Monday, October 27, 2008

For a paradigm shift away from labor export to domestic employment, For a global movement of workers to protect migrant rights and welfare

A funny thing happened on the way to the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD). While the excesses and essence of globalization has been exposed with the unraveling of the financial meltdown and economic recession in the US that threatens to go global, the framework of the GFMD remains firmly in the grip of the neoliberal agenda.

The Partido ng Manggagawa (Labor Party) as the independent political party of the working class in the Philippines, oppose the GFMD for its framework on migrant workers is “economic development” not human rights. Behind its stated goals of “maximizing remittances and the benefits of migration” is the opportunist attitude that migrant workers are commodities for sale not humans with rights. Among its participants is a preponderance of big businesses with interests in the remittances of migrant workers.

Just last week a Filipino worker in Saudi Arabia was killed by beheading while another Filipino migrant is scheduled for a similar fate in the coming days. What can the GFMD do to save migrants workers? The main problem it is trying to solve is how to profit from remittances not how to protect migrants.

It is not an exaggeration to say that labor migration today is the modern-day form of slavery. Five hundred years ago the age of mercantilism saw the heyday in the trade of human slaves. In the era of globalization, millions of workers cross borders in search of greener pastures or simply to survive in the face of joblessness and destitution in their home countries.

The pull of a substantial wage differential between the sending and receiving country is enough incentive for massive labor migration. That has of course resulted in significant transfers of wealth and token alleviation of poverty in the home countries. Yet the fact that millions of migrants are involved and the reality of lack of protection for basic worker rights and respect for labor standards results in so many victims of abuse.

In the Philippines, no reliable data exists but it is common knowledge that migrant workers fall prey to excessive fees from labor contractors and employment agencies. Once abroad, many are underpaid or not paid their salaries at all. Some are forced to work 50 to 80 hour workweeks and usually without overtime pay. There are many abusive employers and some labor under unsafe conditions. Contracts are breached and migrant workers are without recourse for redress. In the worst cases, workers end up as bonded labor or sex slaves, if not incarcerated despite being innocent or dying in unsolved murders.

In many receiving countries, basic labor rights and standards are not respected and implemented. Even in advanced countries where there are formal guarantees of workers rights, baiting of immigrants and restrictive immigration policies lead to the proliferation of so-called illegals. As illegal immigrants, they are without the protection of the law and thus easily victimized. Moreover they are hunted by the governments of host countries and if caught deported back home with their dreams broken.

It is a glaring contradiction that in the era of globalization, goods, capital and information flow freely across the world and yet the free movement of labor is restricted. Trade in goods and capital flows are fully liberalized through multilateral agreements but labor migration is highly regulated through unilateral actions. This is one fundamental aspect of the grave inequalities and double standards under globalization.

Fact is neoliberal capitalist globalization is the key link in the flood of labor migration in recent times. There are an estimated 150 million migrants and immigrants around the world. Meaning 2.5% of the global population had to cross borders and oceans just to find their daily bread. In 2005, their combined remittances amount to $167 billion and could reach up to a quarter billion if those sent through informal means are counted.

Around 10% of Filipinos, almost 9 million out of a population of 80 million, are living or working abroad. Undocumented migrants and immigrants will bloat this figure further. About half are contractual workers, now called overseas Filipino workers (OFW’s), principally found in Saudi Arabia, Japan, Hong Kong, United Arab Emirates and Taiwan. The other half has emigrated mainly to advanced countries like the US, Canada, Australia, Japan and the UK. In some families, there are already two generations of migrant workers with the next on the path of becoming the new batch of OFW’s.

More than $14 billion in remittances were sent to the Philippines in 2007 alone or above $1 billion per month. The figure would rise by an estimated 50% if money sent through informal channels were included. Just the official figure of $14 billion in remittances already constitutes 10% of GNP. That amount exceeds both official development aid and foreign direct investments received by the Philippines. Without the influx of dollar remittances, the country’s current account would be negative.

The growth of remittances has been explosive, commensurate to the number of migrants and immigrants. Back in 1993, about half a million OFW’s were deployed while the remittances were worth just $2.5 billion. Yet even then this was considerable since it already equalled half of the foreign debt service.

The Philippine government actively promotes labor migration. In fact, the export of labor is part of the yearly target for employment creation. About a million migrant workers are deployed yearly. Everyday almost 3,000 Filipinos leave to work abroad.

The number of women migrant workers has been increasing and in 2007 they constitute half of new hires. Many are domestic helpers like in Hong Kong, entertainers like in Japan, and nurses like in the US. The feminization of labor migration and the lack of protection for migrant workers have led to rising cases of abuse, harassment and rape.

While the pull factor in labor migration is mainly the wage differential—a fact that exists even before globalization—the push factor is principally the deepening poverty and worsening unemployment brought about by near universal enforcement of neoliberal policies worldwide. The policies of liberalization, deregulation and privatization have led to the collapse of local industry and agriculture. Together with policies of cheap labor, labor flexibility and others associated with globalization, workers are encouraged if not forced to look for work abroad despite all the dangers, hardships and costs.

Still labor migration is a right that workers must enjoy in a globalized world. Even more than goods and capital, labor must be able to move freely across the world. Labor must be mobile in order to seek better wages and working conditions.

We insist on internationally enforceable rights and standards for all migrant workers. All internationally recognized basic labor rights and standards—as enshrined in the ILO conventions including the right to organize, bargain and strike—must be extended to all migrant workers wherever is their host country. The freedom to migrate should be a guaranteed right and discriminatory immigration polices must be cease.

A key element of the promotion of migrant workers rights and welfare worldwide is the establishment of a global movement of workers and global unions that transcend borders, race, gender and nationality. This is the challenge that the international labor movement must face squarely.

We call for an end to the promotion of overseas employment. The decades-long policy of labor export has not redounded to national development and instead has resulted in grave social costs and has exacerbated the collapse of local industry and agriculture. As a means of job generation, it has become a sorry excuse for government to abandon the goals of full employment and local industrialization.

We demand a stop to the deregulation of labor export. While government has promoted labor export, it has left migrant workers at the mercy of the scams of private manpower agencies and the whims of host country regimes. The exploitation for profit of labor export and the train of abuses it necessary entail must halt.

Decades of promoting overseas employment has not led to social progress in the Philippines and other labor-exporting countries. In fact from a long-term perspective, the social costs and the brain drain may offset whatever economic benefits accrue from labor migration.

The policy of labor export promotion must be reversed and instead governments must ensure full employment in their countries. Such a policy change can only be realized as part of a paradigm shift away from neoliberal capitalist globalization. Without falling into the trap of autarky, the domestic economy must be strengthened so that local industry and agriculture can generate decent jobs and a living wage for all the people.

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