The Philippines Modern Heroes (OFWs)
Tomorrow, March 30, 2011, three Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), two of them women, will be executed in China, despite Philippine government’s desperate plea for leniency. Sally Villanueva, Elizabeth Batain and Ramon Credo, reportedly victims of West African Drug Syndicate and convicted as drug mules, will succumb to death by lethal injection.
700 OFWs, many of them women, are in death row. As menial jobs vanish in global recession, desperate Filipinos resort to dangerous means. In China, 167 OFWs face death penalty, mostly for drug trafficking. Our Foreign Affairs Department disclosed that since 2007, international drug syndicates target Filipino women since they communicate well in English, either for them to pick up drugs in one country and smuggle them to China, or the syndicate comes here and recruits them to take drugs to China or elsewhere. These women are paid between US$500 and US$5,000 to swallow tubes containing drugs, hide them in their luggage, sometimes dissolved and soaked into paper or books. Recently, a domestic worker swallowed a tube of cocaine and tried to smuggle it into the Ninoy Aquino International Airport where she was arrested. She was working in Pakistan but her husband died. Moneyless and desperate to come home, she was helpless until someone offered to pay her to swallow the drugs. Many women, in desperation, are forced to grasp the sharp end of the knife.
Last month, 14 Taiwanese arrested for drug trafficking in the Philippines and deported to China upon the Chinese Embassy’s request sparked a dispute between Taiwan’s government and ours, compromising the fate of 100,000 OFWs in Taiwan.
There are over 200 destinations of OFWs worldwide. Of these, Philippine Overseas Employment Authority declared only 85 countries safe for Filipinos. And yet, Filipinos insist on working abroad.
We call our OFWs BAGONG BAYANI (modern heroes) because their blood, sweat and tears keep the Philippine economy afloat. Without them my country’s economic capability will dwindle in the face of local instability and global recession. Since 1974 Philippine government has recognized overseas employment as key factor in economic development, with remittances as major source of foreign currency earning. Local economists say OFW remittance impacts as life support system to our ailing economy.
Up close, who are the OFWs? Do they get the care and protection they so much deserve and badly need? Are their contributions worth their sacrifices?
My younger sister, a 49-year-old mother of six and estranged from her husband in favor of his mistress who bore him five more children, has worked in the Middle East since 2003. She has escaped from her employer and was deported many times, but despite pain of separation, dismal conditions and ugly experiences, each time she went back to the Middle East for employment. As single provider, her salary hasn’t been enough, that her three older boys quit college and the younger ones dribbled for care from one of us siblings to another.
In recent years, exodus of OFWs increased rapidly. Last year, OFW remittance was almost US$18 billion. This January, Central Bank of the Philippines reported OFW remittance of US$1.4 billion, while the Bureau of Internal Revenue collected Php74.57 billion from remittance taxes - a favorable kick-off to the government agency tasked to collect Php940 billion for 2011.
In 2009, OFW remittances totaled US$17.348 billion – the highest among past records. Five years ago, the Philippines was fourth largest recipient of foreign remittances, with India being first, followed by China and Mexico. At US$10 billion in 2005, the amount was grossly 13.5% of Philippines Gross Domestic Product that year.
Estimated at 9 to 11 million worldwide, OFWs represent about 11% of our population, which earned them the label “global Filipinos”. Annually, over a million Filipinos leave the country for employment abroad. Since 2004 female OFWs has grown, now comprising about 60% of our income earners abroad.
The destination of the bulk of OFWs is the United States of America, followed by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In 2008, the Philippines surpassed China as leading source of Canada’s immigrants.
In 2007, the US State Department estimated about 4 million Filipinos in the USA. It’s embarrassing that Filipino women comprise a huge percentage of approximately 4,000 to 6,000 women who come to the USA each year as mail-order brides or through internet courtship, or by direct contact with American travelers. Unfortunate, too, that majority of Filipino women abroad are lowly employed, often on jobs requiring personal services. Mostly professionals and well-educated, they set aside pride and dignity to be economically productive. The exodus carries an increasing number of skilled workers to work for unskilled positions, that issues on “brain drain” and underemployment are alarming. This is rampant with teachers working as babysitters or domestic helpers, nurses as nannies or caregivers, accountants as salesladies and pharmacists as medical transcriptionists. Even medical doctors have to undergo retraining to work as therapists and nurses. This grievous condition is rising as each year hundreds of thousands of new college graduates face local unemployment.
A fraction of 300,000 Filipinos in Japan are OFWs, 90% of whom are in the entertainment industry, mostly women. But economic impact of Japan’s tsunami to the Philippines is immense. Japanese government funds 35% to 37% of our Overseas Development Assistance. Last year, Japan extended US$3.4 million in loans and US$146.8 million in grants. Our tourism will suffer badly considering that Japanese are the third biggest group of tourists visiting our golf courses, beaches and cultural attractions yearly. In 2010, 360,000 Japanese tourists filled our vaults with US$300 million. Exportations will be terribly affected since Japan imports 98% of its banana consumption from our country, pegged at US$7.8 billion last year. If present threat of radiation forces us to repatriate our countrymen, cost is a whooping Php13.2 billion (US$300 million)!
Last month, the devastating earthquake in Christ Church, New Zealand killed eleven Filipinos, leaving many of my countrymen there homeless and jobless. But they prefer to stay rather than risk unemployment back home.
The Middle East employs over two million Filipinos, in legal and illegal entries. The largest hirer of OFWs, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia employs over a million Filipinos, the fourth largest group of foreigners in the KSA and our second highest source of remittances. In 2008 alone, Saudi Arabia had 300,000 job orders for Filipinos. Presently, the Saudi Arabian Embassy in the Philippines processes from 800 to 900 jobs for Filipinos daily.
Our meagre finances bleeds profusely with prevailing unrest in North Africa and the Arab world, with repatriations from Egypt, Libya (about 600 million pesos and rising) and now Japan. And it seems like situations are worsening as our Foreign Affairs Department places fifteen countries in alert watch list: Yemen, Algeria, Oman, and Bahrain under cause for concern, and Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Morocco, Jordan, Syria, Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, and Saudi Arabia under careful monitoring.
Yet, over and above this prevailing economic nightmare is the perennial problem concerning female OFWs that need to be addressed, for whatever it takes, for all it’s worth. Migrante – a Manila-based OFW organization, reported that frequently female OFWs in the Middle East become victims of sexual abuses, maltreatment, violence, unpaid salaries, and other related labor malpractices. Migrante observed that some Filipinos are lured, faked, fooled and transported abroad illegally, where they are left stranded without work and forced to take humiliating jobs or go about scavenging to survive.
On January 15th this year, 84 OFWs with minor children were repatriated from Kuwait, mostly women who left their employers for alleged abuse and maltreatment and non-payment of their salaries.
About 40 OFWs who ran away from abusive employers, mostly women with 15 infants and children, camped out in tents under Khandara Bridge in Jeddah since December 2010 hoping for repatriation, braving the elements and reeling under a cold spell aggravated by lack of food, until in mid-January 2011they had to remain standing because the area was flooded.
In 1996, the death sentence by firing squad of 17-year old Sarah Balabagan in the United Arab Emirates caused great controversy. Balabagan, born in 1979 in Maguindanao, was fourth of fourteen siblings, seven of whom died in childhood. She confessed being abused by an uncle as a child. Like many young Filipino women driven by utter destitution, she cheated on her age and was barely a teenager when she worked as domestic helper in the UAE. In July 1994, she killed her Arab employer with 34 stab wounds, alleging that he tried to rape her. In June 1995, a court ruled out she was guilty of manslaughter and a rape victim, and sentenced her to seven years imprisonment with payment of 150,000 dirhams (US$40,000) blood money to relatives of the deceased, while awarding her 100,000 dirhams (US$27,000) as rape compensation. But then the prosecution appealed the verdict for death penalty, and in September 1995, a second Islamic court found no evidence of rape and convicted her of premeditated murder.
Balabagan’s death sentence was actually a twist of good fate, since it triggered an international outcry and a defense campaign in many countries. Her case symbolized ill-treatment of domestic servants in the Persian Gulf countries. UAE President Sheikh Zayed made a personal appeal for mercy and the victim's family dropped their execution demand for blood money. Balabagan’s sentence was reduced to a year's imprisonment and 100 cane strokes in five days and payment of blood money, which was donated by a Filipino businessman.
However, Flor Contemplacion and Delia Maga early that year were not that fortunate. In Singapore, Contemplacion, a 42-year-old mother of four, was convicted of killing fellow Filipina domestic helper Delia Maga and four-year old epileptic Nicloas Huang whom Maga was hired to care for as a stay-in domestic helper of the Huangs. Contemplacion was hanged at Changi Prison in March 1995. It was widespread accepted belief among Filipinos that Contemplacion was frame-up victim, supported by substantial evidence that her plea of guilt was made under duress. Journalist Abbie Bakan disclosed that essential evidences indicating that she was beaten, tortured with electric shocks, drugged, tied to a chair and left almost naked without access to food or the toilet, pelted with ice and submerged in water, molested by interrogation officers and hypnotized as the police extracted confessions from her were not entertained during court trial She was imprisoned for 4 years, 2 years under death row. Filipinos frustratingly put the blame on government’s neglect.
Two Filipino witnesses alleged that Huang's father framed up Contemplacion for double murder, claiming that the father strangled Maga in rage after finding his epileptic son accidentally drowned in the bath tub in a seizure attack. Since the father was unable to identify a suspect, the police implicated Contemplacion using Maga’s diary. The Singaporean court rejected the testimony as fabrications. The execution went ahead despite Philippine President Fidel Ramos's personal plea to the Singaporean government to stop it.
A newborn baby boy was found in the toilet trash bin of Gulf Air Flight 154 on September 13, 2010. His mother, a domestic helper in Qatar for four years, is married and has children. She last left for work in the Middle East on July 9, 2009, and gave birth on the plane upon her return to the Philippines. The National Bureau of Investigation disclosed possibility of human trafficking and rape.
“If rape is inevitable, just relax and enjoy.” This statement drew grievous outrage from the Philippine populace during the 1991 Gulf War, quipped by no less than our Foreign Affairs secretary who served under our first woman president Corazon Aquino during a senate hearing where it was reported that Filipino women in Kuwait were being raped by soldier escorts who were supposed to see them across the desert through the border for safety.
Through the years OFWs accumulate tales of woes. Crushing poverty compels them to take the most degrading jobs anywhere across the globe. Every year over a million Filipinos, a growing number women, exhaust everything at home to leave for overseas employment, selling whatever little they have and even resorting to high-interest loans.
Now OFWs confront grim realities worldwide: spreading chaos in North Africa and the Middle East; earthquake aftermath in New Zealand; tsunami devastation and nuclear radiation in Japan; and recession in Western nations. Yet, because of troubling uncertainties back home, many prefer to hang on. Filipinos fleeing poverty are forced to accept jobs spurned by those who have other options. The worst jobs, in the worst conditions, are the only “chances” to poor Third World migrants.
Today’s economic hemorrhage is a horrible nightmare – drastic decrease in remittances, increasing cost of repatriations and rising oil prices (unfortunately, the Middle East, where our OFWs are losing jobs, is where we import oil). However, our government is trying to conquer this predicament. Indonesia, during President Aquino’s recent state visit, committed to supply our oil and petroleum requirements in case our current source cannot make it. Also, the KSA offers 3,000 jobs to OFWs repatriated from Libya. The US Embassy has likewise opened 6,600 local jobs for Philippine-based American industries. As well, Australia offers 10,000 jobs for Filipinos. Our Overseas Employment office is negotiating with other Asian countries for job opportunities. At least, despite continuous economic bleeding, we have managed to find solutions.
What remains is the perennial problem on maltreatment of female OFWs, where we count on international support and global institutions for assistance and solutions. The Philippines is not wanting in its concern and support for women. In fact, besides the Philippine Women Commission under the Office of the President, many executive branches are headed by women. We also have Committees on Women and Gender Equality in our legislature, and various civil society groups and non-government organizations advocating women causes. Unfortunately, this is not enough for female OFWs, because even our embassies and consulates can hardly defend and protect them. More often, embassies and consulates are limited to assistance on repatriation. In fact, just this week the KSA banned hiring of OFW-domestic helpers following our government’s report on sexual abuses, maltreatment and labour malpractices and consequent request to increase their monthly salaries from US$200 to US$400. Further, our overseas office has requested KSA employers of OFW-domestic helpers to provide sketches of their residences for easy access in case repatriation is imminent. We believe that said initiatives have something to do with the ban.
We rejoice in unceasing gratitude on the recent installation of the United Nations Women. This is surely the chance and incentive to ensure protection of rights and preservation of well-being of women anywhere in the world, regardless of nationality. Once and for all, the UN Women should address maltreatment, unfair labor practices and violence against women worldwide.
Equally important is the International Violence Against Women Act. Our hope is that President Obama and all world rulers will open borders, build bridges and destroy barriers to foreigners. Creed, culture, gender and race should not divide us. Instead, our differences should bind us into one caring and sharing international community. After all, we share one world. Humanity is one global family.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.