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This is our Dunkirk.

Over the past few days, planeloads of distressed OFWs have been arriving in Manila. A few thousand overseas workers are being evacuated from Kuwait.

President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the return of the workers after a Filipina worker was found in the freezer of a Lebanese who lived in Kuwait. It is believed the Filipina, long suffering from maltreatment, was frozen to her death. An international warrant is now out for the arrest of her employer.

The incident is the latest in a spate of abuses suffered by Filipinos in that country. An enraged Duterte ordered a ban on the deployment of our workers to Kuwait.

The Kuwaiti government was initially helpful, declaring an amnesty for undocumented Filipino workers who want to be repatriated. Lately, however, as the scale of the evacuation seemed to grow, the Kuwaiti government sounded a bit of alarm. The Kuwaiti foreign minister noted the large-scale repatriation and the deployment ban could harm our bilateral relations.

Understandably, a large-scale repatriation of Filipinos workers would cause dislocation in Kuwait’s economy. Foreign workers have become an indispensable force in the Arab economy. This is true of most economies in the region. They are watching anxiously as the deployment ban and the evacuation proceeds.

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President Duterte’s outrage is understandable as well. Increasingly important as the Filipino workers may be in several Arab economies, Filipinos have enjoyed only minimal protection from their host governments.

Domestic workers, who constitute over 70% of Filipinos working in the Middle East, are most vulnerable. Treated with suspicion, their passports are often confiscated by their employers to prevent them from escaping. Exit visas are required by most governments in this region to ensure they fulfill their contracts and pay down their credit card debts before leaving. Both practices add to the vulnerability of our workers to abuse.

I participated in several programs to repatriate our distressed workers from Middle Eastern countries years ago. I learned first-hand about their dreadful experiences in the hands of employers who have no background having domestic workers. Many are fed poorly. Some are locked in the homes when the masters leave.

A few of the workers we took home had to be fetched from hospitals where they were confined because of emotional stress and mental breakdowns. Several have attempted suicide.

Conversing with distressed workers who have sought shelter in facilities maintained by our Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) was always painful. In one facility, the size of a townhouse, over a hundred distressed workers were sheltered for months while papers were processed and exit visas acquired. When we came in with plane tickets, we were welcomed like rock stars.

Over the years, we advocated reducing the number of workers deployed as household help. That is easier said than done.

We had little success enticing host governments to enforce policies that better protect our domestic workers. There are no inspections of accommodation facilities for domestic workers as is the case elsewhere. There are no qualifications set for employers seeking to hire domestic help. There are no clear policies on work hours and days off for the domestic workers. All these translate into harsh work conditions for our workers.

With the evacuation from Kuwait in progress, we could use this opportunity to leverage for more humane policies for our domestic workers in the Middle East.

Fiscal discipline

During the Senate hearings on the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) last Tuesday, the Department of Finance cautioned that fiscal autonomy is something that has to be earned.

All the good things our economy in enjoying these days is the product of nearly three decades of tough fiscal management. We worked down our once unbearable foreign debt. We accepted fiscal restructuring programs that forced us into low growth and strict austerity. We postponed spending on vital infrastructure and on education. We withdrew reckless subsidy programs to the consternation of politicians.

In the end, the discipline paid off.  We brought down indebtedness to manageable levels. We reined in deficit spending. We won credit ratings upgrades. We have finally become a good place to invest in.

From time to time, however, populism scores. Public tertiary education has now become subsidized even if we have no money to improve the pay of teachers. Social security contributions remain low even if this threatens the actuarial life of the fund.

By and large, though, we have kept deficits under control, inflation moderate and the debt load bearable. We should continue doing so if we want our economy to be attractive to long-term direct investments. That is a precondition to shifting our economic growth to one that is investments-led and therefore more inclusive.

The proposed BBL, and the larger project of federalism, is mainly about money. Regional and local governments want to keep a bigger share of revenue collections. The more radical want the local units to have first crack at the revenues, delivering only to the national government what is in excess.

During the 2005 Consultative Commission on Charter Change, I argued that making the national government only the secondary beneficiary of revenues would be a formula for a fiscal meltdown. The national government bears the burden of servicing the national debt, assuming the costs of national defense and disaster-response, as well as supporting cutting-edge educational systems.

Under the federalism format, we could lose our credit rating and, by being vulnerable to fiscal instability, be unattractive to long-term investments.

The current ARMM is not encouraging. Locally generated revenues support only about 15% of its operating costs.

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