17 March 2015
Reference: NAFCON www.nafconusa.org
We Are Flor:
NAFCON Remembers Flor Contemplacion and Seeks Justice for OFW
On March 17, 1995, Flor Contemplacion was executed.
There are many things that you can find out about Flor: That she had three children. That she was born in Laguna. That she was a domestic worker in Hong Kong. But what most everyone will remember is that she was executed. And the action that came from the Philippine government was not sufficient and too late.
Identifying with the experiences of Flor, Filipino overseas workers responded with force and launched protest actions internationally. At the time, there were an estimated 798,000 overseas Filipino workers, roughly about 1% of the total population. But the amount of remittances that the overseas Filipino workers had brought into the country after the 1997 economic crisis amounted to $7 billion.
Since the 1980s, Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) have brought so much money into the Philippines that they have come to be known as bagong bayani, or new heroes.
But these new heroes who leave the Philippines out of desperation, with poverty and unemployment stalking their families, so often face oppression--from discrimination and wage theft to rape and execution--in their destination countries. Like Flor Contemplacion, they receive little to no help from the Philippine government.
The best that these new heroes can hope for is to die alone, with no family by their side.
Meet Lorna Sun. On March 20, 2014, she died of cardiac arrest. She was 65 years old and the lone breadwinner of her family back in the Philippines. For 16 years, she worked in New York City for 24 hours, 7 days a week, earning only $900 per week. It amounted to earning $6.08 per hour. Was it any surprise that she should die of a heart attack?
Only her fellow Filipino migrant workers could stand in for the family that was separated from her and take care of her remains. When her friend went to the Philippine Consulate to ask for help, as Ate Lorna had no money at the time of her death, the Philippine government unsympathetically responded that it would be too expensive to ship her body back home and that it was best to get her body cremated.
Nineteen years after the execution of Flor Contemplacion, the Philippine government still failed to protect Filipino migrants. There had been no change in the living and working conditions of migrant workers since the time of Flor Contemplacion.
No change can be expected because the roots of the issue have not been addressed. If anything, the untenable situation of migrants continues to worsen; now, heads of state have blatantly encouraged the export of Filipino workers rather than provide jobs, land, and social services in the Philippines. Filipino migrants are still being sold as cheap and vastly profitable labor across the world. The Philippine government has so perfected its labor export policy that other states have become interested in its model of "migration for development" and are attempting to re-create it. As for OFWs, well, the unfortunate fact is that virtually nothing has changed in the Philippines, and they will starve if they do not go abroad. So they face the same problems: discrimination, wage theft, labor exploitation, lonely deaths, and even unjust imprisonment and execution.
Meet Mary Azano. She was brought to the US by her employer. While she had been promised to be paid hourly for 40 hours per week, all she got was $300 monthly. It amounted to $1.87 per hour. Her documents, even her passport, were taken, and when the family went home to the Philippines, she was sent to her employer’s family friend in Seattle, where she was still paid $300 per month. And now, she was asked to do work even on the weekends. Sometimes she would be asked to clean her new employer's sister's home for $25 for the day. She worked so much that she started to become sick.
She left that employer and went back to California, eventually working at different care homes. But there, she experienced physical abuse. Her patient kicked her in the face, and a co-worker slapped her so hard that it left a bruise on her face. When she reported this incident to her employer, her employer said that Mary could not do anything because she was undocumented.
Well, why would Mary's employer not hesitate to say this? The Philippine state is interested not in the welfare of overseas Filipino workers, but in the growing remittances from Filipino migrants ($25 billion in 2013). And the U.S. government is interested not in protecting undocumented workers’ rights, but in maintaining a pool of cheap, disposable labor. We should not be surprised that Mary’s employer would have the audacity to deny her her labor rights.
But in 2009, after meeting with Filipino Advocates for Justice and PAWIS East Bay and learning about her rights as a worker, Mary filed a wage theft claim and succeeded in winning her case, proving that she could, in fact, do something.
Mary is not the only migrant worker to prove this. In 2014, in New York, after Lorna’s friend received a cold reception from the Philippine Consulate, Filipinos held a vigil, together with representatives from Philippine Forum, GABRIELA-NY, AnakBayan NY, AnakBayan NJ, BAYAN-USA, NAFCON-NE, Migrante NY/NJ, and Florida 15 Trafficked Survivors in front of the Philippine Consulate to demand financial assistance for Ate Lorna and her family. The following day, the consulate called Lorna's friend and said that a check was ready for pick-up.
There had been only specious and vague promises until Lorna's fellow Filipino migrants through Kabalikat Domestic Worker’s Network of Philippine Forum in New York fought for justice--in the same way that Flor's fellow Filipino migrants made their voices heard and called international attention to the plight of OFWs back in 1995.
In 2015, under President Noynoy Aquino’s administration, there are 6,092 Filipinos leaving the country every day (Source: IBON Foundation). The remittances they bring in are about 10% of the total Gross Domestic Product of the Philippines. The Philippine government makes huge money off migrants, from the schools they set up so they can go abroad, to the fees that they pay at every step of the way to get to their destination countries, to the taxes that come out of their remittances.
Flor Contemplacion was one name. So is Lorna Sun. So is Mary Azana. And there are so many more.
There are many stories of migrants who have been trafficked, migrants who have faced racism, migrants who are awaiting death sentences in foreign jails because they have no representation and no help from their own government. But there are just as many stories of migrants resisting being just goods, being just cheap labor, without any rights of their own.
Just as there as many stories of exploitation and rape, there are as many stories of migrants fighting back and standing up--not only to hold the Philippine state accountable to the protection and rights due to them as workers supporting the Philippine economy, but also to fight the roots of the problem: an unsustainable Philippine economy, policies that favor and protect the interests of foreign and multinational companies, landlessness, and the Philippine government’s complete and utter lack of interest in the well-being of the Filipino people.
Ate Mary tells us: “I want my story to be told. I want to tell everybody that it’s very hard to stay here in the US if you don’t have a job and you have no family here. It’s so hard here. People back home think it’s so easy here, they think it’s just so easy to get the money. But it’s so hard here, with the abuse we experience because we are undocumented. Still, we have to fight, we have to stand up for our rights, and we have to be patient because justice can take a long time. I also want to open the eyes of the employers too—we have rights and they need to know it...”
People called Flor, Lorna, and Mary the “new heroes.” But they are not heroes for having made money for the Philippines. They are our heroes because they stood up and fought back.
The National Alliance for Filipino Concerns (NAFCON) is an alliance of over 30 organizations that advocate for the rights of Filipinos in the United States, carrying out campaigns to stop deportations of immigrants, end the trafficking of Filipino workers, and bring about change in the Philippines so that Filipinos are not forced to leave for livelihoods abroad. Join the alliance on May 1st for International Workers Day and in July for the International People’s Tribunal. Visit www.nafconusa.org for more information.