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PHILIPPINES: Death Penalty Dashes Migrant Workers’ Hopes

Kara Santos

MANILA, May 10 2010 (IPS) - Every day some 4,500 Filipinos leave their homeland in search of the proverbial green pastures. But some of them end up facing death instead.

Migrant rights groups hold a protest against the strong labour export policy of the Philippine government. Credit: Kara Santos/IPS

Migrant rights groups hold a protest against the strong labour export policy of the Philippine government. Credit: Kara Santos/IPS

Jakatia Pawa, 33, a mother of two working as a domestic helper in Kuwait, was convicted of killing her employer’s daughter despite the lack of evidence linking her to the alleged crime. She currently faces a death sentence in Kuwait.

Joselito Zapanta, 30, who works as a tile setter in Riyadh, claims he fought back when he was beaten by his Sudanese landlord. Early this year, the father of two was sentenced to death for the alleged accidental killing of his employer.

These are just two of the cases of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) on death row that have been documented by Migrante International, the largest alliance of Filipino migrant organisations, which claims that the plight of OFWs has gotten worse.

“Some cases have recently been commuted to life imprisonment, but there are roughly about 60 Filipinos on death row,” Garry Martinez, chairperson of Migrante International, told IPS.

At least 26 of these come from the Middle East for crimes like homicide and murder in self-defense. Death row cases in China are also on the rise, mainly for drug-related offences, according to Migrante.

Local news reports cite the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) as saying some Filipinos are also facing death sentences in Malaysia, Kuwait, Brunei and the United States.

Roughly one-third or 58 countries around the world still hand out death sentences, according to the New York-based Amnesty International (AI), while 139 countries, including the Philippines, have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.

According to the Commission on Population, an estimated 10 percent of the country’s 92 million population works abroad, making the Philippines one of the biggest senders of workers for overseas employment. Between January and November 2009 alone, some 1.28 million Filipinos were deployed abroad, said the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, which monitors the overseas employment of Filipinos.

“Many leave the Philippines for other countries to work as migrant workers due to the lack of jobs, poor working conditions and wages and salaries which are inadequate for decent living in the country. But many of them end up isolated, abused, trapped and, worse, some are killed,” Dr Aurora Parong, director of AI-Philippines, told IPS.

Migrante estimates that there are close to 5,000 overseas Filipinos languishing in foreign jails. Cases of mysterious deaths of Filipinos in foreign countries are also common. The non-governmental organisation receives five to six new cases daily.

Based on cases it has handled, Migrante said that OFWs have been turned away from Philippines embassies when they sought help, were not given legal counsel, and that they were forced, usually by the host country’s police, to make false confessions. Language and cultural barriers are also a major challenge.

“We received a letter written on toilet paper from several (Filipinos) on death row detailing how they were tortured for five days until they confessed to a crime they did not commit,” shared Martinez. The victims, who were working in Saudi Arabia, were able to mail the letter to their families through the help of Filipino nurses based in the same country.

When sought for comment, the Office for the Undersecretary of Migrant and Workers Affairs (OUMWA) under the DFA could not give any updates on the cases of the OFWs facing the death penalty.

“I have no knowledge on these cases because the different (consular) desks assigned to the countries concerned are handling that,” Bert Manayao, case officer of OUMWA, told IPS.

When asked what services they provided to OFWs in distress, Manayao said that they gave “legal assistance” but would not elaborate further. He added that it was difficult to deal with the cases of Filipinos who “pretended to be innocent” and that many OFWs were easily fooled into becoming drug mules.

According to its website, the OUMWA is mandated to deliver “timely assistance to Filipino nationals” and protect “the dignity, rights and freedom of Filipino citizens abroad.”

The Philippine government, though, has been able to save several OFWs on death row in the past, by appealing to host countries’ governments, writing a ‘tanazul’ (letter of forgiveness) and offering blood money, a compensation paid by an offender to the family of the victim, said Migrante.

But this practice is unacceptable to some of the OFWs.

“For those in jail who are innocent, asking for forgiveness is like admitting that they committed a crime. What they want is for the Philippine government to defend them and fight for their innocence,” said Migrante’s Martinez.

Fifteen years after the hanging of Filipina domestic helper Flor Contemplacion in Singapore sparked public outrage, Migrante laments that not much progress has been achieved to improve the plight of OFWs.

Despite the threats confronting Filipinos abroad, the labour export policy in the country remains strong, which Migrante attributes to the billions the government rakes in from mandatory contributions and fees required of departing OFWs as well as from their remittances, which hit 17.348 billion U.S. dollars in 2009, up from 16.426 billion dollars in 2008, according to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (Central Bank of the Philippines.)

Now that the May 10 presidential elections are over, Migrante hopes that the next administration will do something concrete to address the hapless conditions of migrants, adding that six OFWs have been beheaded under outgoing President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s watch.

“What we want to see is the (government’s) willingness to reverse the labour export policy and ensure jobs locally so that these kinds of human rights violations no longer occur,” said Martinez.

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