In the Philippines, we call them our heroes.

Every year, millions of overseas Filipino workers send remittances amounting to tens of billions of dollars. In 2016, according to Overseas Workers Welfare Association (OWWA) chief Hans Cacdac, OFW remittances reached an all-time high of $28 billion. It’s up from the $25.6 billion dollars remitted the year before.

All these monies have propped up the nation’s consumer economy and also represent a sizeable chunk of our Gross Domestic Product.

President Duterte was clear from the very beginning — the welfare of the Filipino migrant worker is a top labor and foreign policy priority. One of his first orders to Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Perfecto Yasay was to “make sure that our overseas Filipino workers’ needs and problems are especially and adequately addressed.” And since the beginning of his Administration, programs like the One Stop Shop Service Center for OFWs has been initiated to streamline government services and make it convenient for our new breed of heroes to process their applications in one place.

It is in this spirit, to advocate for the rights of not only Filipino migrant workers but all ASEAN migrant workers that the ASEAN Labors Ministers Retreat is once again convening. This time in Davao City, with the Philippines as Chairman of the 2017 ASEAN Summit and Related Meetings.

Secretary Silvestre H. Bello III of the Philippines’ Department of Labor and Employment will be welcoming the attendees of the retreat, which would include dignitaries and labor ministers from all ASEAN Member States.

Revisiting the Cebu Declaration

Ten years ago in another milestone event that affirmed the ASEAN’s commitment to protecting the rights and upholding the welfare of the ASEAN worker, the Cebu Declaration was signed on 13 January 2007 by the Heads of State and Government of the Member Countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations who attended the 12th ASEAN Summit in the Philippine city.

The outcome document is officially known as the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, and it aims to “intensify efforts to protect the fundamental rights, promote the welfare, and uphold human dignity of migrant workers.” All ASEAN Member States, through the signed declaration, commit themselves to their obligations in the areas of protecting migrant workers from exploitation, discrimination, and violence; enhancing labor migration governance; and supporting the fight against trafficking of persons.

The ASEAN Labor Ministers’ Retreat will revisit provisions in the Cebu Declaration, particularly on issues affecting the rights of migrant workers, undocumented workers, and the rights of family members of migrant workers.

As part of the ASEAN’s goal of strengthening economic and cultural cooperation amongst its members, meetings like the upcoming Davao retreat will strengthen the nations’ resolve to promote skilled labor mobility. Ensuring that such movement of labor exists within the ASEAN is key to addressing labor shortages and in creating a level-playing field for any ASEAN citizen who wishes to work in an ASEAN Member State.

Honing a powerful workforce

One of the key thematic priorities of the Duterte Administration for the Philippines Chairmanship of the ASEAN is to create a more people-oriented and people-centered association.

As noted in the first ASEAN Magazine produced by the Presidential Communications Operations Office:

“The ASEAN Community puts its citizens’ welfare at the center of its priorities. The community protects their rights and recognizes that their well-being is key to the region’s progress.”

“One of the specific priorities revolves around the protection of the rights of migrant workers. This is a great milestone for the Community since it is the first specific recognition that outlines the obligations of sending and receiving countries to migrant workers in the region.”

As a nation who has received the boon of remittances from millions of overseas Filipino workers, it is to our advantage that the plight of the migrant worker takes center stage in this year’s ASEAN Summit and Related Meetings.

The Labor Ministers’ meeting and ASEAN initiatives will also delve into the big picture of honing the ASEAN workforce. Meetings like the one in Davao is guided by the ASEAN Labour Ministers (ALM) Work Programme, which provides the framework to prepare the region’s labor force to face the challenges of globalization and trade liberalization.

And in a region comprising of 10 fast-growing economies and 650 million citizens representing 8.8% of the world’s population, ASEAN is positioning itself to have a pool of workers that are empowered and ready to benefit from a globalized world. (PIA)