Tech-based services needed to protect OFWs – research

MANILA, Philippines – The government as well as the private sector must invest in technology-based services for Filipino migrant workers to better monitor and counter misinformation from traffickers who prey on job seekers.

A research conducted by the University of Southern California (USC) and released last February 25 highlighted the importance of "social media platforms designed to increase connection and reduce isolation for migrant laborers and vulnerable populations."

Using the Philippines as case study, the study said tech-based networking services to overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) must be developed "so they can connect with their support networks while abroad."

Irregular practices – such as passport confiscation during the job application process and the charging of placement fees from domestic workers – are "dependent on the maintenance of a specific information asymmetry between job seeker and recruiter," the report said.

Stakeholders attested "that Facebook in particular provides a powerful means for their beneficiaries to expand their social network and has become an important mechanism for reporting abuses."

This supports a recent move by the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA) requiring licensed recruiters to create their own Facebook pages as a "communication platform for deployed household service workers (HSW)."

"Among Filipino migrant workers, isolation from network connectivity (via email, phone, or social network) was a key indicator for labor trafficking," read the report by the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy.

The Philippines is a known labor-sending country, with over 10 million Filipinos either temporarily working or permanently residing abroad.

OFWs' remittances comprise more than a 10th of the country's gross national income.

President Benigno Aquino III, however, envisions "a government that creates jobs at home so that working abroad will be a choice rather than a necessity."

Recommendations

The study recommended that governments "create other interventions, such as tech-literacy trainings, or policy measures that ensure communication access for migrant workers."

The private sector can also "develop user-friendly mobile apps that contain information on labor laws, language, and cultural norms in destination countries," it said.

Pro-OFW advocates can also "work with technologists to develop new tools that can disrupt the information asymmetries."

It added that researchers must be aware of the technological landscape, which is constantly changing.

The study also stressed the increasing role of mobile technology "being adopted faster than any technology in human history" but cautioned developers against "fixation on any one technology."

Through government programs and increased penalties, employers must understand the "illegality and unethical nature" of restricting migrant workers’ rights to communication, like confiscating their cell phones.

Good practices

The study provided a list of various government and non-profit agencies already moving toward a more technological approach in dealing with migrant workers' needs.

The POEA has an online database of recruiters with their corresponding statuses, whether they are in good standing, delisted, cancelled, forever banned, inactive, revoked, suspended, or denied renewal.

A free mobile app was developed by the POEA in March 2014 which shows the status of a recruitment agency, active job orders, as well as information about illegal recruitment and how to identify an illegal recruiter.

Civil society organizations, however, have lamented that the database is belatedly updated and therefore sometimes contains inaccurate information.

While the the app does not have a mechanism for reporting abuses, it provides the POEA hotline (722-1144; 722-1155) where such can be done.

For over a decade now, the Tulay or Bridge Education Program has also been providing OFWs and their families basic IT training in 37 centers, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Saudi Arabia.

The program was created by the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration in partnership with Microsoft.

A free, open-source mobile platform created in 2012 called OFW Watch also lets OFWs locate and access the contact number of other Filipino migrant workers near them.

The app maps in real time the location of OFWs registered to the service. It also has a mechanism for reporting abuse.

"If you know you are alone, and get into trouble, you become weak. But if you know you have a support network, then you become strong because you know you have someone around you [to help you]," said OFW Watch founder Myrna Padilla.

The non-governmental Blas F. Ople Center also recently collaborated with Google for a new mobile app called "Balikbayan," which "includes Google maps intended for workers to learn about their destination countries."

A hotline maintained by the Center for Migrant Advocacy called SOS SMS currently receives 2-5 texts a day from OFWs whose cases CMA verifies and refers to embassies. SOS SMS was launched in February 2006. 

While acknowledging the good intent behind these collaborations, the study said "such efforts should be researched for their efficacy, and potentially strengthened and expanded." – Rappler.com