By Lia Bellefontaine
After being in Manila for more than a month, I can’t help but notice that most people have a family member living abroad. In fact, the Filipino population is spread all around the world. According to a 2011 report done by the Commission on Filipinos Overseas, almost 10.5 million Filipinos live abroad, 43% of which are temporary foreign workers. That means that more than 10% of the country’s population is living abroad. Some call these Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) the “new heroes” of the Filipino economy. They make many personal sacrifices to move abroad and often work in unfavorable conditions. Since many of them send a large part of their income back home to their families and communities, they have become the second highest source of foreign income into the Filipino economy.
The issues faced by Female OFWs are vast. There is evidence of high occurrences of sexual, physical and mental abuse. Female OFWs have been subjected to human trafficking and sold as commodities between one employer to another. A large part of Female OFWs are domestic workers, who are highly integrated into the home of their employer, so they may have very little access to communication with the outside world. Their hours are often long, working all day and all night. Many organizations, both governmental and non-governmental, have worked to try to keep OFWs safe from the exploitation and abuse of their employers. The challenges of protecting a population under the jurisdiction of another country are burdensome. However, following recent events, the threat of exploitation comes from a different source: the Philippine authorities in foreign countries.
On June 21, 2013, three OFWs accused an officer of the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, of institutionalized sexual exploitation. These women had sought refuge in safe houses for distressed migrant workers set up by the POLO. Normally, the POLO and the Department of Foreign Affairs pays for repatriation to Manila. However, according to the allegations, the POLO officer required these women to pay for their repatriation with sexual favors. This scheme has been dubbed “sex for flight”. The OFWs in Riyadh are at a particularly high risk of abuse since the Saudi Arabian government has decided to crack down on undocumented OFWs, forcing thousands of OFWs to set up camp outside the Philippine Embassy, waiting for repatriation.
Although this story has attracted attention in Manila, this is not the first time that an OFW has come forward with allegations of sexual abuse committed at the hands of Philippine diplomatic officials. There have also been disclosures of sexual exploitation of distressed workers by labor officers in the Philippine embassies in Jordan, Syria and Kuwait.
Last weekend, Philippine Officials and Ambassadors from Kuwait, Syria, Jordan, Saudia Arabia, Qatar, Oman, The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya and Lebanon were ordered back to Manila for a consultation. More recently, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario has expanded the investigation to include diplomatic posts in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.
The consultations were held in order to gather information on the allegations and identify preventive and corrective measures. In a press release, the Department of Foreign Affairs outlined the long-term goal of strengthening the One-Country Team Approach to diplomacy and inter-agency cooperation. Ateneo Human Rights Center (AHRC) was asked to do a presentation on gender sensitivity for these diplomats. It was difficult to decide what approach should be taken in a situation where the abuse seems to be so systematic, almost institutionalized. We decided to educate them about their duties as diplomatic officials to protect women from abuse and discrimination, which seemed more appropriate considering the severity of the accusations.
The AHRC handles an incredible diversity of human rights work, including grass roots involvement, research and education, litigation and policy and legal reform. This is but one example of the many very interesting experiences that I have been exposed to. Since the center is made up mostly of lawyers, in the heart of the most prestigious law school in the Philippines, they are in a key position to promote human rights at the international and domestic level, however, it is always an upwards struggle.