Even the most experienced Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) are now at risk of illegal recruitment. This was the unanimous conclusion at a recently held roundtable discussion on illegal recruitment of workers at University of the Philippines in Diliman, where more than 100 victims and their relatives, advocates for migrant workers' rights, and representatives of government agencies on labour migration were present. Rose Trajano, Executive Director, Kanlungan Center for Migrant Workers, said, "Illegal recruitment now takes place even within licensed agencies that is why victims are no longer confined to first-timers."
Erwin Puhawan, a paralegal officer with Kanlungan, said that since last year there has been a surge in complaints against the so-called licensed agencies. These include recruiting more than the number of available job orders in specific destination countries, collecting excessive placement and medical examination fees, deployment without legal documents, recruitment for non-existent jobs, and failure to provide the agreed job upon - for instance, those who applied as caregivers ended as domestic helpers.
Earlier this year, Brenda (name changed), an experienced OFW, became one of the 100 victims of Prosper Manpower Inc., a Manila-based licensed agency that signed up more workers than jobs available for a factory in Taiwan. The victims shelled out placement fees as high as PHP 150,000 each (US$1=45 PHP) only to learn that there was no employment awaiting them.
With support from Kanlungan, Brenda and 14 others filed a complaint against the firm at the Prosecutor's Office. But Brenda said, "We don't know anything about the legal processes. Unfortunately, this makes our case difficult to resolve." The case is on going.
Reynaldo Remo, a senior agent of the National Bureau of Investigation's (NBI) Anti-Human Trafficking cell, said illegal recruitment cases would not prosper in local courts if no complainants are made. He urged victims to immediately report a fraudulent recruitment agency, so that severe action can be initiated against it.
According to Trajano, latest data on illegal recruitment and labour migration indicates a need to strengthen the rules that regulate recruitment agencies, and also address the government's inability to provide jobs in the country.
Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) records show that of the documented 200 cases of illegal recruitment last year, about 30 per cent involved licensed recruitment agencies. But this number may not be conclusive as victims often choose to be silent in the hope of entering into a compromise to recover a part of their placement fee. Yet, the number of Filipinos seeking employment abroad reached a record high of 1.1 million in 2006. "This is a symptom of a looming crisis in our country. A Filipino would never want to leave the country if she or he could earn and live a decent life here," Trajano said.
The Arroyo administration seems to have acquiesced to its inability to provide decent-paying jobs, thereby driving more Filipinos abroad even if at the risk of illegal recruitment. To date, an estimated eight million Filipinos toil in about 193 countries worldwide, keeping the economy afloat through their dollar remittances. In 2005, OFW dollar remittances reached to $10.69 million, Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas records show.
Adelia (name changed), 41, an experienced OFW, spent five years as a well-paid caregiver in Israel until she came back in 2004 when her father passed away. As the sole breadwinner of her family, she planned to go back abroad again.
In February last year, a fellow OFW, invited Adelia and some others to meet
Joseph Parinas, a London-based Filipino who helped compatriots secure good jobs in the United Kingdom. "I did not have doubts at first because a fellow OFW introduced us," she recalls. Adelia and the other recruits were asked to fill out forms during their first meeting at Hotel Intercontinental in Manila. They were also each asked to pay PHP 50,000 as placement fee, with the promise of deployment within the year.
But when Adelia did not get a job even after a year she started having doubts. In February, she expressed her wish to back out of the arrangement and demanded her money back. But from then on, she did not hear from either Parinas or his representative. It was then that Adelia sought the help of the government.
Different government agencies like POEA, Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), and the labour and foreign affairs departments are equipped to help out OFWs that have been vitimised by bogus recruiters.
The Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act, 1995, has been recently updated to help POEA regulate private recruitment agencies by setting up a licensing and registration system. Also, competent Filipino workers can now only be deployed to countries where the Philippines has bilateral labour agreements. But more importantly, POEA is obliged to "inform migrant workers not only of their rights as workers but also of their rights as human beings, instruct and guide the workers on how to assert their rights, and provide the available mechanism to redress violations of their rights."
Unfortunately, lack of sensitivity towards OFWs in distress and delays in prosecution of cases against illegal recruiters had drawn many away from seeking support from the government. Even Adelia faced a lot of humiliation from the staff at the migrant workers' section of the Department of Foreign Affairs.
But despite the discouraging stories about the behaviour of government agencies towards victims, John Rio Bautista, counsel at the Operation and Surveillance Division of POEA's Anti-Illegal Recruitment unit urged the OFWs to come forward and lodge formal complaints. Further, he advised them to take precautionary steps, like checking on the agency's legal status and refusing to pay until the signing of a contract, while dealing with the agencies.
Bautista added that cooperation from victims is the key to securing the preventive suspension of an erring agency. He cited the example of Emeville and Cebu Manpower Inc., licensed recruitment agencies that were immediately asked to suspend operations after some OFWs notified the POEA that the agencies reportedly recruited beyond the number of jobs available and collected fees to the tune of PHP 194,000 from each applicant.
According to Trajano, the only way this menace can be controlled is when both the government and advocacy groups take steps to heighten awareness about the operations of illegal recruiters nationwide, as many agencies conduct house-to- house recruitment in poor rural villages, where women and young people are more vulnerable. She added that the government should also ensure the adjudication of complaints within six months.
"As it is, illegal recruitment takes away their dreams, money and property. Many families have never recovered from its devastation," said Trajano.