ALPSIDE DOWNED: Not in Our Name

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BERN, Switzerland (MindaNews / 6 June) –  Some excesses of this government are being committed in the name of the OFW (overseas Filipino worker), the Filipino living and working abroad.

That may be a rash statement to make. But I can cite several examples, the latest of which is “The Kiss” committed during the President’s town-hall meeting with Filipino OFWs in south Korea.

Malacanang’s take is that the president kissing the female OFW is just “a playful act” accepted in Filipino culture.  Said presidential spokesman Harry Roque on the act and the furor that followed it: “The President’s gesture was a light moment accepted in Filipino culture.” There was no malice in the kiss and it was not an issue to the woman, so let’s leave it at that, added Roque.

Lastly, the act was appreciated by the community, said Roque, adding: “It was an act of endearment intended towards all OFWs.”

Or is it? When is kissing a strange woman who you know to be married considered an act of endearment? That is a gray area that can only be explained by the context, which is clearly missing in the Palace’s version of the act.

One of the better explanations I read in the internet comes from a Filipina, who examined what happened in the context of power relations. Put simply, the context is this: Duterte is the powerful president while the woman, obviously a Duterte fan, is an ordinary OFW. Already, there exists between the two an imbalance of power by virtue of sex, age, and position.

The woman and a companion are called to the stage, nagmano ang babae sa presidente – a gesture which in our culture is an acknowledgment of the power and age difference.

The two were already leaving the stage, but the president called her back and asked for a kiss on the lips. The kiss was supposed to be in exchange for a copy of a book the president was holding. A kiss for a book? It is a queer proposition in any culture, if you ask me. But what was the woman to do? The crowd was loudly cheering and egging them on, and there was pressure in her to submit. Who was in control? It was the president who wielded power over the woman in this situation. Who could say no in such a situation? Only few, maybe none.

Clearly the president was playing to the audience of OFWs to give them gigil. He admitted he has done this before as Davao mayor, knowing that any woman put on the spotlight will be powerless to refuse or else be branded a wet towel and a killjoy by friends. And this trick exploits the feelings of alienation of the ordinary OFW, who would not want to spoil this supposed once-in-a-lifetime moment.

But we have a shrewd president who has put his finger (pardon the pun) on the psyche of the ordinary OFW.

He parlayed this understanding of the Filipino overseas into an election message powerful enough to resonate in the OFW: I know your fear and insecurity over your families at home. But leave it to me. I will rid your communities of drugs and criminality in six months, and make sure that your sons and daughters will be safe when you come home.

Certainly, that message tapped into the OFWs’ massive insecurity over leaving homes and families. And I say massive, because the ordinary OFW agonizes over what can happen to the family while they are away. They pray in the churches abroad to keep their families safe, and they will blame themselves for leaving – and not fate or circumstance – over any misfortune that will happen to their loved ones.

And this was how another sin was committed in the name of the OFW. Or should I say sins, because thousands of lives were lost in a drug war that exploited the OFW’s insecurity over the state of the nation and their communities. The line amped up for migrant workers was that of crazed, useless addicts capable of committing heinous crimes against helpless barangays, even if the news reports showed that in many cases, those killed were unemployed casual users in poor communities who were selling drugs to support their families.

But the government capitalized on this collective paranoia, gambling that the ordinary OFW would choose to ignore the rights violations committed in the war against drugs because their overpowering need was to come home and find their families safe and secure. In the drug war, the irony was glossed over that some Filipino mothers would have to come home from abroad because their sons had been killed as drug suspects.

Two years ago, OFWs also voted for Duterte for this promise: to ultimately bring OFWs home by creating local jobs for them. The government is targeting to create 12 million jobs by the end of Duterte’s term in 2022.

OFW groups had hoped that a policy of genuine rural development and national industrialization would create domestic jobs and end the cycle of forced migration.

But the government will be hard-pressed to find quick alternatives to the remittances that OFWs regularly send home. Take the case of Kuwait. Spurred by the president’s anger over the killing of a Filipina maid by her employers, the foreign affairs department started a campaign to “rescue” Filipinas from abusive employers. The ill-advised move got botched, resulting in a serious diplomatic spat with Kuwait. A full deployment ban to Kuwait was put in place, and hundreds of Filipina workers were sent home. But with only about 100,000 jobs available for OFWs and ill-prepared to deal with more returning migrant workers, the government ultimately had to lift the ban, after sealing a deal with Kuwait for Filipino workers’ protection there.

The labor department said there were alternative job markets for OFWs affected by the deployment ban to Kuwait, including Czechoslovakia, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Europe and the United States. Two years into this administration, it seems the drive and intent to bring OFWS home by providing “good (domestic) jobs with good pay” remains lacking. (Mindanawon Abroad is MindaNews’ effort to link up with Mindanawons overseas who would like to share their thoughts about their home country and their experiences in their adopted countries. Brady Eviota wrote and edited for the now defunct Media Mindanao News Service in Davao and also for the SunStar Cagayan de Oro. He is from Surigao City and now lives in Bern, the Swiss capital located near the Bernese Alps.)

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