Protests over plight of Philippine migrant workers

Issue 

By Sonny Melencio

Protests against the execution of Flor Contemplacion, the Filipina maid hanged in Singapore, escalated across the Philippines even after her burial on March 27. At dawn on that day, urban guerillas from the Alex Boncayao Brigade (ABB), the military arm of the Manila-Rizal regional branch of the Communist Party of the Philippines, threw grenades at the offices of Singapore Airlines and the Department of Foreign Affairs.

No-one was hurt in the bombings. The ABB said in a press statement that they do not mean to harm anyone, and that the bombings are "symbols of protest" against the "police-state" of Singapore and the Philippine government's "callousness" over the plight of Filipino overseas workers.

Contemplacion's burial in San Pablo City was attended by 50,000 people; millions more watched the television coverage of the funeral.

On March 26, SANLAKAS, a mass federation with 300,000 members in Metro Manila, held a 3000-strong rally at the foot of Malacanang Palace. The demonstrators burned thousands of Singapore flags and the effigies of Philippine President Fidel Ramos, Department of Labor and Employment secretary Nieves Confesor and Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.

On March 29, SANLAKAS organised a national day of protest over the plight of overseas contract workers. Tony Cabardo, a leader of the federation, said that more protest actions are planned to press for the resignation of top officials in the Labor and Foreign Affairs departments.

The Overseas Workers Administration (OWA), the government agency assigned to look after the interests of Filipino migrant workers, has also been denounced for not even providing a lawyer to defend Contemplacion in court, on the pretext that it was short of funds. Cabardo says, however, that OWA has a balance of P10 billion (about A$500 million) in its account, an amount collected as contributions from all Filipino contract workers abroad.

Migrant workers contribute P518 million a year to the OWA fund, an amount separate from the yearly average of P4 billion generated as direct taxes from Filipinos applying for work abroad. This is not to mention the estimated US$8 billion yearly remittances of contract workers.

In Singapore alone, there are 10,000 documented contract workers and 65,000 more "undocumented" ones (meaning they get their employment not through the OWA but through illegal channels).

Due to the protests, President Ramos has initiated some measures designed to show the government's displeasure with Singapore. The latest involves plane loads of Filipina workers brought to Manila at government expense, and the appointment of a seven-man commission to investigate and review the Contemplacion case.

According to Cabardo, such measures do not address the problems, nor can they mitigate the people's anger over the government's handling of the case. Only a few Filipina workers decided to fly home.

More cases are turning up of Filipina workers languishing in jails in other countries. One is Sara Balabaga, a maid in Saudi Arabia who killed her male employer who was trying to rape her. If convicted, Balabaga faces decapitation. Another case involves a Filipina maid impregnated by her employer; she is now in jail on charges of pregnancy outside of wedlock, a punishable misdemeanour in Saudi Arabia.

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