By  Andrei Medina and Veronica Palumbarit
Source: GMA News

First of two parts

For decades, the Philippine government has claimed it does not have a labor export policy, even as the country has become one of the world’s top sources of foreign workers.

As of last year, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) says there were 1.32 million land-based and 330,424 sea-based Filipinos deployed in 190 countries. The number does not include workers that are not registered but are employed through various means abroad.

The phenomenon traces its roots to the years shortly after Martial Law, when strongman Ferdinand Marcos issued Presidential Decree 442 or the 1974 Labor Code. The legislation formally adopted a recruitment and placement program “to ensure the careful selection of Filipino workers for the overseas labor market to protect the good name of the Philippines abroad.”

In an email to GMA News Online, the office of POEA Administrator Hans Leo Cacdac explained, “The overseas employment phenomena at that time was a short-term employment program which the DOLE was tasked to manage and to provide OFWs maximum protection possible.”

The POEA is an attached agency of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE).

“There was no labor export policy during the Martial Law. There is none at present,” the Labor Communications Office of DOLE told GMA News Online.

The DOLE acknowledges however, that the overseas employment program during Martial Law “sought to temporarily address the unemployment program and, at the same time, ease the country’s need for foreign exchange.”

Marcos created three government agencies to attend to the needs of what were then called Overseas Contract Workers (OCWs):

(1) the National Seamen Board (NSB) –  tasked to “develop and maintain a comprehensive program for Filipino seamen employed overseas”

(2) the Overseas Employment Development Board (OEDB) – mandated to “promote the overseas employment of Filipino workers through a comprehensive market and development program,” and

(3) the Bureau of Employment Services (BES) – responsible for the regulation of “private sector participation in the recruitment of (local and overseas) workers.”

In 1978, Marcos issued Presidential Decree 1412 to “strengthen the network of public employment offices and rationalize the participation of the private sector in the recruitment and placement of workers, locally and overseas.”

Four years later, he merged the three government agencies into what is now the POEA. On Labor Day in 1982, Marcos also issued Executive Order No. 797 that created the Welfare Fund for Overseas Workers to provide insurance coverage, legal and placement assistance, and remittance services, among others.

Origin of Filipino labor migration

Even before Martial Law formalized export labor, however, DOLE said the migration of Filipino laborers had begun much earlier, as early as the 1900s “when Filipino agricultural workers were recruited to Hawaii to fill temporary labor needs in the agricultural sector.”

Filipino laborers later moved to other parts of the US “to work in downtown hotels and restaurants, sawmills and railroads construction, in California’s agricultural plantations, and in Alaska’s canning industry,” DOLE said.

When the Second World War ended in 1945, some Filipino military servicemen became American citizens after serving in the US Army. Many medical professionals, nurses, accountants, engineers, and other technical workers also began migrating to the US after the war, DOLE said.

“In the 1950’s to the 60’s, non-professional contract workers went to neighboring Asian countries as artists, barbers, and musicians in East Asia and loggers in Kalimantan, Indonesia,” according to DOLE.

“However, the active and systematic migration of Filipinos for temporary work came in the 60’s when the US government and contractors of US military and civilian agencies recruited Filipinos to work for construction and service-related jobs in certain areas of the Pacific and Southeast Asia such as in Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, Wake Island, and Guam,” the agency added.

Later, more Filipino medical workers, physicians, and nurses sought employment in the US, Canada, and Australia, prompting the Philippine government to issue the new labor code in 1974 that covered Filipinos working overseas.

“Filipino engineers and skilled construction workers were recruited by multinational companies with projects in the oil-rich countries in the Middle East which experienced an economic boom at that time. This organized system for migration of Filipino workers paved the way for the deployment of millions of Filipinos all over the world up to the present time,” the DOLE reported.

Cheap Filipino labor

However, the migrant workers advocacy group Migrante believes that Marcos pushed for the labor export policy for two reasons: to quell dissent brought about by massive domestic unemployment and the political crisis, and to consolidate foreign exchange from remittances.

“During Marcos’ time, labor outmigration of Filipinos took on a new dimension. The Marcos dictatorship made the deployment of Filipino workers more systematic, ushering in the transformation of Filipino cheap labor into an exportable commodity through the labor export policy,” said Connie Bragas Regalado, Migrante sectoral partylist chairperson.

“The country was in disarray both economically and politically. The move was mainly to appease growing dissent brought about by unemployment, landlessness and growing poverty, and to systematize earnings from remittances,” Regalado told GMA News Online.

“Exportation of cheap labor was the way to go without requiring much capital from the government (all charges were collected from OCWs themselves or their foreign employers) and profit was sure-proof through remittances and foreign exchange,” she added.

From OCWs to OFWs

After Marcos was ousted during the 1986 People Power revolution, President Corazon Aquino issued Executive Order No. 126 renaming the Welfare Fund into the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA).

“The term OFW was adopted after the enactment of RA 8042, also known as Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995. Following this, the 2002 POEA Rules and Regulations Governing the Recruitment and Employment of Land-based Overseas Workers adopted the term Overseas or Migrant Filipino workers,” according to DOLE.

The POEA said the Philippine government “frowns upon the tendency to regard OFWs as commodities, which results to undocumented workers going abroad at a great peril to themselves, in terms of human trafficking, maltreatment, and abuse.”

Under President Benigno Aquino III, the agency “gives the priority and weight in strengthening the local industries to promote and sustain local employment so that overseas employment shall only be an option for the Filipino workers.”

As of 2010, over 10 million Filipinos were residing abroad, based on the stock estimate of the Commission on Filipinos Overseas. The number includes the 1.65 million OFWS registered with the POEA.