HONG KONG: Migrant workers to form international alliance

March 28, 2008

Representatives of migrant workers' groups around the world, some of them church-backed, are scheduled to gather in Hong Kong from June 14-17 for the founding assembly of the International Migrants Alliance, which aims to advance the rights and interests of all migrants, refugees and displaced people. Connie Bragas-Regalado, chairperson of Migrante International, a global alliance of 130 Filipino migrant groups in 22 countries, said it was crucial for organizations to forge "coordinated and joint actions" regarding issues such as just wages, job security, criminalization of undocumented migrants and trafficking of women, among others. In 2005, the United Nations estimated that three percent of the world's population, or 191 million people, lived in a country other than the one in which they were born. Of these, 42 million are legal migrant contract workers, according to the International Labour Organization; the number of undocumented migrant workers is estimated at 35 million. "We also need to talk about how the war on terror is affecting migrant workers. We need to look into the social cost of migration," she said. Regalado, who is based in the Philippines, spoke at a briefing sponsored by Kairos, the ecumenical justice group of which the Anglican Church of Canada is a member. Regalado cited that Migrante, which provides assistance to migrant workers in distress, handles about 1,000 cases each year, the majority of them involving women who work as domestic workers in the Middle East. The group's most recent high-profile case involved Marilou Ranario, who was sentenced to death in 2007 for killing her employer. After a sustained campaign by Migrante and other groups worldwide that forced the Philippine government to appeal on Ranario's behalf, her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Migrante has maintained that Ranario had acted in self-defense and was, like other migrant workers, a victim of abuse. Regalado said that there are about 5,000 migrant Filipino workers languishing in prison, 26 of them in death row. "A lot of those in prison are undocumented workers who flee from their employers for non-payment of salaries, abuses and rape," she said. "When a worker leaves, the employer often files a case of absconding and you become a criminal." She lamented the fact that the Philippine government has continued to allow the deployment of contract workers to countries where it has no bilateral agreements, despite a Congress-approved Magna Carta banning this. The Philippines' labor export program, dating back to 1974, "provides no protection for workers," she said. "We have an Overseas Workers Welfare Association (OWWA) and the money comes from workers' contributions. Not a single cent comes from the government budget," she said. There are about 10 million migrant Filipinos living in 198 countries and of these, four million are contract workers, said Regalado. This article first appeared on the Anglican Journal website here.