Survivors: OFWs have endured major crises

Jesus Llanto,

Posted at Oct 23 2008 09:07 AM | Updated as of Oct 23 2008 05:07 PM

With the global financial crisis spreading its dark shadow on host countries, the labor department foresees reduced remittances as it estimates that about 50,000 of our migrant workers (in Europe and the US) may lose their jobs.  

What will happen to our modern day heroes?

The billions of dollars they send to their families in the Philippines fuel consumption in the country and keep the economy afloat. Data from the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas showed that, from January to July this year, remittances from the eight million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) reached US$ 9.6 billion.

But this is not the first time that OFWs are experiencing a financial crisis. In 1997, Filipinos working in Asia went through the regional financial crisis.

We compiled a list of the most difficult situations our OFWs have been through, from volatile peace situations in their host countries to disease outbreaks. Here are some of the most prominent crises that affected them. The recent incident in Somalia where Filipino seafarers were held captive by pirates is the latest in a long list of crises involving Filipino workers deployed in various parts of the world.

1997 Asian financial crisis

Among the countries hit by the 1997 Asian crisis were nations and territories that host a huge number of OFWs—Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore. The financial crisis left these countries with weak currencies and high national debt-to-GDP ratios.

The crisis caused massive layoffs among companies in South Korea and some OFWS, particularly Filipina domestic helpers in Hong Kong, reportedly lost their jobs and suffered from huge wage cuts.

In a recent news report, the labor department and the Center for Migrant Advocacy, however, said that the 1997 Asian financial crisis resulted in increase in the hiring of domestic helpers since both parents were forced to work and leave their children at home.

Death of Maricris Sioson, September 1991

In April 1991, twenty two-year old Maricris Sioson arrived in Japan to work as dancer in Fukushima. Barely five months later, Sioson died in a hospital.

Her death certificate said she died of hepatitis but, her family found that Sioson had been stabbed. An autopsy by the National Bureau of Investigation revealed that Sioson died because of traumatic head injuries and not of hepatitis.

The government sent a mission to Japan to investigate the case but the Japanese authorities did not permit foreigners’ investigation of crimes committed within their territory.

Trial of Sarah Balabagan, September 1995

Sarah Balabagan left Sultan Kudarat to work as a domestic helper in the United Arab of Emirates (UAE). She was still a minor when she left the Philippines but she was able to go to UAE by lying about her age. On July 19, 1994, she killed her employer, whom she accused of raping her, by stabbing him 34 times.

During the first trial, Balabagan was found guilty of manslaughter, sentenced to seven years imprisonment and was ordered to pay blood money to the family of her employer. The court, however, also required the employer’s family to pay blood money to Balabagan after it found out that Balabagan was raped. A second trial found no evidence of rape, convicted Balabagan of murder and sentenced her to death by firing squad.

The verdict was criticized not only by the Filipinos but also by other countries. Philippine officials visited the UAE several times to ask for another trial. Reports said that the UAE President personally appealed to the family of the employer to drop their demand to execute Balabagan and just accept the blood money.

On her third trial, Balabagan’s sentence was reduced to one year imprisonment and 100 strokes of a cane. She was also ordered to pay blood money. After serving her sentence, Balabagan came home to the Philippines.

Execution of Flor Contemplacion, March 1995

Domestic helper Delia Maga was found strangled to death in Singapore on May 4, 1991 and her 4-year old ward drowned. Singaporean authorities arrested Flor Contemplacion, Maga’s friend. Contemplacion admitted killing Maga and the child during the interrogation of Singaporean authorities. She was sentenced to death by hanging.

Shortly before her execution, Filipino witnesses surfaced claiming that Contemplacion was just framed up and Huang’s father killed Maga upon discovering that his son accidentally drowned. Singapore considered but rejected the testimony and the execution pushed through on March 17, 1995.

Philippine relations with Singapore turned sour for a few months as a result of the Contemplacion case and the Philippine government imposed a ban on sending domestic helpers to Singapore. The ban was lifted a year later after the normalization of relationships between the two countries.

SARS outbreak, 2003

Whenever an outbreak of a disease happens in other countries, one of the greatest fears of the Filipinos is that an OFW might get infected by these diseases.

During the bird flu virus outbreak in Hong Kong in 1997, among those infected were Filipino domestic helpers. Similarly, two Filipinos who died of SARS were believed to have been afflicted by the disease while they were working abroad.

Adela Dalingay, a domestic helper in Hong Kong, was the first Filipino to have died of SARS in 2003. Her body was cremated in Hong Kong and the government paid for the travel fare of her parents who wanted to witness her cremation.

Another OFW, Adela Catalon, was believed to have been infected by SARS while working as a nursing aide in Toronto, Canada. Not knowing that she was infected, Catalon came home to Alcala, Pangasinan for a much awaited vacation.

She died of SARS days after arriving home. A few days later, her father, Mauricio, also succumbed to the disease.

Abduction of Angelo de la Cruz, July 2004

Filipino truck driver Angelo de la Cruz was transporting fuel from Saudi Arabia on July 7, 2004 when he was kidnapped near the Iraqi City of Fallujah by the Iraqi Islamic Army Khaled bin Al-Waleed Corps.

De La Cruz’s abductors, through video broadcasts on Al-Jazeera, threatened to behead him if the Philippine troops did not pull out from Iraq within 72 hours.

The hostage crisis prompted President Arroyo to impose a news blackout as a team of negotiators flew to Baghdad. Two days after, then foreign affairs secretary Delia Albert announced in a video aired on CNN that the Philippine troups would leave Iraq on Aug. 20 but the kidnappers wanted the Philippine contingent to withdraw by July 20. The following day, De La Cruz was brought to the execution site.

The Philippine government then agreed to pull out its contingent from Iraq “as soon as preparations are completed. After the country’s announcement, De La Cruz appeared in a videotape two days later and thanked the President. De La Cruz was released on July 20 after the last member of the Philippine troups leave Iraq.

Crisis in Lebanon, 2006

In mid-2006, OFWs in Lebanon got caught in the middle of intense fighting between Israeli and Hezbollah forces. Around 6,000 OFWs were brought back to the Philippines as the fighting erupted and bombings continued.

Most OFWs were evacuated to a monastery in Syria where they waited for their plane schedules to the Philippines. The government, however, received criticisms for its slow response to the crisis.

A ban of OFW deployment in Lebanon is still imposed despite the requests of some recruitment agencies to lift the ban. Philippine Overseas Employment Agency administrator Jennifer Manalili said they could not lift the ban due to the peace and order situation in the Lebanon.