Overseas Filipino slaves in Iraq

Posted on YouTube last July 26 are video clips from a United States Congressional hearing on the controversies spawned by the $600 million US Embassy construction in Baghdad.  Two of the testimonies refer to the circumstances under which Filipino workers were brought into the work site by their employer, the First Kuwaiti Company, and the horrible conditions in which they were made to work. Filipinos who still care might want to view these testimonies, and weep in anger. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=evRPwwyno_c>

Roy Mayberry, one of the witnesses, is an American medical technician who was recruited by a US contractor and assigned to work as an emergency medic for First Kuwaiti in the US embassy construction site.  He quit his job after only 5 days, unable to stand seeing the sub-human conditions to which the foreign workers were subjected. His job, he said, was to provide emergency treatment to people who were injured at work.  But there was no way he could function in a situation where workers were treated as dispensable labor, and made to work without basic safety equipment like shoes, gloves, hard hats, and harnesses.  The workers — mostly Filipinos, Indians, Pakistanis, and some Africans – had to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, with only a short break on Fridays for prayers.  They were constantly on their toes to avoid being verbally and physically abused, or fined with huge wage deductions.

Mayberry recalls the day he reported to the Kuwaiti company in Kuwait city, preparatory to his being shipped out to Baghdad where was assigned. Fifty-one Filipino nationals were in the same room with him, also waiting for their documents and identification cards.  The Filipinos told him they were bound for Dubai where they expected to work in hotels.  Their plane tickets clearly indicated their next stop: Dubai.  To his surprise, a manager of the company told him to keep an eye on them as they were all taking the same flight to Baghdad. He told the manager that these men had tickets for Dubai.  The manager first told him that the Dubai tickets were just a cover since Philippine passports banned travel to Iraq.  But when Mayberry pressed that the Filipinos were expecting to work in Dubai, the manager told him to be quiet and not to tell them they were headed for Baghdad.

Sure enough, as soon as the pilot of the Baghdad-bound plane announced the flight’s destination, all hell broke loose.  The Pinoy passengers screamed and insisted on leaving the aircraft.  They took their seats only after the security detail in the aircraft pulled out his gun.  “I believe these men were kidnapped by the First Kuwaiti Company to work on the US embassy in Baghdad,” Mayberry emphatically told the congressional committee.  These men could do nothing, he said, but accept their fate.  Their passports had been taken away from them in Kuwait.

Mayberry’s testimony was corroborated by John Owens, who was hired by the same company to work as a general foreman in the embassy construction project.  Unlike Mayberry, who left after only 5 days, Owens stayed on the site from November 2005 to June 2006 – a period of 8 months.  Owens recounted the abusive treatment of “third-country nationals” at the embassy work site, and wondered how slave working conditions like this could be allowed in what was supposed to be an American project.

On cross-examination, Owens told the committee of the repeated attempts of the workers to escape from the site.  “One night, 17 Filipinos scaled the fence and fled, hoping to find jobs elsewhere within the Green Zone (the area secured by US forces).  They were soon rounded up and brought back.”  Apparently, the Kuwaiti company threatened to file suits against other companies that would take any of these workers whose passage to Iraq they had paid for.

The events recounted in the testimonies of Mayberry and Owens took place more than a year ago.  Their story was never reported in our local papers, as far as I know.  No one knows exactly what happened to the 51 Filipinos.  It is likely that more Filipino workers found their way to the US embassy construction site by the same system, their passage facilitated at every point by a network of unscrupulous recruiters, government officials, airport and immigration personnel, security forces, and layers upon layers of private contractors.

Their saga is replicated on a daily basis by hundreds of other desperate Filipinos – domestic helpers, entertainers, unskilled workers who fall victim to human trafficking syndicates.  Many of them end up as indentured labor or as prostitutes in faraway lands, with neither passports nor access to any form of legal protection. Philippine authorities know about their plight, but they often choose to play blind to their predicament, mostly out of fear of creating a diplomatic issue.

In the civilized world, the first duty of a responsible nation-state is to protect the rights of its citizens wherever they are. It is a duty that has become astoundingly complex in an age of rapid global travel and migration.  One might expect that a country like the Philippines, which has deployed millions of its nationals for employment in more than 190 countries, would have the basic sense to strengthen its institutional capacity to keep track of where they are and to protect their interests.  But, alas, in the more than 30 years that we have been exporting our people, we have seen nothing but the government’s benign neglect and insatiable greed for remittances.

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