Bernardo M. Villegas
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OFWs To The Rescue Again (Part 2)

             Thanks to the long-term efforts of caring and competent leaders like the late Secretary Susan Ople, OFWs have been a major force for the integral human development of numerous societies all over the world.  As one of her close collaborators in policy research, Dr. Veronica Ramirez, mentioned in one of her scholarly papers on OFWs, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, eulogized OFWs as “missionaries of their faith among the people they live and work with…  Filipinos know how to evangelize in a very wonderful way, not only here (Macau), but everywhere in the world.”  With an estimated 10 million of them, they bring their witnesses everywhere.  Cardinal Filoni, who once served as Apostolic Nuncio to the Philippines enthused: “This is wonderful!  It means no borders to their fraternity!”

            OFWs bring their Christian faith wherever they go. I have personally witnessed in churches all over Europe and the Middle East how Filipino Catholics are the engines of the practice of the faith where ever they are.  They are the ones who help fill the churches, not only on Sundays and holidays of obligation but even during weekdays.  Almost always, a good number of them are the ones who sing in the church choirs, serve as lay ministers, and help the parish priests with sundry services.  In a press conference, Cardinal Luis Tagle said that the OFWs have become the big missionary presence.  They are perceived as heirs who have received a legacy or an inheritance as a gift of faith, which cannot be used only for oneself but it is to be shared with others.    In his visit to the Philippines in 2015, Pope Francis prayed that the Santo Nino bless the Philippines and sustain Filipino Christians “in their vocation to be witnesses and missionaries of the joy of the Gospel in Asia and in the whole world.”

            Social leaders like Toots Ople tried their best to ensure that some very well-intentioned international agreements and local legislative measures were actually being implemented to promote the over-all welfare of OFWs.   For example, the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations as early as December 1990.  At the local level, the R.A. 10022 Workers Act mandated that the Welfare Officer of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) or in his absence, the coordinating officer shall provide the Filipino migrant and his family all the assistance they may need in the enforcement of contractual obligations by agencies and entities by their principals.  The OWWA was likewise mandated to formulate and implement welfare programs for overseas Filipino workers and their families while they are abroad and upon their return. It shall ensure the awareness by the OFWs and their families of these programs and other related government programs. 

            A new section (37-A) of Republic Act No. 8042 provides for the compulsory insurance coverage of agency-hired workers.  In addition to the insurance coverage, the policy shall also include: “compassionate visit.”  When a migrant worker is hospitalized and has been confined for at least seven days, he shall be entitled to a compassionate visit by one family member or a requested individual.  In fact, Toots Ople performed this corporal work of mercy many times even before she became the Secretary of the Department for Migrant Workers.  This reminds me of how Pope Francis himself has the welfare of migrant workers all over the world by incorporating another invocation to the Litany of Our Lady of the Rosary: “Solace of Migrants.”

            Another very important help to OFWs is the provision that “The insurance company shall pay for the transportation cost of the family member or requested individual to the major airport closest to the place of the hospitalization of the worker.  It is, however, the responsibility of the family member or requested individual to meet all visa and travel document requirements.

            Among the NGOs working for the welfare of OFWs is the Center for Migrant Advocacy—Philippines, an advocacy group that promotes the rights of overseas Filipinos, land or sea-based migrant workers, Filipino immigrants and their families.  The Center helps to improve the economic, social and political conditions of migrant Filipino families everywhere through policy advocacy, information dissemination, networking, capability-building and direct assistance.  The Vision of CMA is of a society where justice, good governance, equal opportunity and gender equality prevails.  It is one where migrants enjoy equal rights and protection regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender, occupation or residency status.

            Dr. Veronica Ramirez includes in her article a reference to a study done by Marjorie Pajaron of the School of Economics of the University of the Philippines that presents a positive aspect of the phenomenon of the OFWs.  There are usually reports about the negative impact of OFWs who leave their children to work abroad.  The report of Ms. Pajaron presents an alternative view.  According to her in a 2011 Survey on Children (SOC), that was undertaken by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Philippine National Statistics Office (NSO), migration improves children’s welfare, or at least does not diminish it.  The results of the survey showed that children of migrants are more likely to reach a higher level of educational attainment, more likely to have good study habits, less likely to have poor grades, and less likely to have worked in the past week and in the past year.  The study indicated that the positive income effect from remittances compensates for lack of parental presence and involvement.           

            The findings of the study also suggested that aside from the income effect of remittances, the positive impact of parental migration on the welfare of the left-behind children may also be ascribed to the gender of the household head.  The results suggested that when they live in female-headed households, left-behind children are less likely to have poor grades and are more likely to reach a higher grade level.  The gender of the child also matter  at least for good study habits where boys appear to perform better than girls.   Other positive findings of the SOC are self-rated food poverty is 20% among OFW families vs 35% among other families.  Hunger among OFW families is 6.0% vs. 11.2% among others. 

            A study undertaken by Dr. Ramirez herself came out with some significant findings about the mental health of OFWs.  Once they are employed abroad, the psychosocial factors that affect OFWs are heaviest in the work environment itself, in the worker’s capacity needs and culture, and personal extra-job considerations.  Although many are satisfied and feel secure in their work, they still experience culture shock and feel the pressure of high expectations as regards their work performance.  These factors affect their physical as well as mental health. 

            As regards mental health, OFWs are reluctant to seek professional help.  They ask for it only as a last resort.  They are more inclined to get help from family and friends or some lay network.  They tend to resort to alternative medicines, self-medication or some unscientific practices such as seeking help from traditional folk healers or just relying on their prayers.  There are varied reasons for not seeking professional help, such as worry about immigration status, lack of health insurance, language difficulty, or fear of discrimination.  Added to these are financial constraints due to high cost of service, lack of health insurance, or precarious working condition.  There is also the fear of stigma, sense of shame, embarrassment and disgrace, fear of being labeled as “crazy” and concern about loss of face.

            These findings have prompted a group of young entrepreneurs and social workers to put up clinics here and the major cities where OFWs can seek professional help concerning any mental health issue at very affordable prices.  The first foreign city they are targeting is Barcelona where the majority of OFWs to Spain are concentrated, especially in a barrio called Raval where a large number of OFWs work and reside.  They intend to partner with one of the Catholic parishes in that district to supplement what are already being done to help the human and spiritual formation of the OFW community as well as other migrant workers from other countries.  This group of social entrepreneurs from the Philippines intend to replicate their experience in Barcelona in other Spanish cities and all over the world in the long-run.  To be continued.