Thursday, February 24, 2011

Filipino Workers Overseas and Trouble

The threatened executions for three China drug mules are just part of a much bigger problem

The hurried trip of Filipino Vice President Jejomar Binay to Beijing last week to attempt to rescue three Filipino drug mules threatened with execution has shone a spotlight on the fact that not only are 125 overseas foreign workers on death row in jails across the world but that in contrast hundreds more are badly mistreated or even murdered for being guilty of nothing more than working overseas.

A Filipino legislative committee examining the plight of overseas workers in Saudi Arabia demanded that the Philippines decertify the Arabian country for domestic helpers because of endemic sexual abuse and other problems.

The Filipino non-governmental organization Migrante International has been leading a crusade including rallies and demands for government attention and legal assistance for relatives of overseas workers, who play a major role in keeping the Philippine economy afloat through inward remittances that totaled as much as US$18 billion in 2010, according to the Philippines Central Bank, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas.

The Riyadh-based Migrante-Middle East says as many as 3,000 overseas workers are in jail abroad. About 70 percent, the organization said, face immigration-related charges. And, of the 900-odd merchant seaman held by pirates off the Somali coast, at least 120 are known to be Filipinos, some of them held for months.

Considering the number of Filipinos working overseas, there 125 who are facing execution is a relatively small number. There are estimated to be anywhere between 8.2 million and 11 million Filipinos working overseas, a whopping 11 percent of the Philippine population, which is expected to pass 100 million later this year. The wave of unrest sweeping the Middle East is expected to drive many overseas workers back to Asia, cutting into the inward remittance figure Those overseas in 2010 included at least 2.84 million in the United States, 1.09 million in Saudi Arabia, 613,000 in Canada, 575,000 in the United Arab Emirates, and more than 200,000 each in Australia, Malaysia, Japan, Qatar and the United Kingdom, the majority of them women working as domestic helpers although they also include doctors, nurses, accountants, IT professionals, architects, seamen and many other professions. It is believed that about a third of the world’s merchant seamen are Filipinos.

The executions of Sally Ordinario Villanueva and Ramon Credo were scheduled by Chinese authorities for last Monday, with that of Elizabeth Batain set for the day after. Beijing has deferred the executions in the wake of Binay’s visit although it isn’t known for how long. Very few appeals succeed in Chinese courts and executions usually feature a bullet in the back of the head to the convicts, who are forced to kneel in a ditch.

Binay may also have to go back a lot more times. Another 79 prisoners remain in Chinese jails, convicted of drug trafficking.

Migrante International says it is handling the cases of eight workers on death row and 121 in jail on drug-related cases across the globe. Since 2005, the NGO has tried but failed to block the execution of six were killed by beheading. Of those on death row, 85 cases are drug-related. The rest are in the Middle East, Malaysia and Thailand.

"Let us also not forget that there are also others in death row who continue to appeal to the government for much-needed attention and intervention," Garry Martinez, Migrante International chairperson, was quoted as saying in a press release.

"While we all heave a sigh of relief and celebrate with the families of the three Filipino nationals whose scheduled execution in China has been suspended indefinitely, there is still a need for the Philippine government to make clear the terms and conditions of the deferment," he said. "Have their sentences been commuted? How long is the suspension, is it a matter of days, months, years? Will this affect the fate of at least 190 others in China jails for the same offense? Or the more than 120 others in death row elsewhere?"

It also appears that the country’s overseas workers are more sinned against than anything, if a preliminary report made public by the Committee on Overseas Workers’ Affairs on Jan. 26 after a visit led by Rep Walden Bello to Riyadh, Jeddah, and Al Khobar in Saudi Arabia is anything to go by.

The report found that "the situation of Filipino domestic workers or household service workers is dire, with overwork, maltreatment, and non-payment of wages very common. Rape and sexual abuse are endemic, a condition that members of the team felt was related to the sexual segregation followed in Saudi society, a tradition of treating domestic servants as slaves, and the strict subordination of women to men."

A great many overseas workers, the report found, "are swindled, with them signing contracts with a recruitment agency stipulating at least US$400 monthly as pay, only to be confronted with a substitute contract upon leaving the Philippines or upon arrival in Saudi Arabia specifying a significantly lesser amount."

As to the situation of Filipinos in detention, particularly those on death row, Bello and his fellow commissioners were not allowed to visit those detained. Although Migrante International accused the government of lackluster efforts to represent those in jail, the committee found that "there is no doubt that DFA personnel actively monitor developments in the death row cases and make active representation for the overseas workers involved. Saudi lawyers are engaged, Saudi authorities are lobbied, efforts are made to negotiate monetary settlements with the kin of the victims, whether these relatives are located in Saudi Arabia or, in cases where Filipinos are accused of killing other Filipinos, in the Philippines."

"While the mission can say that the DFA is actively engaged with death penalty cases, it is less certain about its engagement with the non-death row cases, such as "immorality," a criminal charge levied on unmarried couples seen in each other's company. Some overseas workers claim that the DFA focuses its work and financial resources mainly on the death penalty cases."

The committee said it is also concerned with the unresolved deaths of Filipino nationals reported in the press, saying that more energetic follow-up work of reports of murdered Filipinos, including interviews of people who knew them, appears to be in order. Asia Sentinel

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