SOS SMS: A Text Helpline for Philippine Workers

Posted by CorinneRamey on Feb 14, 2008

A single computer, hooked up to a modem in Bobby Soriano's house in the Philippines, receives a steady of stream of text messages begging for help. There have been messages from Philippine seamen, who, after being accused of the murder of a Korean captain, were forced to confess by Omani police. There was a Philippine domestic worker in Lebanon who was forced to flee to the mountains to escape Israeli bombings, and a message from twenty Philippine sailors who were evicted from their ship by police near Denmark. In each of these cases, a single SMS message with the keyword "SOS" was sent to a hotline in the Philippines, activating a network of nonprofits and government agencies to come to the workers' rescue.

The hotline, called SOS SMS, is a project of the Center for Migrant Advocacy (CMA) in the Philippines and its partners in Saudi Arabia. This Valentine's Day, SOS SMS celebrates its two year anniversary since its initial launch on February 14, 2006. "It was our gift of love to the migrant Filipino workers," said Bobby Soriano, an IT volunteer who maintains the system in Manilla.

The SOS SMS system is a literal lifeline for thousands of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), a group comprised of about eight million Philippine citizens. In 2005, OFWs sent more than $10 billion to the Philippines in remittances, which represents about 13.5% of the country's GDP. About a third of OFWs are unskilled workers. The SMS line allows Philippines to send a text message of distress to the Philippines, where it is then forwarded to a variety of migrant advocacy and government organizations. The helpline receives about five messages asking for assistance each day, about 60% of which come from Saudi Arabia.

SOS SMS works because of the ubiquity of mobile phones among the Philippine people, including those working overseas. According to Vic Barrazona, who does project management from Saudi Arabia, 90% of OFWs own a mobile phone, and many have two different SIM cards that they switch depending on if they are making national calls or calls to friends and family in the Philippines. "If you're a domestic helper in Saudi Arabia, you can't go out by yourself," said Vic. "Most of the time you are confined in the house of your employer. There are some cases of abuses." Abuses that have been dealt with by the text service have varied from employers refusing to pay workers to verbal and physical abuse, including rape. Other issues faced by OFWs have ranged from racial discrimination to murder, kidnapping, and sex slavery.

However, the SOS SMS service didn't begin as a help service for the distressed OFWs, but rather as a way to register Filippino workers to ensure their safety from the nearby Iraq War. When the system started, the founders were worried about the effects of the Iraq war on the 800,000 OFWs who work in Saudi Arabia. "I was thinking about that figure and was worried about the war spilling into Saudi Arabia," said Vic. "How would we know where the Filipinos were?" Although about 11,000 Filipinos initially registered with the system, the team eventually realized that the war was unlikely to spread to Saudi Arabia and decided to use the system for other means.

In order to use the system, a worker first sends a text message to the hotline, 63 9209 OFW SOS. The message must begin with the letters "SOS" and include the request for help and the OFWs' name. "Part of our information campaign is to make sure the texter does not forget his name on the first text message he sends us," said Ellene Sana, the executive director of the Center for Migrant Advocacy (CMA). The message is then automatically logged in the main computer in the Philippines, and forwarded to preselected recipients using Clickatell bulk SMS. Common recipients include the CMA, the Department of Foreign Affairs office, and various partners in Saudi Arabia and the Philippines. The CMA then responds to the worker to clarify details of the case, and depending on the location, the appropriate agencies respond accordingly. Ellene said that effective partnerships with nonprofits and government agencies in other countries have been what has truly made the program successful. "It is working for us because we have a reliable network on the ground," she said. "To receive the message is ok, but what do you do once you receive the message? The network on the ground plays a very important role." The CMA indexes and logs details of each case, including response time and kind of intervention taken.

One of the largest problems with the system revolves around funding, said Vic. The staff for the current system is all volunteer, and the network relies on donations from individuals and organizations to continue their work. "At the moment we do not have a stable source of funds," said Ellene. "It's more or less little contributions and the the voluntary spirit of people involved in one way or the other in the project." She said that although many of the contributions are inspiring -- especially those given by overseas workers themselves -- the lack of reliable funding has been an issue. Due to funding constraints, the project is unable to make overseas telephone calls, and instead has to rely on email and SMS for communication. "We could speed up the process if we had the budget to make direct telephone calls," said Ellene. "Sometimes we send out text messages and then the ambassador has to call us back. The limitation of resources is a real issue for us."

The project does receive some corporate support. For example, the Philippine telecom company Smart Communications funded the printing of 10,000 brochures about the program. These brochures were then distributed to OFWs at the airport right before they left the Philippines. An advertising company in the Philippines also donated poster and design capabilities.

Vic, Ellene, and Bobby also expressed frustration in their relationship with the Philippine government. All three felt that protecting OFWs fell within the jurisdiction of the government, and that SOS SMS was filling a hole left open by lack of government response. "A lot of this stuff deals with embassy legal matters, but since the government isn't doing it currently we decided to do it. It would be nice if the government would take on and adopt the project entirely," said Bobby. All three were frustrated at not being able to get an agreement with the government, something they have been working on for several years.

Despite the problems facing the system, Ellene said the group continues to plan for the future. She said one goal is to spread the system to other countries that also have large numbers of overseas workers. "In terms of direction, we hope that we will be able to explore the possibility of promoting SOS with partner NGOs that are promoting migrants of other nationalities," she said. She mentioned Indonesia as a possibility because that country has both a large number of migrant workers and high SMS usage. She also said they had discussed decentralizing the system so that more of the work would be done at local levels. "We are dreaming of developing our network at the local level," she said. "The NGO volunteers in Saudi could do it within Saudi. If it's the Saudi case it's the Saudis that take care of it." Bobby said this would cut down costs, as then many of the SMS costs would be country specific.

But regardless of whether the system is able to change in the future or not, the SOS SMS team intends to keep the project going, despite problems with lack of government participation and funding difficulties. "It's simply something that has to be done," said Bobby. "It's near my heart."

Photo credit to mattroyal.

Keep the good work

Thank you for your support for people overseas who needs your help. Keep the good work. Cheers.

re CMA's SMS SOS Helpline Service

As one of (CMA) staff, I am proud of CMA SMS SOS Helpline also because it was designed and supported by (OFW) themselves, in Saudi Arabia. So OFWs themselves are helping deliver emergency assistance to OFWs in distress.

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