Until our Mary Janes come home

October 22, 2019

by Xandra Liza C. Bisenio

Did you also feel your world stop in 2015 when we thought that Indonesia had executed overseas Filipino worker (OFW) Mary Jane Veloso? Please, not another Flor Contemplacion, not another OFW coming home in a balikbayan box. Putting her kids through school was Mary Jane’s only compulsion for leaving her family and homeland for any available work elsewhere, as opportunities here are quite limited.

Her recruiters surrendered to the authorities right before her death sentence was carried out. They were the ones that gave Mary Jane the luggage with packs of heroin. Long story short, she was granted reprieve on the 11th hour but remains incarcerated and on death row.

The happy story is that the Philippine Supreme Court (SC) recently granted the motion filed by Mary Jane’s family, through the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), for her to be allowed to testify against her recruiters. But this is after a series of appeals and rulings that prevented Mary Jane from telling her side of the story in court. This may just be the very opportunity for her to step closer to freedom, say her family and counsels.

Our wish for Mary Jane is not only for her case to be dismissed but for her to be able to come home. It is a wish not only for her but for all OFWs who would otherwise prefer to stay in the Philippines if not for the lack of jobs and insufficient pay here.

The number of OFWs leaving daily has more than doubled since the time that Mary Jane first worked abroad. In 2009 around 2,500 Filipinos left to work abroad daily. The number reached 6,298 in 2018, according to Filipino migrant workers’ rights watchdog Migrante International. In contrast, only an average of 2,260 new jobs were created daily in that year.

According to IBON the average number of jobs created per administration is most dismal under the current administration. Under the Corazon Aquino administration an average of 810,000 jobs were generated annually from 1987-1992; under Fidel Ramos 489,000 from 1993-1998; under Joseph Estrada 842,000 from 1999-2001; under Gloria Arroyo 764,000 from 2002-2010; under Noynoy Aquino 827,000 from 2011-2016; and under Rodrigo Duterte, 81,000 from 2017-2018.

Measly wages in the Philippines have also pushed Filipinos out of the country. The highest National Capital Region minimum wage of Php537 falls way short of the IBON-estimated Php1,009 living wage for a family of five (July 2019). We know relatives and compatriots who are nurses, doctors and engineers who receive salaries abroad that can be four or more times of how much they can earn here.

Yes, OFWs have been hailed as new heroes for the huge remittances that have helped buoy the economy for many years. Labor export has been a policy since the time of Ferdinand Marcos. The Noynoy Aquino government meanwhile said that Filipino workers are world class – did he not mean for providing the global market with remarkable skills and among the cheapest labor in the world?

But haven’t this administration and its predecessors promised at one point or another to make the local economy capable of generating millions of stable jobs so that Filipinos would not have to leave the country for work? IBON’s midyear 2019 report showed that remittances have actually been slowing due to the crisis gripping the globe. After the 2008-2009 crisis, remittances grew by an average of 6.4% annually, but slowed in the period 2017-2018 to an average of 3.7% annually.  It does sound shaky for a country to rely on external sources of wealth without developing its own potential industries such as agriculture and manufacturing.

It is even more disturbing that government plays up the gains of having a huge OFW base while it knows the perils and troubles it puts migrant workers through. The travail begins with having to muster hundreds of thousands of pesos in placement fees, and various other fees aside from air fare; being physically separated from family; thrown into a foreign culture; subjected to different levels of discrimination, and verbal and physical abuse; and at times even denied support from our very own Philippine consuls abroad.

In 2018, elementary occupations and service and sales work comprised the biggest chunks of OFWs at 37.1% and 18.8%, respectively. Majority of those in elementary occupations or 58.7% were female.

Migrante’s accounts of cases similar to Mary Jane’s – some milder, some worse – are piling up. There will be more Mary Janes until things substantially change for the better back home. Good thing we aren’t totally helpless nor incapable of pushing that. Mary Jane’s plea for clemency was rejected more than once but this only gained her more support both in the Philippines and in 150 countries that delivered over 250,000 signatures for the #SaveMaryJane campaign. It’s still a long shot, but we just keep trying to get our act for change together until our Mary Janes come home. ###

Photo from Bulatlat