Garry Martinez: A selfless, humble migrants’ rights activist

Migrante International’s leader goes on leave as he turns 45.


"Iiyak na yan! Iiyak na yan!" crowd chants as Garry Martinez greets them (Photo by J. Ellao /
“Iiyak na yan! Iiyak na yan!” crowd chants as Garry Martinez greets them (Photo by J. Ellao /
MANILA – On May 6, at around 3 p.m., people started coming in at the Migrante International’s office in Cubao, Quezon City. Some brought food, others drinks. All of them had smiles on their faces, gleam in their eyes, as if they were about to spring a devious plan.

Just before 6 p.m., the gate flung wide open as Garry Martinez entered the office, riding his iconic motorcycle. His face showed disbelief, as everyone –Migrante International staff, overseas Filipino workers who were aided by the group, and friends from members of progressive groups – sang a birthday song for him.

As he greeted everyone, the crowd chanted, “iiyak na yan, iiyak na yan!” (He’s about to cry!)

Martinez, who turned 45 today, May 7, is the chairperson of Migrante International, a migrants’ rights advocacy group. In a humble celebration, everyone took turns in saying how Martinez touched their lives and how they will miss him – he was going on leave for a year.

“Is this a preview of my parangal?” (tribute) he said in jest. Later in his speech, he pointed at this reporter and said, “Do not forget to include this in your article: this is the first time I ever had a birthday party.”

In an earlier interview with, Martinez said growing up impoverished, he never had birthday party. After all, as his parents would put it, a birthday “is just a day” but missing a day’s work in the field could cost them their meal for the next day.

“This is my happiest birthday. And it is with the mass movement,” he said.

Peasant origins

Martinez hailed from Taytay, Rizal, the ninth of a brood of 15. His father Gregorio, a peasant, tilled a 10-hectare land, owned by six families. His parents never obliged them to work in the fields but they still helped to make ends meet. They planted rice during rainy season and vegetables during dry season.

“At 5 a.m., I worked in the fields. But I had to be back in our house by 8 a.m. so I could go to school. When we had no classes, we spent our day working in the fields. That was our daily grind,” he said.

Martinez nearly stopped going to school when he was in third year high school, when he lost his scholarship. While studying, he was working for a printing press and the toll of the job kept him from reaching the required grades.

He also had a short stint at the Centro Escolar University, where he finished a semester majoring in Political Science. When he was about to enroll for the second semester, his father told him that he could no longer send him to school as he was suffering from cancer. His father died months later.

The death of his father opened his eyes to a harsh reality – that if his mother Conchita gets sick, they would have no money to pay for her medication, that they would be asked to leave the hospital premises as soon as they entered.

This, he said, pushed him to leave the country to find work abroad.


Martinez said he was up for any work possible from selling distilled water to working in a textile factory. The only work he did not do is in show business. Eventually, he got tired of getting laid off from work every six months.

On Aug. 1, 1990, he was about to leave for Kuwait to work as a bell boy in a hotel but all flights were suspended that day as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein attack the country. This left him not only jobless, but heavily indebted due to the expenses he incurred.

He then worked as a carpenter, earning $3.4 a day, though the minimum wage at that time was at least $4.1. Finally, another opportunity came. He was recruited to work in Korea. “I did not even know where that country was. All I knew was that I needed a job. I was desperate,” Martinez said.

He left for South Korea on June 26, 1991. At the airport just before leaving for South Korea, however, he was handed a passport that showed his photo but with different details. His first name was spelled “Gary,” he had a different birthday and it indicated that he hailed from the province of Zamboanga.

Martinez thought of backing out. But he could not let another opportunity slip through his fingers. Without any question, he followed his recruiter.

“We were told that we would work as a factory worker. But we were brought to a hotel. We were led to a room full of tables. We stood there. Later, I learned that there was a one-way mirror and behind that were employers selecting which migrant worker they would hire. I was sold for $300,” he said.

“Would you believe? This,” pointing at his face, “was sold for $300?” Martinez added in jest, laughing at the memory, “I was hardly worth $20!”

He was hired as a worker in a textile factory in South Korea, where they worked for 16 hours a day. When they were tired, workers would be given a capsule and, in less than 30 minutes, it would dramatically spike their energy. Until now, he never knew the content of that capsule. In the early days of his stay there, he said, he was afraid to leave the premises of the factory as police might question him.

Martinez said he could not afford to be deported as the debt he incurred was already $3,000.

It was during this time, that he spent his first Christmas away from his family. He was distraught. Workers gathered to cook instant noodles. And a colleague noticed that tears were welling up in his eyes.

“Do you miss your family?” his colleague asked. Martinez replied, “No, this noodle is so hot.”

He remembered showing his burned tongue to his co-worker, nearly white, which brought laughter among them. It may sound funny now, he said, but back then, his heart was aching, pining for his family.

He stayed in the South Korea for 13 years. But overall, he worked only for about eight years in nine different factories. In between, he was a full time organizer of what was then the swelling mass movement of Filipino migrant workers in South Korea.

Two of Martinez’s siblings became OFWs. Both were not very lucky. He said her elder sister worked as a domestic helper in Kuwait. She was nearly raped by her employer. His elder brother, on the other hand, did not finish his contract in Riyadh and opted to go back to the country for fear that he might be implicated in a robbery case in his workplace.

“I told them never to leave the country,” he said sternly.

Becoming an activist

mig-where were you-garry martinez-byja

From a “scared” and “reluctant” overseas Filipino worker, Martinez soon came out of his shell and explored the world outside the premises of his workplace. His cheerfulness and optimistic character made him a favorite among the Filipino community and was elected president of the church’s pastoral council.

But his involvement in serving the people became deeper over the years. Charity and dole-out assistance to those in need, he realized, was not enough. The time came when he had to help people to stand up for their rights.

In 1995, Martinez led the Filipino community into a vigil for Flor Contemplacion, a Filipina domestic helper sentenced to die in Singapore. This, he said, was one of the cases that politicized him and pushed him to know more about the roots of labor migration.

He helped found the Kalipunan ng mga Samahan ng Migranteng Manggagawa sa Korea (Kasamma-Ko), an affiliate of the Migrante International, which he now chairs. Their collective struggle, he said, forced officials of the Philippine embassy to give them due services.

Martinez said that whenever a Filipino would die, embassy officials would ask donations from the Filipino community to pay for the repatriation of the remains. Eventually, embassy officials then began to allocate budget for such.

Soon, the Philippine embassy also opened a mobile consular service even to undocumented workers and would, at times, be open on Sundays, due to the Filipino migrant workers’ relentless demands. They also began to hold protest actions on various issues in the country – from calling for the resumption of peace talks to the ouster of President Joseph Estrada.

He was nominated to become an awardee for ABS-CBN’s Bagong Bayaning Pilipino para sa Asya Pasipiko. But, Martinez said, he refused to sign the nomination form, saying that he needs no recognition for his efforts to reach out to others in need.

“But I was surprised when a staff of ABS-CBN called me and asked me why I did not sign the form. I told the staff that for me, I am a mere victim helping another victim and that no recognition or award is needed,” he said.

In 1997, Martinez returned to the country for the first time to receive the award.

When he returned to South Korea, his new company only required him to work for 12 hours a day, giving him an hour or two per day to visit other Filipinos in nearby factories.

He returned to the country in 2000 to be a full time migrant rights activist. For four years since then, he would be sent back and forth to South Korea for at least three months to help his colleagues in Kasamma-Ko in their organizing tasks.

Martinez remembered how Filipinos there opened their doors to him. “To show them how grateful I was for letting me stay, I washed their clothes and cooked for them. They told me that I did not have to, but I insisted.”

In 2004, he returned to the country to help Migrante Partylist campaign for the election. He was assigned to campaign in Southern Tagalog. At the height of the campaign, however, Martinez suffered a heart attack.

After that, he rested for a while in Ifugao province, in the hometown of his previous partner. But a few months later, he said it was impossible to resist not being part of the organizing work of Migrante International and so he returned to Manila.

This time, he became the spokesperson of Migrante International.

During this period, he said, Migrante was in troubled waters. As they carried out a revamp, they also suffered financial problems. They could hardly provide allowances for the volunteers.

“I could have just whined. But I chose not to,” he said.

Martinez worked as porter in the market; half of his earnings he donated to Migrante International. He was tempted to work again abroad but he could not say no to those seeking for their help.

In 2008, Martinez was elected chairperson of Migrante International.

A family man

Proud father. (Photo grabbed from Garry Martinez' Facebook post)
Proud father. (Photo grabbed from Garry Martinez’ Facebook post)

Martinez gave up his salary, ranging from $680 to $1,150, for virtually nothing. But his family, he said, was very understanding. Early on, he taught his daughter Stephanie Kim how to live simply.

“We have a blackboard at home. I told my daughter she can write whatever she wants us to buy. Barbie was always on the list. But on weekends, we would rank those she wants to buy from ‘needs’ to ‘wants’ and Barbie would always go at the bottom of the list. Last week, she graduated from college and I never bought her a Barbie doll,” he said.

The other day, Kim told Martinez her classmate teased her because it was her first time to drink coffee at Starbucks. He said his daughter did not find it funny as she knows the hard work her mother, Martinez’ former partner, pours in every cent she would receive.

Martinez said he loves his “unica hija” very much. He washed and ironed her clothes and be at her beck and call.

Asked how his love life is, Martinez returned a beaming smile. He is happily married to Vilma, his elementary classmate who he met again sometime in 2009 at a class reunion. In a voice message aired during Martinez’ birthday celebration, Vilma, who works as a domestic helper in London, said her husband is a truly sweet and caring person.

“I am also romantic,” he said.

Martinez added that his wife took on the challenge of marrying an activist. He spoke very highly of Vilma, who,l he said, is very supportive of the path he has chosen. After the onslaught of Typhoon Yolanda, she helped organize the pooling of donations for the survivors.

“Right now, she has also gained a lot of bashers for defending Nanay Celia,” he said, referring to the mother of Mary Jane Veloso who refused to give President Aquino the sole credit for the stay of execution of her daughter in Indonesia.

On their wedding day last Dec. 22, 2012 (Photo grabbed from Garry Martinez' Facebook post)
On their wedding day last Dec. 22, 2012 (Photo grabbed from Garry Martinez’ Facebook post)

A colleague

When asked to describe Martinez as a colleague, most if not all the staff of Migrante International said he is funny and very hardworking.

Connie Bragas-Regalado, chairperson of Migrante Sectoral Party, recalled how Martinez and now Migrante Middle East regional coordinator John Leonard Monterona would cry whenever they were frustrated during the 2004 election campaign.

“They were very cute,” she said in jest.

Pam Pangilinan, his colleague, said Martinez’ shining moment for her was when he told the media that then Gen. Roy Cimatu, at the height of the repatriation of Filipinos in the strife-torn Lebanon back in 2006, can wear a “red brief” but would still not be able to save Filipinos unless he has a concrete exit plan at hand.

“What was the red brief for?” she asked Martinez, who replied, “Just like superman.”

Martinez, she added, is the “ultimate prop machine.”

But Pangilinan said that what makes Martinez more lovable as a colleague is that he is down to earth. No matter how busy he is, he would repair whatever needs repairing in the office. For Martinez, there is no small or big task for the mass movement.

He is, Pangilinan stressed, humble.

“He is a role model. He is goofy but he knows when to be serious,” Mic Catuira, deputy secretary general of Migrante International, said.

“He is passionate and has a high level of compassion,” said Lao Castillo, Migrante’s case officer.

Martinez, they said, could talk all the way from Mendiola back to their office. At times, the already tired fellow migrants’ rights activist would tell him, “the rally is over. Can you please keep quiet?”

But even if no one is responding to him, Martinez would continue to talk, at times to summarize the day’s event or to the funniest thing he has recently seen.

During Typhoon Ondoy in 2009, Martinez was among those stranded near SM Marikina for two days. He taught his fellow stranded passengers to grab any plastic to keep them warm and safe from hypothermia.

“I even swam my way to a phone booth to give a staff of Migrante International a call that the flood water was already chest-deep,” he recalled.

A staff of Migrante said Martinez nearly lost his life in saving a person who was being swept away by rushing water near the area. “He is the forever volunteer,” she said.

When he returned home, he received a call from Migrante International, saying that their then secretary general, too, was out of reach. No matter how tired he was, Martinez still headed to his colleague’s house to check how she was doing and he even helped in clearing the rubbles left by the typhoon.


Martinez, known for his fiery and feisty quotable quotes, attributed his good public speaking to his father.

“He does not know how to read. So whenever he would announce that he will read the newspaper, it means that I have to borrow one from our neighbor and read it aloud. The only parts he did not like to hear were horoscopes and crossword puzzles,” he said.

He added that he had no formal training in speaking, and that whatever comes out of his mouth is sourced not just from the bottom of his heart, but also from his harrowing experience working abroad.

In October 2014, Martinez suffered a stroke due to a blood clot in the right side of his brain. He had two more mild strokes the next month.

His health improved rapidly so perhaps, he said, not everyone may have noticed he suffered a stroke. He was supposed to go on leave then but the papal visit came and, a few months later, Filipinos faced a bitter surprise – the case of Mary Jane Veloso.

It was Martinez, in tears, who announced the stay of execution of Veloso in a vigil in front of the Indonesian embassy in Makati City. This was followed shortly with deafening cheers of Mary Jane’s supporters.

Though his health condition is improving, Martinez said his doctors advised him to rest to avoid being pushed to his limit.

Earlier that day, in a liturgical thanksgiving program organized by church people for the Veloso family, Martinez announced that he would be on leave for a year due to his health condition. As soon as he returns, he said, he would have more than enough strength to save more Mary Janes. (

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