MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines is the third largest exporter of migrant workers in the world, next to India and China.
The Visayan Forum, Inc. says, of some 9 million Filipinos working abroad, only 13% are professionals while the rest are unskilled workers who end up in difficult and often inhumane working situations.
Speaking on ANC's Dateline Philippines on Sunday, Ma. Cecilia Flores-Oebanda, president and executive director of the Visayan Forum, Inc., says women and children make up 70-80% of the 300,000 cases of human trafficking in the Philippines.
"This data, we believe, is just the tip of the iceberg," Oebanda says, citing the difficulty with monitoring cases of human trafficking. "It's not representing the whole number of trafficking victims inside and outside the country. In the Visayan Forum alone, we have 61,000 being helped in our ports and airport facilities."
Oebanda admits there is a stigma attached to the problem while a culture of acceptance also exists. She says there is also connivance involved, with local communities allowing recruitment to proceed unhampered.
Last week, the US State Department placed the Philippines under the Tier 2 watch list, citing it as a source and transit point for human trafficking for prostitution and forced labor.
It said the Philippines also lacks support for the prosecution of human trafficking cases.
Labor export, poor conviction
Flores-Oebanda said that aside from the Philippines' migrant culture, human traffickers also capitalize on the country's poor conviction rate against traffickers.
She said the government should strengthen laws against human trafficking even as it pushes for jobs for its work force.
"The more government advocates for the labor market, the more we need to strengthen our laws, so falling into the cracks of human trafficking can be addressed," Oebanda says.
"We have conviction for commercial exploitation but not for forced labor. There are around 380 ongoing cases in court. Last year, there were only eight convictions," she laments.
Despite the Anti-Trafficking Law of 2003, Oebanda says it's easy to prosecute suspects in prostitution cases, but hard to pin down perpetrators of forced labor.
"Three months ago, 15 immigration officers in Clark, Pampanga were arrested. What happened to those cases?" Oebanda says, citing the need for greater transparency.
Amid the reality that domestic workers are vulnerable to forced labor trafficking, Oebanda, who participated in a labor convention in Geneva says, the International Labor Organization (ILO) is discussing an international standard for domestic workers.
A safe haven
Partly in response to the Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP), the Visayan Forum, together with the Angelo King Foundation, has built the "Center for Hope" in Antipolo City, which is meant to provide a safe haven for survivors of human trafficking.
"The halfway house can accommodate a maximum of 100 victims at one time...At the safe house, we have skills training," Oebanda says. "We partnered with Microsoft to give training, to ensure that the girls are not there just to undergo psychosocial therapy, but also to prepare them for prosecution and build their capacity to restart their lives."
Oebanda also urged the incoming Arroyo government to seriously look into the country's human trafficking situation.
She hopes the next administration will allocate resources to line agencies to help build such facilities, and toughen-up the law and the conviction rate of trafficking cases to ensure the well-being of overseas Filipino workers.
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