Why Iraq?

By Fr. Edwin Corros

Posted at Jul 19 2009 05:10 PM | Updated as of Jul 20 2009 01:10 AM

Editors Note: The story is from the book “Migrants’ Stories, Migrants’ Voices 1" published by the Philippine Migrants Rights Watch (PMRW) with the support from Cordaid, an international development organization based in the Netherlands. The book contains a collection of 12 stories of the realities of migration as experienced by overseas Filipino workers and their families. abs-cbnNEWS.com obtained permission from PMRW to publish the stories online.

In the mid-eighties when I entered the seminary to check if ever I really had the vocation to the missionary life, one of the reasons why I decided to join the Scalabrinian Congregation was due to my family situation. My father was then working as a mechanic in Saudi Arabia. I also had a brother in Kuwait and another brother who was a seafarer.

That time, there were also my aunties who were working as nurses in Canada who later on asked their families to join them as immigrants. Later did I realize that we will become a family of migrants.

We are nine siblings and only one did not have the chance to travel outside the country. After my ordination, my eldest sister decided to migrate to Canada while my second youngest brother after finishing his contract in Kuwait decided to move to the US with his wife. So migration has almost been a part of our lives.

Sometimes, we go to the airport without anyone accompanying us. Except for my youngest sister, all of us have our own stories to tell about living, working or vacationing in other countries.

What then is the big deal about working abroad? It was the recent unpleasant experiences of my younger brother who was in Dubai as an OFW, and later moved to Iraq that gave us many problems.

Why Iraq? Let me tell you the story of the ordeals of my younger brother Domeng. My younger brother was contracted to work in a factory in Dubai last February 2005. This is his nth time to go abroad as an OFW. He left just a week before our second eldest brother died of a lingering illness in 2005. He was a seaman and it was in fact Domeng who took care of him before he met his Creator. But I am not going to tell the story of my seafarer brother even if his was another interesting one, but my story is about Domeng who was posted in Iraq against his will.

Being a newly deployed contract worker he was not allowed to go home to attend the burial of an elder brother. Four months after working in Dubai, he was requested to go to Iraq along with two other Filipinos and a Canadian supervisor.

A week before he was moved to Baghdad, he called by long distance informing us that he will be moving to that turbulent country. As I listened to him, he was voicing his concern. He had never shown any fear in his life as he was a strong and a brave man. However, listening to him over the phone made me feel he was a different person. His voice was more solemn and serious yet subdued when he called all of us, particularly myself. I asked him if he could back off from the assignment. He responded he could, but if he did he was likely to lose his job. He had no choice, but to accept the illegal deployment to Iraq. On my part, I really wanted him simply to pack up his luggage and return to the Manila, but I had nothing better to offer him once he comes back in terms of a job.

I just assured him of our prayers as we ended the long distance conversation. Since then, my other siblings and myself decided to unite ourselves in prayer as our way of consoling each other amidst the anxiety that we felt toward my brother Domeng’s working in Iraq. We felt very helpless. There were not too many options left to us, even if the only thing left actually was for him to come home.

We made it a point to offer our chain of prayer for his safety. My youngest sister offered a rosary everyday for him. On my part, the Eucharist was my daily offering. I did not bother of course to ask my other siblings to offer the same, but I am sure that the rest of my siblings were saying special prayers for his and his companions’ safety.

For over seven months, our family was in constant state of fear and anxiety. He was not allowed to receive a phone call or even letters. We only had to content ourselves with his long distance calls, which came in mostly on Fridays. Each time I heard or read in the papers about the bombing in Baghdad, I had to pray even more that his name was not among the victims mentioned. I had been looking forward for his safe return to Dubai where he was originally contracted to work.

On the sixth month in Baghdad, Domeng along with the two other Filipinos were told that they will soon go home, but that never happened until their working visas were about to expire. He did try his best to contact their company in Dubai, but they were not assisted. Nobody attended to their repeated requests.

Amidst the constant bombing within Baghdad inside a US military base where they were actually working, he was telling me that they started doing odd jobs which were no longer part of their contracts. He even described his work as really dehumanizing. Imagine them cleaning the pipes running from residences to the septic tank that had exploded.

Sensing that his company was disinterested to get them out of Iraq, my brother decided to find a way how to leave Iraq before their visa will finally expire. This made me more worried and upset.

Our conversations were very limited to his brief and untimely calls. Sometimes I got to know of his condition through his brief calls to any of my siblings. Maybe he was trying to reach just any one of us to let us know that he was safe.

Nevertheless, I was always anxious of his critical situation. God must have a way to help people who try their best to help themselves. Accidentally, my brother met their Canadian supervisor who had resigned earlier from their company, but came again to Baghdad, but this time working with another company. “He must have been an angel,” I told him in one of the long distance conversations we had.

After being informed of my brother’s condition, his former Canadian colleague immediately assisted them to go out of Iraq just before their visas expired. On our last conversation before he departed Baghdad, I instructed him to go to the labor attaché of the Philippines in Dubai.

During the time that he was actually moved to Iraq, I did consult OWWA on how to go about my brother’s problem. A friend of mine from OWWA gave me the name of the Labor Attaché whom my brother consulted later. Nothing could be done about my brother’s transfer to Iraq from Dubai as Domeng had agreed to sign a document of such transfer.

His departure from Baghdad was not that simple though. To get out of Iraq, he needed to obtain an exit permit which was not easy for them to procure since the company had practically abandoned them. Due to the tough procedures that they had to undergo, one of his companions decided to remain in Baghdad and did not report back anymore to their company in Dubai. That means, he simply overstayed in Iraq.

On the very first attempt that they wanted to leave Iraq, they were not successful. They were not permitted to leave because the two of them did not have any exit permit. They were told earlier that an exit permit could also be obtained from the immigration office at the airport. Through the help of that Canadian colleague using his own connections in Baghdad, they were finally issued their exit permits only after the second visit to the immigration at the airport. After obtaining the needed exit permit, they were told that there was no seat on the plane for them.

To get a seat in war torn countries among commercial flights was extremely difficult, besides they were in an emergency situation. The worst part of not being able to leave the country on those times was to move from the airport to the US military base or back to the airport again. Each time they needed to go to the airport, a convoy of military escorts was requested to accompany them, as ambushes and kidnappings were common occurrences. They had to go back to the US military base as no one could stay inside the airport as it closes at five in the evening. And no one was allowed to stay around the premises too for security reasons, besides the cold winter temperature goes down further as night descends.

Finally, my brother landed safely back in Dubai. On his arrival in Dubai, he was treated well by the company. His salary for over seven months was given without any hassle including his annual bonus. The company allowed him to take a rest for two days. While taking his rest, he gave me a call informing us that he arrived in Dubai safely. However, he told us that he was very anxious as well to talk to the company manager about their attitude towards them while in Iraq. He told me that he wanted to confront their company concerning their lack of concern for them while they were in Baghdad. My brother felt that they were practically abandoned by their company when they had repeatedly sought help to be repatriated to Dubai when their visa were about to expire. He believed that being in a war torn country, a war damage claims could also be demanded, the fact that he had undergone much emotional sufferings. He was aware that his contract has a provision on a war damage claim.

Subsequently, he went to the personnel manager and inquired about the war damage claims due them. He was ignored, as the company told him that war claims could be given only in case a war erupts in Dubai. After his talk with the manager, he informed us about his sad predicament. When I got the chance to talk to him, I advised him to try talking to our labor attaché. I was informed by my friend in OWWA that the labor attaché will be waiting for his visit. When he visited the Philippine Labor Office to consult about his claim, he was also informed that he could not get the claim that was due him.

He was instead advised to complain about his contract that was violated, by being assigned in Iraq. His passport even has carried a note: “Not valid to travel in Iraq.” With such advice from the labor attaché in Dubai, my brother decided to file a complaint on contract violation.

Upon his arrival at his company’s office, he was scolded by his new Canadian supervisor, for seeking intervention from his American manager. He went directly to his manager according to my brother, because his supervisor did not do anything about his earlier complaint. Annoyed by the scolding of his supervisor, he answered back and told his employer to fire him instead and to send him back to Manila if they were not happy of his service. The management did not agree.

He described his argumentative bout with his employers as a very clear case of discrimination. He fought back precisely because he was unfairly treated when he was in Iraq. As a veteran OFW my brother knew quite well to handle himself. My coaching was not necessary. He was in Kuwait when that country was also invaded by Iraq and he stayed put. He was able to get his war damage compensation for working in that country. He believed that he had all the rights to ask for compensation, the fact that he and his companions were illegally transferred to work in a war torn country.

As he was fighting for his rights while talking to his American manager and Canadian supervisor, my brother felt bad that no one among his Filipino colleagues similarly working in that office helped him. He felt he had been bullied by his Canadian and American employers, and he did not get a single word of support from the Filipinos.

While he told me this incident, I was reminded of the many similar stories of Filipinos who had fought for their rights, but were unsuccessful because others in the group were not willing to support them. Looking back, I believed that the Filipinos in similar predicament could not do anything as they too needed to survive like what happened to my brother who was helpless when he was illegally deployed in Iraq last year.

Everyone has to keep one’s job as they have to think of their children being sent to school. I remembered a Filipino in Taiwan who had to work overtime, even when he was too tired to do it regularly, because a sick parent needed money for his medicines. Then, his Filipino room mate was pressured to work without complaining for a house being paid monthly in Laguna while another OFW in that same factory in Taipei was to remit regularly for a car bought in installment.

There are a thousand of reasons why the Filipinos have to forget their pride as they suffer similar abuses from their employers abroad. All these stories reminded me of my brother’s depressing situation. He sought again the assistance of the labor attaché only to discover that the latter will side with his employer instead.

When he realized that nothing will happen about his case, now that the Filipino government officer assigned to defend for his rights while working abroad has become useless, he decided to leave his work. He bought his own plane ticket and returned to Manila secretly.

“What my brother did was right,” I told myself. I was convinced too that many of our labor attachés were indeed not capable of delivering the services expected of them. Again, such treatment my brother received reminded me of the same stories and complaints of OFWs when I was still working in Taipei.

My only edge when I was still in Taipei was my privilege to use the media and the pulpit to call the attention and to force our government officials to act into the cases of our OFWs. I do not enjoy such privilege anymore now that I am in my own country. In Taipei, I had the whole parishioners listening to my homily and it would always be a very privileged occasion to call the attention of our government servants who were not doing their jobs well.

How my brother fled his work from Dubai was well planned. With the assistance of some friends in the dormitory he succeeded to trick the company guards. He was in his slippers and did not change his clothes when he left their dormitory compound. He requested a companion who was having a rest day to schedule the sending of a balikbayan box containing all his personal effects to the Philippines and he got a taxi to proceed to the airport. That time, he was already guarded by the company’s security officers as he refused to go back to work.

Since he was in his slippers and house clothes, the security guards did not even have a clue that he was sneaking out from the compound. His departure was only discovered a day after his supervisor summoned him to return to work. I admired my brother’s talent of escaping from his abusive company.

He was actually not different from many OFWs in Taipei who have sought refuge from abusive employers at St. Christopher’s Church when I was the parish priest. My brother also reminded me of my amazement of how our Filipino domestic workers escaped from their very strict employers.

Two days after he arrived in Manila, his agency called him at his place. The agency knew very well that my brother was ready to bring his case to POEA. My brother in response demanded simply the pay for the 11 months remaining of his contract as amenable settlement for the psychological anguish he suffered from his employer.

In less than a week, they paid his demands in front of the POEA officer. My brother knew that, the employer was able to run away with his abuses by simply paying little. Life has to continue as it is for my brother. He did not even complain that the cash he received when they settled his case was less than 5,000 pesos. He was not willing to continue fighting the agency while he needed to find another job.

Earlier that week, at the height of his anger, he was even willing to get to the media to expose the exploitations and the injustice that he has gone through in Dubai and especially while in Baghdad. When he received the money that he was asking for from his company through the agency in Manila, he did not bother anymore to take further action.

Earlier upon his arrival, I asked him to talk to the media as I knew someone who could help us. This never happened, because the news reporter was not available when we set the schedule for interview. The offer of settlement came so fast that my brother decided not to push through with it afterwards. The reporter was also disappointed not to get a scoop when he came to know that my brother backed off from an interview. Even if I was also disappointed about the decision of my brother, again he reminded me of the many other OFWs whom I wanted to help each time they came to ask for help but later decided not to push through with their complaints.

The case of my brother is just one of the many sad experiences happening to the many Filipinos working overseas. They have to bear insults and unfair treatment in exchange for the dollars they wish to earn as there are no sufficient jobs available in the Philippines in case they return home. The choice has become simple for them. They needed to get jobs anywhere for them to survive. They are even willing to pay for a price, sometimes outright while waiting for their visa to be released or through a salary deduction.

Unfortunately, the government that could not provide work for them neither could not provide protection for OFWs when they find work outside the country. “So whether one is in the country or outside the country nothing can be expected from the government,” my brother lamented. “One simply has to defend himself or herself in the midst of abuses,” my brother added. “When you are overseas, you can not really rely on the assistance or protection from the government which first violated your rights in your own country,” he stressed.

In a way he was right. A country that could not provide job to his people is already making violation of the right to a decent work. At his age of 43, he should be retiring in a matter of 20 years as he started working when he was in his mid-twenties. But this does not mean that he needs to be continuously working overseas.

When I told him to save money for his future, I was glad to know that he had been wiser this time. In fact, he has informed me that he sought a well-known insurance company to manage his fund. He made me proud after knowing this. I am glad that he is taking bolder steps to secure his savings, rather than investing them in a business that he was not really familiar with, such as the case when he left the country for the first time.

I believe, just like many seasoned OFWs, Domeng has perceived that the country could not really do much for its people. He has to do something for himself first and maybe for the country. An advantage that my younger brother enjoys is: no one among the siblings is depending on his salary. He has it all for himself and his wife.

Analyzing the life of my younger brother who has been an OFW for a long time, he too had already embraced the vicious cycle of migration mentality. He would not apply for a local job, because he is all the time waiting for his visa to arrive. He focuses his attention mostly on the jobs overseas instead of local jobs this country could offer. He is always willing to wait for the next job to arrive. Like those residents at our Scalabrini Center for People on the Move (SCPM), a halfway home for OFWs in Manila, my brother would spend time waiting for the next working visa from the several agencies where he submitted his application.

Sometimes, the waiting takes a month, but it could also take a year. When I call him each week, I would always ask him how is he doing and the usual response is “I’m okay.” He has remained patient waiting for the next overseas job to arrive.

Earlier, reflecting on my brother’s experiences when he was still working in Iraq, I found it even ironic that while I am actually working for the rights and protection of OFWs and their families I am equally helpless to help him when he needed my help. I have also accepted the reality that the OFWs could not expect help from others but themselves more than anyone else.

My brother was a perfect example. I may not be happy when he backed off from the interview with the media to expose the exploitation he suffered from his company and the inability of the agency or the government to protect him, but later I realized that my brother was one of the many OFWs who needed to survive and have been imbued with the migration mentality that has been with us for so many years now.