Filipinos protest over plight of overseas workers


By Sonny Melencio

Protests are escalating across the Philippines over the hanging of Flor Contemplacion, 42, overseas worker, in Singapore on March 17. The body of Contemplacion was flown to her home town, San Pablo City, where it lay in wake before burial on Sunday, March 26.

People came from all over the country to attend the wake, reminiscent of the way the Filipinos flocked to Ninoy Aquino's wake in 1984.

On the eve of the hanging, people in Metro Manila and other parts of the country went on a vigil that lasted from 10pm until 7 the following morning. The vigil was led by ABS-CBN, the prime TV network, which covered the events in Singapore.

The protests are directed not only against the Singapore government but also against the callousness and inutility of the Philippine government. Protesters are demanding the resignation of top government officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Labor and Employment and the Overseas Workers Commission.

The Contemplacion family has rejected the government's offer of a scholarship to her three children, indicating the family's anger over the handling of the case.

Protesters decry the fact that Contemplacion had been in a Singapore jail for almost a year but the Philippine government did nothing to assist her. In a four-day marathon session, the Singaporean court meted out the death penalty to Contemplacion for the murder of another Filipina maid, Delia Maga, and a four-year old Singaporean child that Maga was tending.

A Filipino senator, Ernesto Maceda, commented that Contemplacion needed only a good lawyer and expert legal advice to win her case, aid which the Philippine embassy should have given her. A few days before Contemplacion was hanged, the Philippine ambassador to Singapore was in Manila organising an orchid show for visiting Singaporean enthusiasts.

Philippine President Fidel Ramos had written to the Singaporean government asking for a stay of execution to allow consideration of new evidence.

Ramos has banned further migration of Filipino workers to Singapore and scaled down the embassy in Singapore. The government postponed a planned visit of Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. Philippine-Singapore military exercises were scrapped.

Rumours among Filipino workers in Singapore are that Contemplacion was a victim of a frame-up. The murdered Filipina was her best friend and was about to leave for Manila. The child, who died of drowning in a pail of water, was an epileptic.

One version says that Contemplacion visited the murdered Filipina to ask her to take gifts to the former's relatives in the Philippines. During their conversation, the unattended child went to the bathroom and fell into a pail of water during an epileptic seizure. This version contemplates a third party who killed Contemplacion's friend. It is known fact that the barely literate Contemplacion admitted to the killings upon the advice of court-appointed defence lawyers in the hope of getting a light sentence.

Some of the 45,000 Filipina maids working in Singapore planned to hold rallies and marches for Contemplacion but were warned by the Singaporean authorities that such actions are prohibited.

The Philippines protests are a culmination of the people's anger at the government's inaction over Filipino overseas workers' persecution. There are reportedly more than 1300 Filipino workers in jail in various countries. Up to February, 667 Filipinos overseas were returned home in caskets, many of whom died in suspicious circumstances.

Celebrated cases include that of Maricris Sioson, whose body bore torture wounds and who was reportedly killed by a Japanese criminal gang. The Japanese authorities said Sioson died of natural causes. Another case was the beheading of three Filipino workers in Saudi Arabia for hostage-taking. The Filipino community there says the three men were trying to help a Filipina who was being raped. Just recently, scores of illegal Filipino migrants in the Middle East were flown home and arrived at the Manila International Airport still in handcuffs and foot chains.

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