Responsibility missing in human export equation

August 2, 2009

Foreign labor is a profitable business for the labor-exporting countries and the host countries. Because of the billions of dollars exchanged world-wide, there has been an established pattern for the developing countries to constantly send more and more of their human exports to keep remittances flowing in to sustain their economies. Host countries greedily accept the workers as replaceable commodities knowing that they willingly offer their highly valued skilled services while accepting cheap wages. They can easily be replaced if they complain about being cheated or abused as many of them are.

Recruitment and manpower agencies serving as middlemen reap in huge profits from the transactions and are yet another link in the chain of abuse and exploitation.

Missing in the exchange is responsibility. All nations involved in the exchange of foreign labor must take the responsibility to protect the workers. "Workers out, money in" has become the mantra for labor-exporting countries who show little regard for the safety and well-being of their citizens. Every labor-exporting nation should have binding agreements with the host countries to demand the respectful and just treatment of every single citizen sent overseas or across a border to work. In this global economy international laws and treaties regarding the treatment of foreign contract workers must be established and enforced. We must not allow people to be regarded as disposable commodities.

Labor and immigration systems across the world are one step below slavery, and in some cases allow slavery and human trafficking to flourish.

We often hear of the most hideous cases of exploitation and abuses - the beheadings, false imprisonment, forced prostitution, trafficking of minors and young women, suicide to escape from abusive employers, hangings, or the case of a worker who despondently set himself on fire because he could not collect an unpaid judgment of money owed to him. What we seldom hear are the cries of outrage from the labor-exporting countries or the remorseful apologies from the host countries. Excuses, misplaced blame on the workers and coverups too often substitute for responsibility to demand respectful treatment and protection. Workers out, money in.

I just learned of the desperate plight of the Filipino crew members of the MV Irene EM, a Greek owned vessel captured by Somali pirates in April. One member of the crew is the brother of Gemma Casa, a reporter for the Marianas Variety. In a series of eloquently written editorials, she has outlined the plight of her brother and other overseas workers. I urge you to read them and to take action.

In an editorial, Thoughts: Somalia and Africa dated July 24, 2009 Gemma tells the heartbreaking story of her brother, Jovan:
I last saw my only brother—the oldest among us five children—in January when I went home for vacation in the Philippines.

I saw him a few hours after I arrived in Manila and he was to leave for Singapore where MV Irene EM, a Greek-owned bulk carrier, was waiting for its Filipino crew members.

My brother Joven or Kuya Bob to us is a master electrician at the 35,000-ton ship which was delivering oil and cargo to China, Pakistan and Kenya.

He took a leave from his government job in hopes of starting a new career in the overseas maritime sector before making his early retirement. The current Philippine administration wanted their office abolished anyways.

Shipping companies pay well skilled personnel like my brother. His monthly salary would have been the equivalent of his half-a year wages from the Philippine government.

It was exactly what he needed to send off his oldest daughter, a biology major, to a good medical school and to support his youngest son who is considering to enter the seminary.

All was well until I received an email from my sister-in-law asking to pray for the safety of my brother.

MV Irene was hijacked by the Somali pirates off the Gulf of Aden at dawn of April 14. The attack came days after the daring rescue on Richard Phillips, the captain of the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama container ship, wherein three Somali pirates were killed.

NATO received a distress call from the St. Vincent and the Grenadines-flagged merchant about the incident. A Canadian warship sent a helicopter to investigate what was happening but it was too late. After MV Irene was secured by the pirates, four more ships were captured in the Gulf of Aden that week.

My mother who is in Canada visiting my youngest sister, Divrose or Dave, was devastated upon hearing the news.

We lost my older sister to liver cancer [not genetically linked] in 2005 and now my brother is held captive in Somalia.

Dave who is a nurse had to give my mother sleeping pills so she could sleep.

My father, who was left to the care of my oldest sister, who is also a nurse back home, was shaken.

In the succeeding days after the capture, my sister-in-law, along with the families of the other kidnapped crew members, were briefed at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila.

They were told to keep quiet and to not approach any politicians who may only use the issue ahead of the 2010 Philippine presidential elections.

My sister-in-law who works for a Manila-based U.S. funded government agency last saw my brother on web cam when the crew called port in Amman, Jordan.

From Jordan, MV Irene was to sail to Kenya, their final route, which cannot be reached without passing through the deadly Gulf of Aden.

As of May, 81 Filipino seafarers from different ships were captured by the Somali pirates. Most of them have been released to date.

MV Irene’s case is rather odd. It’s been more than three months now and still no news about when the crew members would be released.

The pirates too were unusually silent about their demands from the shipping company which a few years ago paid them $1.5 million in ransom.

My sister-in-law said the shipping firm told them the crew members are all safe. But it’s been three months and no proof of life was made—only text messages that they are well.

This month when I returned home again, she told me “nagtatawaran na daw sila” [They are bargaining for ransom]. I hope it’s true.

The ship’s supplies are good to last only until next month. My brother who has hypertension stocked up on his medication until August only thinking that he would be home by now.

Dave, who is now a Canadian citizen, got a warm response in Canada when she launched a campaign to free my brother, particularly from the media like the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

It’s ironic though as my brother is Filipino by citizenship yet the Canadians have campaigned strongly for their release among the members of the parliament who have pledged to bring their case to NATO.

I hope the Philippine government dares to act more boldly in rescuing distressed Filipino overseas workers, like those captive seafarers, whom it calls “new heroes” for keeping the country economically afloat with their remittances.

Last week, India rescued 12 of their seafarers with the help of the French government just days after the Somali pirates made the attack.

But in my brother’s case and that of the 22 other Filipino seafarers, it’s been three long months. The Philippine government should do something about them.

Piracy is a lucrative source of livelihood among many Somalis since the 1990s when the country experienced political and social unrest.

I was told that the Somali government is actually in cahoots with the pirates. 50 percent of the ransom allegedly goes to the Somali government, a quarter goes to the pirates and the rest of the 25 percent is used to buy weapons and ammunitions.

The Somali pirates are armed with sophisticated weapons from Russia. Its neighboring country of Sudan, which slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people in Darfur for ethnic cleansing, meanwhile, buys its weapons from China.

Somalia and Sudan are only two of the countries in Africa, which even if we like it or not, affect the world’s stability and security.

Piracy in Somalia and that of MV Irene’s case isn’t just about the captive crew members and their families’ crisis. This is about global maritime security that the international community should address to protect people, their livelihood, access to food and oil, and the right to live in a peaceful world.

Anarchy and poverty prevails in many countries in Africa like Somalia. They have become a perfect breeding ground for crimes and terrorists who are just waiting for an opportunity to attack the rest of us and their own.

The vast continent of Africa is still unexplored and in the years to come, the world will depend on its resources to meet its need for oil and minerals.

But if the world allows Africa to remain chaotic and lawless, the rest of us will never live in peace, no matter our distance.

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April 14, 2009 when news of the capture of the MV Irene E.M. and other vessels was announced President Obama was quoted by AP:
In Washington, President Barack Obama appeared to move the piracy issue higher on his agenda, vowing the United States would work with nations around the world to fight the problem.

“I want to be very clear that we are resolved to halt the rise of piracy in that region and to achieve that goal, we’re going to have to continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks,” Obama said at a news conference Monday.
In July 2009 Australian News reported that 14 vessels and 4 barges with 214 seafarers were being held in Somalia against their will.

Rueters also reported in July 2009 about the various ships and crew being held by the pirates. They stated that an estimated 20,000 ships pass through the Gulf of Aden each year, heading to and from the Suez Canal and 86 ships were seized by Somali pirates in the first 6 months of 2009.

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs issued several statements concerning Somali piracy. A July 11, 2009 press release states:
Foreign Affairs Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs Esteban B. Conejos, Jr. today said efforts to secure the safe and early release of the remaining Filipino seafarers held hostage in Somalia are ongoing.
Undersecretary Conejos said negotiations for the release of 44 Filipino seafarers, on board four hijacked vessels, between the ships’ principals and Somali pirates continue.
“We are aware that negotiations continue and that all 44 Filipinos are unharmed. We continue to hope and pray for a positive outcome,” he said.
As a policy, the Philippine Government does not negotiate directly to pirates. However, it coordinates closely with concerned foreign authorities and the local manning agencies of the hijacked vessels to secure the early and safe release of Filipino seafarers.
As the Philippines’ contribution to international efforts to stem piracy, Undersecretary Conejos disclosed that the Government has already designated a Philippine navy officer to act as naval liaison to the Combined Maritime Forces in Manama, Bahrain.
The Combined Maritime Forces is a multinational task force conducting maritime security operations throughout the region.
In her recent trip to Japan, President Arroyo also obtained the assurance of Japan that it will help secure Filipino seafarers against pirates in the Gulf of Aden through the dispatch of vessels and maritime patrol aircrafts.
Until the security situation has stabilized, the DFA recommended the imposition of a ban on the deployment of Filipino seafarers in the Gulf of Aden and surrounding areas.
Numerous other statements and press releases can be accessed at the Department of Foreign Affairs Website.

Another editorial written by Gemma, Thoughts: Abuses, appears in the July 31, 2009 issue of the Marianas Variety. It describes her introduction to the labor abuses in Saipan as a reporter in the Philippines and her views as a foreign contract worker. It is powerful and informative. Please read it. Please take action. Request immediate action to secure the release of Gemma's brother, Joven and the other crew members aboard the MV Irene E.M by contacting:

President Gloria Macapacal Arroyo
Republic of the Philippines
(Direct email contact)

Alberto Rolumu
Republic of the Philippines
Department of Foreign Affairs
2330 Roxas Boulevard
Pasay City, Philippines
Tel. No. (632) 834-4000

President Barack Obama (email contact)
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington, DC 20500

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
Palais des Nations
CH-1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland
Telephone: +41 22 917 90 00

Human Rights Watch
350 Fifth Avenue, 34th Floor
New York, NY 10118-3299
Tel: 1-(212) 290-4700

Amnesty International
1 Easton Street
Telephone: +44-20-74135500
Fax number: +44-20-79561157

Email to NATO

Embassy of the Philippines in Greece
26 Antheon Street
Paleo Psychico
Athens, Greece 15452
Tel. Nos.: (210) 6721883 / (210) 6721837 / (210) 6721869
Fax. No.: (210) 6721872
E-mail: /


Anonymous said...

A couple of notes here about labor export:

First, the country that wins hands down in human labor export is... that's right Wendy, the Philippines. Whether it's Gloria or Cory it has been the same old story. Change has to begin in their host country first. IT IS NOT THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE UNITED STATES.

Now the pirate situation. First the PI Govt is weak and corrupt. Gloria pulled Filipino troops out of Iraq because of a hostage. Gloria's excuse for this cowardice: The Philippine Govt depends on labor export for their very existence! I feel bad for those sailors but it is not our problem. The PI will drop money down to have them released. The US simply blew the heads off of the pirates and now they are staying away from US flagged vessels in fear of having their heads blown off by a SEAL team.

Concerned Citizen said...

Those who complain the loudest about pirates are often the same who stridently advocate for smaller defense budgets.

A permissive, tolerant, and accommodating posture toward pirates only makes things worse. The only solution is to never pay ransom!

One should conduct one's life and personal affairs (life insurance, relationships with God and mankind) so as to be ready to meet one's maker at any time.

The Tagalog mass at the Cathedral is the best attended on the island, and with the most children -- good sign. Let us hope that the sacrament of confession is similar in popularity.

We should pray that the hostages have the grace of final perseverence, staying true to their faith. Any sufferings should be offered up in union with the intentions of Jesus, and for the sake of our sins. The opportunity to prepare oneself for death is a great blessing.

I have almost died several times myself, but always accidentally, so I didn't have that preparation time. But I was ready.

During times of trouble we need to stand together and support one another.

Wendy said...

Anonymous 5:10

You are wrong. BOTH the labor-exporting country and the host country have the responsibility to protect foreign contract workers. You have no argument. Laws apply to everyone. Change should be world-wide in every country sending and receiving guest workers.

"It's not our problem" is a callous and ignorant remark. It is everyone's problem when waterways are unsafe and ships are pirated. It is an especially cruel remark to make when one of the captured men is the brother of someone respected and loved in the CNMI.

Anonymous said...

Cruel? Please. What about the American Captain that almost lost his life? Where was your entry for him and his family? Oh, he's not a Filipino so never mind right? Geeze. I really hope that everyone is safe over there, but remember that the PI makes billions off of exported labor, in fact the number one export from the PI is labor! There are Filipino workers in every single country. They are often abused and humiliated in their host country such as the CNMI. Some are raped, beaten and beheaded. What does the Philippine Gov do about it? NADA! What does the US do about one single American that is captured? We send in a SEAL team and blow the heads off of the pirates! Shame on the PI for not doing enough for their own citizens abroad...but it is still not our fault.

Anonymous said...

NONI 9:20

What Wendy said was that the Philippines and other countries are often indifferent about the safety and well-being of their workers. She is correct. She is also right in saying that countries that accept foreign contract workers need to protect their rights.

The politics of the issue is secondary to the fact that 22 Filipino men are being held hostage. Wendy asked us to contact some world leaders and NGOs to speak out on their behalf and take action to help free them. I intend to do just that.

Gemma, if you read this, my prayers are with you and your family.

Anonymous said...

The PI Gov will most likely offer a ransom for the hostages, fueling even more pirates and hostage taking. They will do this because they make so much money off of exported Filipino workers.

Anonymous said...

The US needs to blanket the Somali coast with Napalm, that might deter future Somali pirates.

Friend said...

Gemma I'm sorry for this sad news. I'm praying for your brother, family and crew. I'll ask leaders to help. We all support you!

Wendy said...

Some of the comments on here are disturbing and unrelated to the intent and content of the post.

Why on earth would someone propose that the U.S. blanket the coast of Somalia (or any place) with napalm? Somalia is a failed state where children are kidnapped to be soldiers, where there are constant clan wars, extreme poverty, violence, terrorist activities, and an enormous number of displaced people. There is a humanitarian crisis in the country. Maybe peace talks, humanitarian aid and work towards the stabilization of Somalia, a country in crisis, may help to end the piracy along the coast. A stronger military presence in the area may also help keep ships safe. World leaders should be looking at solutions to the big picture and to releasing the hostages from the captured ships.

Anonymous said...

JFYI, a few hours ago the pirates released a Malaysian tug boat and 11 Indonesian crew after 8 months of captivity. So I guess that the three months this current Phil. crew has been held is not much. It just depends on how fast the ransom is paid and how bad the company want the ship back. What's the ship worth to the owners compared to the amount of ransom. With many of these countries involved, the vessel is probably the main concern and not the crew as most of the crews are not from the country that owns the vessel.
My friend works in the merchant marine from the Phil. His contract with the vessels has stipulations that he leaves the vessel when it reaches a certain point in that area and flies to another port to await the vessel after it goes through the area. Other crew members have a very high rate "Hazardous duty" pay to transit through that area on he ship.

Luckily so far nobody has been killed or hurt as far as the crews go that are being held (that I am aware of)

the teacher said...

It took incredible courage for a Philippine national to write this letter...

"...Labor is the single biggest export of the Philippine government since the Martial law era of the Marcos regime.

Tens of thousands of skilled Filipinos were sent to the Middle East and eventually opened the door for others to work in other countries looking for more workers.

Back in the ’70s and the ’80s, communication was limited between the migrants and their families to air mails and the costly long-distance calls.

Today, the digital age has revolutionized the telecommunication industry allowing families of migrant workers to communicate in real time on the internet through instant messaging with web cams or emails.

Homesickness is no longer a major issue but labor abuses remain the same in different forms — for most of them.

In search of jobs, with a bagful of dreams to escape the grinding poverty in the Philippines, thousands of Filipinos leave the country each day.

Their remittances drive the country’s struggling economy—long mired by corruption and bureaucracy in both the public and the private sectors.

Today, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is scheduled to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House.

Their meeting coincides as the U.S. Congress debates over next year’s military aid package for the Philippines which currently gets $32 million.

It will also happen while the Philippine Court of Appeals is hearing the case of labor activist Melissa Roxas, a Filipino-American who was abducted and tortured in the Philippines by men believed to be military agents.

According to Bayan-USA, the U.S. military aid to the Philippines grew a staggering 1,500% during the Bush administration. Part of the money went to the Philippine military personnel who committed human rights violations, including the killings of 1,013 people and 1,035 who were tortured.

Simultaneous protest actions in Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C. were held this week in search of justice for Roxas who suffered repeated beatings and asphyxiation with plastic bags during her six-day captivity in what she believes was a military camp.

Under the Arroyo administration six OFWs-— Jenifer Beduya, Miguel Fernandez, Wilfredo Bautista, Antonio Alvesa, Sergio Aldana and Rey Cortez— were beheaded in Saudi Arabia.

At least three more OFWs are now awaiting their execution in Jeddah. Edison and Rolando Gonzales and Eduardo Arcilla were sentenced to die by beheading by the Saudi courts for murder.

Bayan and representatives of churches, community organizations, labor unions, and other concerned groups are appealing to President Obama to live up to his declarations of “change,” by asking President Arroyo what action she intends to take about the rampant human rights violations that continue to plague the Philippines.

During Arroyo’s meeting with Obama, she is also expected to make a pitch to support proposed changes to the Philippine Constitution.

Analysts said the so-called charter change would wipe out constitutional protections that protect Philippine sovereignty by allowing 100% foreign ownership of Philippine land and key industries, as well as open the door to a power extension for President Arroyo beyond the end of her term in 2010.

I am sure these aren’t the changes that Filipinos are seeking."

Wendy said...

SIGN THE PETITION to free Joven Casas and the crew of the MV Irene!