What happens when Filipinos die abroad?

By Patrick Camara Ropeta, ABS-CBN Europe News Bureau

Posted at Jun 04 2014 10:15 AM | Updated as of Jun 05 2014 06:20 PM

LONDON -The death of a Filipina migrant worker in the UK caused confusion and anger among her peers over the repatriation of her remains, consequently raising questions on how OFWs should deal with such events.

In February, domestic worker Remedios Gorospe, 38, passed away at Hammersmith Hospital in London after suffering from lupus, an autoimmune condition where the immune system attacks different parts of the body leading to various health problems.

In a typical process for any nationality, this would have been dealt with by family and close friends of the deceased, from the registration of death at the relevant embassy, to arranging repatriation of the remains with all related costs covered.

For migrant workers, the employers who sponsored their visa would be responsible for repatriation.

Gorospe, however, was not an ordinary case. She was poor and alone with no close relations in the UK, and her family in the Philippines was unable to help due to lack of funds and know-how.

Her employers, who sponsored her entry to the UK in 2011 under a domestic worker visa, were also unhelpful. They allegedly terminated her contract immediately upon finding out about her illness, which was diagnosed in November 2013 when Gorospe was hospitalized for a month. They also allegedly threatened to force her out of the UK - despite having legitimate visa and documentation - based on saved text messages on her phone.

Some of Gorospe’s fellow domestic workers in London and Kent, where she was based, knew about the case and subsequently requested assistance from the Philippine Embassy in London.

But according to the Filipino Domestic Workers Association (FDWA), a UK-based support network, the embassy’s response allegedly seemed lackluster and unconcerned upon initial contact, upsetting the group in the process.

In a series of email correspondence presented by FDWA to ABS-CBN Europe, it appears that staff at the Philippine Embassy seemed initially cautious in dealing with the case.

Official records by FDWA stipulated how the embassy “stated that there are several impediments to the provision of the repatriation assistance,” citing a lack of OWWA (Overseas Workers Welfare Administration) membership and legal employment contract as potential road blocks for their full assistance.

The exchanges caused anger and confusion among the group who expected more from the embassy, leading them to continuously lobby for assistance to Gorospe whose body meanwhile remained stuck in a funeral home in London.

“So if a Filipino needs help and they are not an OWWA member, they won’t help? Even if they are Filipino nationals? What is the role of the embassy to its migrant citizens? Aren’t they supposed to help us? Who else will help us if not our very own Philippine Embassy?” asked Eva Mayor from FDWA.

“We wanted the embassy to help Remedios,” she added, “especially because she was vulnerable. She was [allegedly] terminated from her job due to her illness, and she has no family here in the UK. Who will help people like her? What about other Filipinos who die abroad? The embassy needs to help OFWs even if they are not OWWA members.”

At the time of her death, Gorospe was no longer a member of OWWA, which meant she was ineligible to any of its benefits including repatriation and financial assistance, under new rules which abolished lifetime membership.

FDWA points out, however, that Gorospe contributed to OWWA in previous years until 2013, and that she also had a legal employment contract under a legitimate visa, which they claim were communicated to the embassy in their bid for assistance.

Following the case, Consul General Senen Mangalile from the Philippine Embassy in London told ABS-CBN Europe that they are willing to help overseas Filipinos in any way they can, but said their remit has limitations depending on their mandate, individual circumstances, and the availability of funds.

He also blamed a “lack of awareness” among OFWs resulting in misunderstandings and confusion regarding services available from the embassy, including general assistance in legal matters, reporting exploitation, chasing rogue employers, and repatriation.

“We have programs in place but many [OFWs] are just unaware of it. If they have any problems with abuse or any crime, they should come to us and we will report it with them. And if you need help to return to the Philippines, the embassy will do its best to help you find resources to facilitate repatriation,” Mangalile said.

The consul general also added that when it comes to deaths abroad, the main purpose of the embassy is primarily registration and documentation, and if necessary, chase employers for the repatriation of migrant workers with legitimate contracts.

But if the deceased have neither legitimate employers nor personal funds, the embassy will continue their support through the Assistance to National (ATN) service, which is available to all Filipino nationals subject to government funds and individual circumstances.

“If you have an employment contract and went through the labor office, OWWA can help you because you would have been members. But if you’re not a member for any reason and OWWA cannot help you, the embassy can still help you through our ATN unit,” Mangalile explained.

ATN includes: legal assistance, from general advice to monitoring due process and assisting with court hearings; assistance to vulnerable citizens, from reporting exploitation to liaising with authorities in both the host country and the Philippine government; and repatriation assistance through whatever legitimate means possible.

The level of service, however, will be dependent on available funds and the merits of each case. And with such limitations hindering embassies, Consul General Mangalile was quick to point out the importance of support from within the overseas Filipino communities.

“We cannot shoulder everything,” he said. “Helping our fellow Filipinos in different countries around the world is a partnership between the Philippine Embassy and the local Filipino community. It must be a combination of the support of community organizations, the voice of the embassy, and the resources of the Philippine government.”

He also insisted the importance of OWWA membership, encouraging OFWs to access its full range of services beyond ATN, which includes guaranteed financial and logistical assistance in times of death abroad and repatriation.

More than 800 Filipinos died overseas in 2013, according to latest figures from the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). Gorospe is just one of many, and most of whom would have likely required some form of assistance from Philippine authorities.

In the end, the Philippine Embassy in London facilitated the repatriation of Gorospe’s remains, which finally reached its resting place in Isabella in March, approximately a month after her death. The costs were split between the embassy and her former employer who sponsored her visa.

More significantly, Gorospe’s case highlighted crucial questions that led to a dialogue between the embassy and FDWA, consequently raising awareness of issues facing migrant Filipino workers, and of availability and limitations of services at the embassy.
Deaths are never easy, and it is even more difficult when it happens away from home with limited resources. If there is anything OFWs can learn from Gorospe’s case, it would be the importance of support from both the Filipino community and the local Philippine embassy, as well as having knowledge and awareness of realistic provisions available, and a general preparedness for life’s eventualities through contracts, insurances and proper documentation.

For more information and assistance on deaths abroad and repatriation, contact your nearest Philippine embassy or consulate: https://www.dfa.gov.ph/index.php/articles/2013-03-22-05-09-29/phl-embassies-and-consulates.