Monday, August 13, 2007

The Price of Remittances

While balikbayan visitors from the US may complain that they’re buying less with their dollar than they used to because the peso has improved from 53 to 1 to 45 to 1, it’s an accomplishment of the current Philippine government that the strong peso requires it to expend less to pay off its foreign debt, leaving more for infrastructure improvements.

By all accounts, this improvement in the economy is owed chiefly to the $15-B in annual remittances that more than two million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) send back to their families in the Philippines. But what is the price that they have to pay for these Philippine economy-saving remittances?

While many of them have found great jobs as nurses or engineers, others are not so fortunate. Two reports about these OFWs, which appeared the past week in the mainstream media in the US, provide us with a glimpse of their lives and the human costs of their remittances.

The first report originally appeared on July 26 on Youtube - - increasingly the source of news by CNN and other mainstream media. The video clip was of a US House hearing where an eyewitness testified about the brutal conditions that 51 Filipino workers were subjected to in Baghdad while working on the $600-M US Embassy construction there.

The witness, an American medical technician, Roy Mayberry, was hired by the First Kuwaiti Company to work as an emergency medic for its contract in Baghdad. On the first day he reported to the company in Kawait, he was brought to a room with 51 Filipinos who told him they were bound for Dubai to work in hotels there. They showed their plane tickets to him which showed Dubai as their destination.

After they boarded the plane and the pilot announced that the next stop was Baghdad, “all you know what broke loose on the plane”, Mayberry reported, as the Pinoys screamed and demanded to be flown to Dubai. They returned to their seats only after security officials pointed their MP-5 submachine guns at the men and ordered them to do so.

"I believe these men were kidnapped by the First Kuwaiti Company to work on the US Embassy in Baghdad," Mayberry told the congressional committee. These men could do nothing, he said, but accept their fate. Their passports had been taken away from them in Kuwait. Their fate was to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, with only short breaks in between. They could complain only on pain of being verbally and physically abused, or fined with huge wage deductions.

“They had no IDs, no passports, and were being smuggled past US security forces,” Maybery said. He also testified that while he had his own trailer at the construction site, the Filipinos were packed 20 to 30 people in one trailer.

“Everyday, they went out to work without proper safety equipment. I went to the construction site to watch. There were a lot of injuries out there because of conditions these men were forced to work in,” he said. They were working “without shoes, without gloves, no safety harnesses.”

He said he often saw the Filipino workers with their toes wrapped around scaffoldings “like a bunch of birds…One guy was up there intoxicated with pain killers and I had to yell and scream for 10 minutes until they got him down,” he said.

This wholesale kidnapping of Filipinos occurred a year ago but was only revealed to the world during the July 26 US congressional hearing. When confronted about this disclosure, a First Kuwaiti Company spokesman denied that it had any Filipino employees.

The second report on Filipinos came on August 8 when Dateline NBC devoted a full hour on prime time to the dramatic rescue of Lannie Ejercito, a 22-year old Filipina “sex slave” in Malaysia NBC Dateline host Ann Curry reported that the girl, “just one among hundreds of thousands of girls who are poor, helpless and naïve, preyed on by human traffickers” had one thing going for her. She had an aunt, Ravina, who is married to “Troop” Edmonds, a retired former US Marine officer living in Oregon.

On October 5, 2006, they receive a panicked call from overseas. “Get me out of here” was her anguished plea. The call came from Ravina’s niece, Lannie, whom they had financed her through nursing school. When she failed the national nursing exam, Lannie pursued a career as a hotel singer and was eventually contracted to sing in Malaysia.

But when she arrived in Malaysia, she learned that singing was not on the mind of her employer, who confiscated her passport and forced her to sign an 8-year contract that required her to work until she paid back the $80,000 which her employer said he had paid for her. It would be work not as a singer but as a prostitute.

Ravina told her husband to go to Malaysia to rescue Lannie and not come back without her. With that assignment, Troop recruited Jerry Howe, a buddy who was a retired FBI agent and they, together with a Dateline NBC film crew flew to Lannie’s hometown of Cebu to obtain clues on Lannie’s whereabouts.

After interviewing a Pinay who had recruited Lannie, the Americans and the TV crew went to Kuala Lumpur. With clever sleuthing and the reluctant aid of the local police, they managed to safely rescue Lannie.

There were 15 other Filipino “sex slaves” similarly living in “debt bondage” with her in an apartment, Lannie told them, but the Americans decided that it would be too risky to stay in Malaysia and attempt to rescue them as well. They quickly departed Malaysia and safely returned Lannie to her parents in Cebu.

Dateline NBC reporter Chris Hanson also reported on the side story of “Ann,” a Filipina who was a virgin when she was sold into “debt bondage” in Malaysia. Her virginity was sold for $80, she said, and she was forced to work as a prostitute until she managed to contact the Philippine Embassy which rescued her. By then, she said, she had contracted AIDS and was of no use to her employer.

At the end of the Dateline NBC program, my tears flowed freely just as they did when I watched Mayberry’s report about the Filipinos in Baghdad. Is the price of huge remittances from overseas Filipino workers worth all the pain and suffering many have to endure?

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