Taken collectively, “human rights refer to the supreme, inherent and inalienable rights to life, dignity and development. It is the essence of these rights that makes (a person) human.” Two major approaches guide the work of human rights activists. The first approach derives universal concepts from existing international standards ratified by various governments. The second one locates universalism within globally shared norms and values. Some proponents of cultural relativism, on the other hand, contend that human rights must seek cultural legitimacy. The challenge is to get countries to adhere to common standards of human conduct by drawing from their respective traditions and cultural practices.

The human rights-based approach to safe and decent overseas work has two dimensions: (a) the fulfillment of the State and everyone who forms part of the state machinery, as duty bearers, of all obligations mandated by global, regional and bilateral agreements, and (b) the responsibility of the citizens/individuals or rights holders to defend, exercise and claim their human rights.

This paper describes and analyzes various policies and programs of government that respond to the needs and problems of Filipinos who work and live abroad. It examines their strengths and weaknesses compared with the international treaty commitments made by the Philippine government to protect the human rights of migrant workers. Among others, the Philippines has committed to pass enabling laws, provide adequate human and material resources and services for the safety, security and productive life of OFWs. This study shows that much progress has been made in passing local laws ensuring the provision of programs and services mandated by the international human rights covenants. Moreover, Manila has forged regional (i.e. through the ASEAN mechanisms) and bilateral agreements with many receiving countries to further enhance the safety and security of migrant workers. Despite these laudable achievements, there are serious gaps and weaknesses both in the areas of policy development and implementation of programs and services. The following recommendations may help address these gaps and weaknesses:

(a) Advocate for the extension of labor protections in the receiving country’s laws for foreign workers, including provision of minimum wage, periods of daily and weekly rest, overtime pay, social security, workers’ compensation, health care and maternity leave.

(b) Strengthen regulation and monitoring of employment agencies and recruitment fees, and impose significant penalties for violations.

(c) Advocate for the right to freedom of association, the right to form a trade union, and to bargain collectively with employers and brokers.

(d) Advocate/ negotiate for the reform of the visa sponsorship system so that workers’ visas are not tied to individual employers serving as immigration sponsor.

(e) Strengthen the pre-departure orientation program (PDOS) to include extensive briefing on the laws and judicial practices of receiving countries, and the entitlements of migrant workers.

(f) Strengthen the access of migrant workers to the criminal justice system, including legal assistance and confidential complaint mechanisms in the language spoken by migrant workers, and
(g) Expand victim services for survivors of abuse, such as shelters, hotlines, access to health care, counseling, and support to civil society and faith-based groups offering these services.