Friday, August 17, 2007

The Ordeal of Ramil

In a press conference in Manila on August 4, Vice President Noli De Castro announced that there were only 11 Filipinos who worked at the US Embassy in Baghdad, not 51 as reported by John Owens and Roy J. Mayberry, two former employees of the Kuwaiti firm, in sworn testimonies at a US congressional committee last July 26.

Vice President De Castro, the chief presidential adviser on overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), apparently learned this from reading the full-page ads that First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting Company ran in five leading newspapers. The ads staunchly denied the allegations of Owens and Mayberry that First Kuwaiti had kidnapped 51 Filipino workers and forced them to work under inhumane working conditions on their $592-M US Embassy project in Baghdad. First Kuwaiti claimed that the Filipino workers “willingly agreed to work in Iraq before their departure and before they arrived at the site of the embassy.”

Perhaps the Vice President should be forgiven his gullibility because his previous job in the private sector, as a TV anchorman ("Magandang Gabi, Bayan"), consisted of reading the nightly news on the teleprompter, not investigating the truth behind the news reports he read on air.

Perhaps he should have spoken with Ricardo Endaya, Philippine Ambassador to Kuwait, who had recommended to the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs as early as March 2006 that First Kuwaiti be put on a watch list for violations of the government ban on the deployment of Filipinos to Iraq. “Way back in 2004 when I was Charge d’Affaires in Baghdad, I investigated complaints of OFWs against First Kuwaiti for violation of employment contracts involving salary, overtime pay and accommodations,” Endaya said.

But the Vice President need not have even gone all the way to the Middle East; he could have just watched the new documentary "Someone Else's War" currently circulating in the Philippines and at US film festivals. The film features the true story of Ramil Autencio, a Filipino who worked for First Kuwaiti in Iraq.

Ramil’s ordeal was relayed to me by David Phinney, a journalist and broadcaster based in Washington, DC, whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and on ABC and PBS. Phinney read my column last week (“What Price of Remittances?”) and contacted me to inform me about Ramil, whom he had interviewed for a story he wrote in October, 2005.

"The promise to build a better life in the Philippines for himself and his young family took Ramil Autencio to Kuwait. He never suspected that a month after leaving home in December 2003, he would be living a wartime nightmare in northern Iraq, pushing boulders 11 hours a day, seven days a week for a contractor fortifying a US military camp in Tikrit,” Phinney wrote.

"Showers to wash off the day’s sweat were an uncertainty, and in the chilly January and February nights of 2004, he and seven other Filipinos would live in an empty truck with no windows, sleep on cardboard boxes for a bed, and eat leftovers and meals-ready-to-eat from soldiers. It was the only way to have enough food. He says crackling gunfire and crashing incoming mortar would wake him at all hours of the night and the unfortified trailer would tremble and shake from nearby rocket blasts.”

This was not what he had bargained for, Ramil told Phinney. An air conditioning repairman and technician, he had signed a two-year contract to work at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Kuwait for $450 a month. But when he arrived at the Kuwait airport, Ramil was quickly hustled over to a rundown apartment building managed by First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting, a Kuwaiti firm doing a booming multimillion-dollar business with the US military and the Pentagon’s primary support contractor, Halliburton.

To date, Phinney reports, First Kuwaiti has already billed the US government $2 billion for its work in Iraq, including the $592-million US Embassy in Baghdad now nearing completion.

Ramil was informed that there were no more jobs at the hotel in Kuwait and because his recruiter had processed only a one-month travel visa for him, he could not work in Kuwait. He had three options: pay a $1,000 penalty and work in Kuwait for free for six months, be arrested and jailed, or work in Iraq. As he pondered these choices, Ramil lived in an apartment building in Kuwait, without mattresses or blankets, with 800 other Filipinos. They would eat only chicken and rice under the building’s crumbling ceilings. One Filipino worker lost his mind and died in the building, Ramil recalled.

“A jail would be better,” Ramil told Phinney. “The building was so crowded, you could barely breathe.” Finally, one day, a supervisor presented him with some papers for him to sign. “I don’t read Arabic or English, but it was that, or jail,” Ramil signed and, together with other Filipinos, were then brought to a bus bound for Tikrit in Iraq.

Upon arrival in Tikrit, Ramil and the other Filipinos were forced to work 11 hour days, 7 days a week but were not paid as they were told the money would be waiting for them in Kuwait. As months passed and the conditions became increasingly unbearable for him and the Filipinos working with him, Ramil decided to find some way to escape from Tikrit.

He passed out a crumpled yellow piece of paper to his fellow Filipinos, asking them to join his escape back to Kuwait. About 40 Filipinos signed up. He then got a sympathetic Filipino soldier in the US Army to convince the driver of a flatbed truck headed south towards the Kuwaiti border to give them a ride. For three nights they rode in darkness, packed tight in an empty transport container with very little food or water. “We were nearly starved,” Ramil told Phinney.

Phinney reported: When they arrived at the border, the sheer number of desperate Filipinos arriving without papers stunned the Kuwaiti police. “We were even angrier then because one of us had died so there was nothing they could do to stop us,” Ramil recounted. “We pushed them away when they asked for our papers.... We outnumbered them.”

The group somehow made their way to the Philippine Embassy, where the ambassador provided them with shelter until their return home could be arranged.

Ramil received only $300 for his entire three-month ordeal. He now lives in a shanty in Manila about a mile from the place where Vice President De Castro held his press conference. The Veep doesn't need to walk a mile on a camel to talk to Ramil himself.

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