MANILA: Despite the hostilities in Afghanistan, some 2,000 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) still want to stay in the war-ravaged country, and have urged their government to ease restrictions on the deployment to the region.
Evhan Manalac, who has worked at a US military base in Kandahar since 2011, said that while the word “danger” was synonymous with the country, she felt safe inside a secure American facility.
“It’s safer here than the streets of Manila. Back there you don’t know who you’ll bump into. But here, we are free to walk around and there’s no curfew,” Manalac told Arab News, adding that residents at the base have everything they need, including a place to watch movies, a gym, a playground and free food.
“Having been here for eight years, I’m used to life, just like my husband and fellow Filipino workers. When we hear from the public address system ‘rocket attack, rocket attack’ or ‘incoming,’ we run to the bunkers. The military police will then check where the rocket may have hit and every 15 minutes they announce whether it is safe or not for us to return to our accommodations,” she continued.
Manalac also said the military base has what is known as the “C-RAM” or Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar System which has successfully taken out numerous rockets.
“The last time there was an attack it was around 11:30 p.m. As HR manager of our company, I have to check the safety of our personnel and report it.”
Manalac is employed by IFONE Inc., which is contracted by the US Department of Defense to provide internet service to all of the personnel at Kandahar Air Field. IFONE Inc. has held the contract for over 10 years, and the majority of their staff in Kandahar are Filipinos. Manalac’s husband, Conrado, also works there.
Manalac said lucrative salaries were the main reason Afghanistan attracts OFWs.
“The lowest is $1,000 for those working as base facilities personnel,” she said.
“I hope the government will give a chance to those who want to come here where they can earn better than in other countries like Hong Kong, and in other parts of the Middle East.”
Joseph S. Stewart, IFONE Inc. CEO, has written to Administrator Bernard Olalia of the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) to express his dismay over certain government policies toward OFWs.
“IFONE is a showcase of the potential that Filipino citizens can achieve in global business. Therefore, we are dismayed that our professional staff, who earn perhaps 10 times the average salary paid in the Philippines, are subject to the same restrictions as migrant Filipino workers,” he said.
Stewart pointed out that staff were employed under contracts with terms comparable with international standards.
In his letter, he said IFONE wanted to explore if the POEA could grant an exception to allow the company to continue hiring people from the Philippines to work under US military contracts in Kandahar.
“Other companies seeking similar treatment could be approved on a case by case basis,” he said. “We believe it’s unfair that highly skilled professional Filipino citizens should be lumped together with unskilled migrant workers, who really need assistance and are subject to exploitation.”
Migration expert Emmanuel Geslani said OFWs working inside US bases in Afghanistan were not covered by the POEA deployment ban, as they hired by international contractors working for the US Defense Department under the Logistics Civil Augmentation Program.
Filipinos have been working in Afghanistan since 2008, when they were transferred by international contractors following the pullout of US forces from Iraq.
As the number of US troops in Afghanistan has increased, so too have the contracts for logistical personnel, swelling their numbers from 3,000 to 8,000. Back in 2008, however, they were considered by the Philippine government as undocumented workers.
“Many of them traveled to Kuwait or Dubai, which they used as jump-off point to sneak into Afghanistan,” Geslani said.
But in 2011, a media campaign was launched to force the government to give the OFWs documentation. In the same year, upon the recommendation of the POEA, the government agreed to the partial lifting of the ban on deployment to Afghanistan, allowing OFWs already in the country to continue working there and to renew their contracts.
In 2014, another problem arose when a deployment ban was put into effect due to the escalation of violence in Afghanistan.
“The government again issued again an exemption from the ban which covers Filipinos in Afghanistan working for international organizations, embassies, Afghan government offices, those employed by international contractors inside US bases, and those married to Afghan nationals,” Geslani added.