Worse than Commodities

I recently had the pleasure of talking with Aurelio “Gi” Estrada, Education and Research Program head of the Hong Kong-based Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants. Among other topics, we discussed some of the history of migrant workers from the Philippines, some of the work his organization does with these workers, and how migrants have been (and could be) affected by war in the Persian Gulf.

Gi, thank you so much for this interview. Could you please begin by telling me a little bit about APMM and the kind of work you do?

APMM is the Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants. We used to be the Asia Pacific Mission for Migrant Filipinos, which was set up in 1984 by the National Council of Churches in the Philippines and St. John’s Cathedral in Hong Kong. Basically we are a regional migrant institution based in Hong Kong, and our work now is building a migrant’s movement in Asia-Pacific and the Middle East. We started by attending to the needs of the growing number of Filipinos around the region. Now our main thrust is organizing, and giving all necessary services to migrants and groups that we support.

Can you tell me some of the work you have done in trying to build this movement?

Actually we have helped form different organizations. Like in Saudi Arabia we helped form the KGS… literally it translates to ‘Brotherhood in the Middle East’. ‘Brotherhood’ because all of them are males, it is very difficult to organize female migrant workers, and specifically in Saudi Arabia. We cannot come in and meet the women migrants, unless we go to a shelter for escaped migrants or… to a hospital. And usually female migrants wear veils and have male escorts when they go out, and they often have to go back to their employers at certain times. Anyway, that’s one organization we have. We have also set up others, for example in Korea, where we set up an alliance of ten Filipino migrants’ associations. Their membership, almost all of them are undocumented workers, because there are very few documented migrant workers in Korea. And we also have organizations in Macau and other areas.

Besides setting up these organizations, we are networking to help the migrant workers directly. For example, if we cannot handle their cases directly because of some limitations, we work with other groups. Usually, like in Korea, these are churches and NGOs… except, of course, in Saudi Arabia where there are no NGOs!

Actually our orientation, besides supporting migrants’ rights and welfare and attending to their immediate needs, we also try to enlighten them about why they have become migrants. What’s the problem in our country? So we also encourage migrant workers to be involved, for example, in the Peoples’ Movement in the Philippines.

[In the Philippines] right now 10% of our population is outside the country. The majority are in the US: 3 million. The rest, around 4-5 million, are scattered around the world. In the Middle East there are around 1.4- 1.5 million, East Asia (to us this includes Australia and Oceania) maybe 1-2 million.

How have the Philippines and Filipino migrant workers been affected by so-called ‘globalization’?

Actually for us, ‘globalization’ is nothing new, it’s just a new term for… well, a new term for imperialism. And of course within all countries there are many gains of the workers’ and peoples’ movements that are being eradicated. And our government is very good at following the rules of this ‘globalization’. More and more work is becoming contractual, more privatization… the number of unions is going down. Also, for example, we used to be a rice-producing country. Even the International Rice Research Institute is in our country. Well, we now import rice, because it is cheaper.

How long does the history of migrant workers from the Philippines go back?

A long time! Even during the Spanish and American times there were already Filipinos working abroad. But this was institutionalized in the 1970’s. At that time, there was an oil boom in the Middle East, and they needed migrant workers. The [Philippine] government, this was during the time of [former President Ferdinand] Marcos, institutionalised labour export. So we now have a labour-export policy- though of course no one says they are ‘exporting’. But they say that the jobs waiting for migrants in other countries are ‘markets’. And the main job of our labour attaches is to find these ‘markets’ for migrant jobs, not to protect the migrants.

Essentially they said at that time that this would only be temporary. But there are basically two reasons why our government is still exporting labour. One is the remittance. If not for the remittance, our economic situation would be… more precarious, and the valuation of the Philippine peso would be more disadvantageous. Essentially [the remittance] props up our economy, and it adds to our dollar reserves.

And of course there are the various fees that they collect from the migrant workers. In this sense we are worse than commodities. If you buy milk, for example, that’s yours already, you don’t have to charge it anything. But if you are a migrant worker you have to pay in the Philippines, then when you go out of the Philippines… you have to pay for authentication of your contract, which our government charges. Then, if you want to go home and visit your own family, you have to have an OEC (Overseas Employment Certificate) stating that you are a migrant worker… you have to pay to go back! And then there’s also the violations of our labour and human rights after that. So we are worse than commodities.

The other reason [for exporting labour] is to stave off social unrest. What would happen if you had seven or eight million more people in the Philippines, and you cannot provide jobs, and considering there is already unrest? One of our government officials in the Philippines actually called it a way to defeat rebellion… you get rid of potential rebels.

What kind of jobs were taken by migrants in the Middle East in the 1970s?

Of course jobs in the oil companies, construction… but even in the services. You go to any fast food place you will see Filipinos or others. In hospitals you will see many Filipina or Indian nurses, some doctors… but now there are attempts to localize. So you will see “Saud-ization”, “Bahrain-ization”, “Kuwait-ization” etc. In Bahrain, for example, you used to be able to take your family or dependents when you went to work. Now you cannot do that…

You know many other countries also have this [labour-export] policy. So in Hong Kong and in Korea, for example, there is a tendency for migrant workers to become scapegoats- not of the local workers, but of the politicians. And if local workers are not politicized, they might be swayed by the politicians, then go and attack migrants. In Taiwan, for example, there have been cases of local youths beating up Filipino migrants… and there is a strong anti-migrant feeling among locals. Even in Hong Kong right now they are trying to impose a levy [on migrant workers’ wages]… they say that migrant workers are stealing the jobs of locals. That’s malicious, when local politicians cannot solve their own economic problems and they start spouting anti-migrant slogans, like ‘stealing our jobs’. What happens is the local workers are pit against the migrant workers, and it is the governments, and of course the employers and the capitalists, who are happy with that.

What are the most common needs that people have, and what sort of problems do migrant workers usually come to you with?

Of course they are mostly labour-related problems, and also the indifference of our own government in assisting our compatriots abroad. But of course different countries have different situations.

In Korea… if you are a legal migrant worker there, the majority of legal migrant workers are ‘trainees’. In Japan also, you do not have ‘regular’ migrant workers. So they call them ‘trainees’, but their work is regular! They are paid as ‘trainees’, they are overworked, with no overtime pay because they are ‘trainees’. And they even have a bond so that you will not escape. So what they do, usually, is they escape! They run away, and there are sweatshops that are ready to hire them, where they will usually get a meagre allowance. And if, for example, they die in Korea, the Philippine government does not do anything to help them. It is up to the family to bring them back home. We have cases where we have pressured the Philippine government to repatriate or give some small sum of money. One time, during the [financial] crisis in Korea in 1997-98, there was an amnesty [for undocumented workers]… but those who wanted to take the amnesty didn’t have their passports because their employers usually hold the passports… and because of the devaluation of the Korean Won, the cost of a new passport greatly increased!… So we waged a campaign until they were forced to lower the fees.

In Hong Kong… they tried to lower the minimum wage this year, but they failed, because of strong protest actions by migrant workers, and organizations like United Filipinos in Hong Kong.

In the Middle East there is a lot of problem with ‘contract substitution’. Meaning… well, if you want to become a migrant worker you have to pass through the Philippines’ Overseas Employment Administration, where you have to pay US$100 and they give you an employment contract. But when you go to the Middle East, and especially Saudi Arabia, they do not honour that document, that kind of contract. They have another contract, typically in Arabic… and sometimes the wage is less, the living conditions not so good etc. So that’s the main problem there…

In the Middle East, it’s especially worse for the women migrant workers. It seems to be they are treated like slaves, subject to… physical, verbal, even sexual abuse.

In which Middle Eastern countries do the majority of migrant workers live?

For Filipinos… Saudi Arabia. There are about 950,000. But of course, there are more South Asians: Indians, Bangladehis, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans. And especially in Bahrain and Kuwait there are more South Asians.

How many migrant workers were in the region in the early 1990s, during the Gulf War?

I’m not sure about other nationalities, but for Filipinos… in the whole Middle East region, about 1.4 million. But those affected during the Gulf War were essentially those in Kuwait, and some in Saudi Arabia. In Kuwait… [there were] more than 50,000. Right now they say it was 80,000 but officially it’s only 35,000. And those are only the ones we know about, meaning documented workers.

Basically what happened was, it was our embassy personnel who were first evacuated! Essentially the migrant workers were left on their own. And the IOM (International Organization of Migrants) gave more for repatriation than our own government. Another problem was afterwards, for 41,000 Gulf War claimants… the United Nations imposed, besides sanctions, that Iraq should pay war reparations. There were different categories, one of them was for migrant workers, saying that all those affected should be given reparations. So there are about 41,000 Filipino claimants, not all of whom have been fully paid yet, even though the United Nations has been paid the full amount since 1995. And… during the time of [former Philippine President] Estrada, the head of the Department of Foreign Affairs himself stated that one of his undersecretaries had in his personal bank account some of the money of the Gulf War claimants. Because of things like that, of course, people didn’t get anything.

What is ironic is that the Philippine government is being very supportive of Bush’s so-called “war on terrorism”. They just sent our Foreign Affairs Secretary- the new one, because the former Foreign Affairs Secretary was against US intervention in the Philippines, so he was kicked out- to Europe to lobby the European Union to designate the Communist Party of the Philippines, the New Peoples’ Army etc. as “terrorists”… so anyone who now becomes a critic of the government can be branded a “Communist” like they did during martial law.

But anyway, a lot of stranded migrant workers are still in Saudi Arabia… what if more war breaks out? If you know what happened in Malaysia recently when thousands of Filipinos and Indonesians were kicked out for being undocumented… and a lot of those Filipinos and Indonesians died either during or after the forced repatriation. And they were given lacklustre support from their own government…

APMM recently supported an action in Hong Kong against a war on Iraq. How were the lives of the migrant workers in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia affected by the first Gulf War, and how could another war affect the lives of migrants?

Well, during the first Gulf War there were two kinds of cases, the ones who came out of Kuwait and those who stayed behind. Of the people who came out, those in the first batch were better off… those who came out, for example, in the third batch were stranded in parts of Jordan… there was no official help, they were all by themselves. Fortunately there were already Filipinos there who were working in Jordan and who had some camps who let the escapees stay…

And then there were those who stayed in Kuwait throughout the war. Like in any other war, there were abuses made against our compatriots. Specifically a number of women were raped and our Foreign Affairs Secretary blurted out in the press that those being raped should just lie down and enjoy it.

But we are, of course, very concerned about the current situation… about what support we can give, and what we can pressure our government to do right now. I was just there [in the Middle East], and I attended a meeting for Filipino groups and our Welfare Officer to plan a scenario: just in case something happens, what will we do? And actually our government seems more concerned with mobilizing…the professionals than doing its part to help migrant workers. Even to the extent that it doesn’t know the actual number of Filipinos that need to be found… I mean it’s absurd, they’re the ones who authenticate the contracts and they don’t know where the migrant workers are. It also seems that our government has no money to repatriate those workers. It says it has 700,000,000 pesos, just in case of evacuation, but at the same time… well, for example, they just sent a team to Kuwait and other countries, headed by a former armed forces Chief of Staff. According to Filipinos there, he made his press releases even before he had met with the Filipino community, saying that everything was OK, and that the Kuwaiti government and the Filipino government would be assisting migrants just in case of war… so they are making these statements without even talking to the Filipino community!

Right now many migrant workers are concerned about what will happen within their own countries. They are worried that if Iraq is invaded, migrants could become targets wherever they are in the Middle East. Our government is denying that it is supporting Bush… but I mean, that’s not true, and it’s very clear in the newspapers! And the government’s only advice to the migrants is ‘well, stock up on your food and if that happens, don’t go outside’. They are really not serious about helping, basically because it is a question of money. Our government is bankrupt.

Contact the Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants at: [email protected]

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