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Vol. IV,  No. 26                           August 1 - 7, 2004                      Quezon City, Philippines


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Angelo dela Cruz Is One of Millions

Despite the risk to life and limb, hundreds of others are lined up waiting for the Philippine government to lift its ban on deployment of OFWs to Iraq.  Local talk shows and newspaper commentaries have highlighted the sentiment among the OFWs-in-waiting that they would prefer being killed while working in Iraq to seeing their families die starving in the Philippines.

Contributed to Bulatlat

Angelo dela Cruz is a 46-year-old father of eight children who grew up in a peasant family.  In 1996, he sought work overseas in order to send his children to school and provide for the basic needs of his family.  After years of work abroad, his family in the Philippines still lives under very simple conditions. As the world knows, Angelo was taken hostage by the Iraqi Islamic Army, al-Walid Corps on July 8 and threatened with beheading if the Philippine government did not withdraw its troops from Iraq.  

Angelo, a truck driver based in Saudi Arabia, has since been released after President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was forced by public pressure at home to send the 51-person contingent back home.

Angelo is one of more than one million Filipinos who work in the Middle East as overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).  Currently, around 4,200 OFWs are serving in Iraq, most of them providing services like cooking, cleaning, supply maintenance, and transport to the "Coalition of the Willing."  In addition to the trauma experienced by Angelo, three Filipino workers have been killed in the past two months in attacks in Iraq.   

Filipino workers applying for jobs in Iraq continue to troop to recruitment agencies 
 Photo by Dabet Castañeda

Yet, despite the risk to life and limb, hundreds of others are lined up waiting for the Philippine government to lift its ban on deployment of OFWs to Iraq.  Local talk shows and newspaper commentaries have highlighted the sentiment among the OFWs-in-waiting that they would prefer being killed while working in Iraq to seeing their families die starving in the Philippines.

Centuries of colonialism and decades of neo-colonialism under leaders who are more interested in protecting their own class interests than serving the needs of the nation have left the Philippines with a weak economic base that cannot meet the needs of the Filipino people.  Aggravated by globalization, the Philippine economy remains export-oriented and import-dependent, producing more for the international market than for domestic needs.  Majority of the population are peasants who do not own the land they till, and use simple tools and hard labor to work the land into profit-making ventures for multi-national firms and local landlords.  Finding work overseas is often much more likely than finding work in one's homeland, no matter what your level of education. 

Official policy

Sending workers overseas became official government policy in the Philippines in the mid-1970s in the midst of the country's debt crisis.  By an executive order, Marcos forced the remittance of overseas contract workers' wages through government banks.  In 2003, nearly $8 billion were remitted by the Filipino diaspora making OFWs a significant source of dollars for the debt-ridden government.

The world over, about eight  million Filipinos are working abroad mostly as OFWs. They represent more than 13 percent of the population. Almost 2,500 Filipinos leave the Philippines every day as registered OFWs, making the Philippines the largest "exporter" of labor in the world.  Unfortunately, however, the Philippine government offers little support and protection to its overseas workers. 

President Arroyo said during her pre-inaugural address that she would create 6-10 million jobs during the coming six years.  Given the state of the Philippine economy and the current fiscal crisis, there's no way this is possible - unless the jobs she's talking about are overseas.  After all, the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA) did say that the number of OFWs that will leave in 2004 is expected to reach nearly one million. Multiply one million by six for every year of Gloria's term and that makes 6 million!

Is this really a development plan that considers the long-term interests of the people? 

Between a rock and a hard place

Due to Arroyo's  support for the Bush administration's War on Terrorism, Filipino lives abroad are at even greater risk.  The story of Angelo dela Cruz is a testament to this reality. 

Since Sept. 11, 2001, GMA has lent all-out support to the US' War of Terror.  As the US' strongest ally in Southeast Asia, she has toed the US' line in the region and domestically in the Philippines.  She has put decades-old internal conflicts in the Philippines into a framework of "terrorism," thereby increasing militarization and human rights violations.  More than 170,000 individuals have been victims of human rights violations since she assumed office in early 2001, human rights groups in the Philippines report. 

President Arroyo was put to the test by the kidnapping of Angelo dela Cruz.  She was forced to choose between the wishes of the Bush administration and the will of the Filipino people.  Historically, she has sided with US policy, but this time, an explosive issue hit her presidency just days after being proclaimed as President on June 24 in the midst of allegations and evidence that she mobilized the entire government machinery to secure her electoral victory through fraud.  

The plea of Angelo's family and that of many people’s organizations who went out to the streets to protest  was to withdraw the Philippine troops immediately. It was clear from day one that the overwhelming

majority of Filipinos supported their call.  The government hid the family from the public eye even as 24-hour daily prayer vigils and rallies continued nationwide calling for the withdrawal of the Philippine contingent in Iraq.  On July 13, a prayer vigil in Manila was brutally dispersed by the police.  Even as the participants moved back, the police pursued and beat them with two-by-two sticks.   

If the Filipino people had been silent about Angelo dela Cruz, it is likely that Arroyo would have let his head roll in order to maintain her favor with the United States.  But given that her claim to office is questionable and many believe that she secured office through systematic cheating nationwide, she had to pull out her troops in Iraq in order to ensure domestic stability. 

The Bush administration was "dismayed" by the decision of its former colony, and media billed the pull-out of Philippine troops as essentially "one more blow to the big headache of the US." Although Arroyo’s motivation was to save her own neck and not Angelo's, it is still a victory for the people of the world that one more country has pulled its troops out of the US' immoral and illegal war of conquest in Iraq because of the concerted action of its citizens. Bulatlat

(* Jessica Tulloch is from the Philippine Solidarity Group in Chicago. She is currently engaged with ecumenical and multi-sectoral groups in her second year of solidarity visit to the Philippines.)

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