In the Farms and Plantations of Sabah, a Brutal Reality Confronts Filipinos

And those who did complain and remain in the plantations face continued distress, as what happened to 15 OFWs whose plight the mission documented. The 15 complained to the management about the conditions inside the See Hoy Chan Plantations in Jeroco, Sabah, but instead of addressing the problems that they raised, the workers were denied food and basic necessities.

“If you file any complaint, the management would not allow you to buy food from the only available store inside the plantation,” Anunciacion said.

The 15 OFWs who complained are Joenel Caro, Roland Casis, Nelio Casquejo, Ruben Cortel, Moisis Cortel, Michael Duran, John Mark Libuna, Vicente Libuna, Rene Lim, Ariel Lorena, Ian Rey Lorena, Butch Pastolero, Quizy Pastolero, Romeo Pedregosa and Zandro Camda. Migrante said they have not been able to buy food from the store since June 17.

“They had a cellphone and they managed to send a message to APMM to inform them about their ordeal,” Anunciacion said. That call led to the fact-finding mission.

Fully Aware

Migrante said the Arroyo government is fully aware of the conditions of the OFWs in Sabah. “Last April 29, the APMM asked the government to respond to the needs of the OFWs there but they did not do anything to resolve the problem until the issue came out in the newspaper,” Anunciacion told Bulatlat.

A Migrante member urging help for Sabah OFWs. View the slideshow. (Photo by Janess Ann J. Ellao /

He said the Philippine ambassador to Kuala Lumpur, Victoriano Lecaros, had told APMM that they had already sent a diplomatic team to look into the problems of the 15 OFWs. But Anunciacion said the team went to Sabah to issue passports, not to investigate the labor disputes brought to Lecaros’s attention.

(Anunciacion said the issuance of passports is one of the most lucrative businesses in Sabah. “If you request for a passport in Kuala Lumpur, you will be charged 196 ringgits. But if you did it in Sabah, you are charged 250 ringgits.”)

In a statement last month, the Department of Foreign Affairs denied its alleged neglect of the 15 OFWs in Sabah. The Philippine embassy in Malaysia said it had already talked to one of the workers, Pastolero, and offered to repatriate him but Pastolero refused to leave Sabah.

Lecaros, the DFA said, was in Sabah “to specifically look into the issue as well as other issues pertaining to Filipino nationals there. A four-man consular mission from the embassy, headed by Consul General Rene Villa, is currently in Sarawak.”

The DFA had told the APMM that the government would rescue the 15 Filipinos pay for their fare back home.

But Anunciacion of Migrante said such a gesture is not enough. “These people should be compensated for the crimes committed against them and if the government will not respond to this, then it is perhaps a clear cover-up to hide the injustices committed against the OFWs,” he told Bulatlat.

Anunciacion decried the failure of the Philippine-Malaysia Working Group that was established in 2005 to look after the welfare of Filipinos working in Sabah. “It seems that (Kuala Lumpur and Manila) only announced the agreement in the newspaper, posed for the photo opportunities but never really lifted a finger to address the problem,” Anunciacion said.

Migrante said it would ask the Philippine Senate to investigate the plight of OFWs in Sabah as well as the alleged anomalies committed by erring Philippine embassy officials in Malaysia.

Sabah Beckons

To many Filipinos in the southern Philippines, Sabah represents salvation. Beckoned by the vast palm-oil plantations in the Malaysian state, they go there in droves seeking employment that they could not find in their homeland.

Because Sabah is near Mindanao and Palawan – the shortest distance between Sulu and Sabah is less than 50 kilometers – many Filipinos have sought to migrate there, often illegally. Kuala Lumpur estimates that there are about 200,000 undocumented Filipino workers in Sabah, out of the estimated 400,000 to 600,000 total number of foreign migrant workers.

Migrante said that Malaysian authorities did not legalize the status of these migrant workers because of the red tape involved in processing them. Besides, local industries in Sabah prefer to hire migrant workers because of the lower labor cost.

The illegal migrants in Sabah have always been a touchy issue for Kuala Lumpur and Manila. The Malaysian government has time and again cracked down on these illegal immigrants, shipping them back to Mindanao, supposedly as part of its effort to lessen Malaysia’s dependence on foreign labor. At one point, the Malaysians rounded up more than 12,000 migrant workers infected with all sorts of diseases – AIDS, Hepatitis B, among others – and deported them to their countries.

Kuala Lumpur even found a political use for the Filipino migrants, deporting about 700 of them after the Abu Sayyaf kidnapped 21 foreign tourists in Sipadan, a Malaysian island, in 2000.

But despite these crackdowns, many Filipino migrants remained.

Anunciacion of Migrante said the opportunity to work in Sabah is very enticing to Filipinos. Unlike in other countries, an OFW who wishes to work in Sabah does not need to pay placement fee to be able to leave since he does not have to go through the recruitment agencies accredited by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration.

Most Filipinos go to Sabah using the backdoor, riding a ferry from Zamboanga to Sandakan. Employers are also willing to loan them money for their fare.

Since the 1970s, the economic hardship to which Filipinos in Mindanao are exposed to has forced them to leave the country to answer the demand for cheap labor in Sabah’s palm-oil plantations. Many of these Filipinos also wanted to escape the ongoing separatist conflict in Muslim areas in Mindanao. (

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