MANILA, Philippines — Sen. Joel Villanueva stressed on Tuesday the importance of bilateral labor agreements with other countries in curbing the trafficking of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).
Villanueva, chair of the Senate labor committee, said such agreements would allow the Philippine government to run after third-country recruiters who send Filipinos to perilous locations, like war-torn Syria.
“Under the bilateral labor agreements, there would be sufficient protection for our countrymen against human trafficking syndicates that prey on the situation of our workers,” he said after the Senate women committee’s hearing on cases of trafficking involving Filipino women to Syria.
“In our labor committee hearings, it has been well-established that the rise of third-country recruitment poses a huge threat to our ongoing efforts against illegal recruitment and human trafficking,” he added.
During the hearing, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Undersecretary Sarah Lou Arriola said 300 Filipino household workers remained in Syria even after 10 years since a deployment ban was enforced by the Philippines.
“It is also worth noting that despite the deployment ban, the Syrian government treats our workers as legitimate workers who have valid employment contracts and even residency permits,” Villanueva went on.
“Clearly there is a disconnect happening that’s why we need to address this problem so that our countrymen, who only want to give a better life to their families, would not fall victims again,” he added.
Meanwhile, Arriola told the committee that the United Arab Emirates is the country with the highest number of trafficked Filipino workers reported to the DFA.
“In 2018, 2019, we had more than 10,000. A lot of Filipinos would do the shortcut they don’t want to pass through [Philippine Overseas Employment Administration] and they will decide to go to UAE and explore employment possibilities then they would try to change their status when they get to the UAE,” she said.
“The problem is that some of them don’t make it or end up as household service workers when, in fact, they want to do something else. That’s why our shelters there are often full,” she added.
According to her, the Philippines has already signed a bilateral labor agreement with the UAE, which will be enforced on March 31
“We asked them not to convert visit visas to working visas to discourage our people,” Arriola added.
The Senate women panel, chaired by Sen. Risa Hontiveros, looked into the alleged involvement of immigration officers in the trafficking of Filipino women to Syria.
Hontiveros previously shared the accounts of three trafficked women — alias Alice, Belen, and Carol — who all said that immigration officers were paid by their recruiter to allow them unchecked exit from the Philippines.
During Tuesday’s hearing, another OFW, identified only as Diana, came forward and recounted her ordeal and disclosed how she was forced to abort her baby before being “sold” to her employers in Syria.
The chargé d’affaires of the Philippine Embassy in Damascus, Vida Soraya Verzosa, told the committee that Alice and Belen were already scheduled to return home in two weeks.
Versoza assured the committee that the embassy was also extending assistance to the other victims.
“Under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, we cannot directly effect the extraction or rescue operations of household workers who are in the houses of their employers,” she said.
“What we can do is actually write to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who in turn will refer this to the Ministry of Interior and the anti-human trafficking department of the Syrian Arab Republic,” she added.
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