable people to survive hard times. But the exodus continues unabated with thousands of Filipinos leaving daily.

Such exodus comes at a heavy price. Physical separation of parents from children, and of husbands from wives, has led to rampant drug abuse, teenage pregnancies, infidelity and marital breakups.

Apart from the tremendous social costs, there's the reality that the Philippines is forfeiting its chances of competing globally in many fields – from medicine and the various sciences, to master carpentry – with the loss of our best minds and skilled workers to other countries.

Turning the tide of labor export is now more pressing. Agricultural modernization and rapid industrialization to provide decent local jobs must be a top priority of government to benefit the countryside where poverty incidence remains high. About two of every three poor Filipinos are in rural areas and are largely dependent on agricultural income and employment. Also, strengthening micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) is a must.

The relentless pursuit of such measures would be of tremendous help in finding alternatives for our OFWs and turning around the labor export policy entrenched for decades. Then overseas employment would become merely an option, not the only choice, of struggling Filipinos.

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