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Overseas Filipino Workers in the Middle East

By Lia Bellefontaine

After being in Manila for more than a month, I can’t help but notice that most people have a family member living abroad. In fact, the Filipino population is spread all around the world. According to a 2011 report done by the Commission on Filipinos Overseas, almost 10.5 million Filipinos live abroad, 43% of which are temporary foreign workers.[1] That means that more than 10% of the country’s population is living abroad. Some call these Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) the “new heroes” of the Filipino economy. They make many personal sacrifices to move abroad and often work in unfavorable conditions. Since many of them send a large part of their income back home to their families and communities, they have become the second highest source of foreign income into the Filipino economy.[2]

The issues faced by Female OFWs are vast. There is evidence of high occurrences of sexual, physical and mental abuse. Female OFWs have been subjected to human trafficking and sold as commodities between one employer to another. A large part of Female OFWs are domestic workers, who are highly integrated into the home of their employer, so they may have very little access to communication with the outside world. Their hours are often long, working all day and all night.  Many organizations, both governmental and non-governmental, have worked to try to keep OFWs safe from the exploitation and abuse of their employers. The challenges of protecting a population under the jurisdiction of another country are burdensome. However, following recent events, the threat of exploitation comes from a different source: the Philippine authorities in foreign countries.

On June 21, 2013, three OFWs accused an officer of the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, of institutionalized sexual exploitation. These women had sought refuge in safe houses for distressed migrant workers set up by the POLO. Normally, the POLO and the Department of Foreign Affairs pays for repatriation to Manila. However, according to the allegations, the POLO officer required these women to pay for their repatriation with sexual favors. This scheme has been dubbed “sex for flight”. The OFWs in Riyadh are at a particularly high risk of abuse since the Saudi Arabian government has decided to crack down on undocumented OFWs, forcing thousands of OFWs to set up camp outside the Philippine Embassy, waiting for repatriation.

Although this story has attracted attention in Manila, this is not the first time that an OFW has come forward with allegations of sexual abuse committed at the hands of Philippine diplomatic officials.  There have also been disclosures of sexual exploitation of distressed workers by labor officers in the Philippine embassies in Jordan, Syria and Kuwait.

Last weekend, Philippine Officials and Ambassadors from Kuwait, Syria, Jordan, Saudia Arabia, Qatar, Oman, The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya and Lebanon were ordered back to Manila for a consultation. More recently, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario has expanded the investigation to include diplomatic posts in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.

The consultations were held in order to gather information on the allegations and identify preventive and corrective measures. In a press release, the Department of Foreign Affairs outlined the long-term goal of strengthening the One-Country Team Approach to diplomacy and inter-agency cooperation. Ateneo Human Rights Center (AHRC) was asked to do a presentation on gender sensitivity for these diplomats. It was difficult to decide what approach should be taken in a situation where the abuse seems to be so systematic, almost institutionalized. We decided to educate them about their duties as diplomatic officials to protect women from abuse and discrimination, which seemed more appropriate considering the severity of the accusations.

The AHRC handles an incredible diversity of human rights work, including grass roots involvement, research and education, litigation and policy and legal reform. This is but one example of the many very interesting experiences that I have been exposed to. Since the center is made up mostly of lawyers, in the heart of the most prestigious law school in the Philippines, they are in a key position to promote human rights at the international and domestic level, however, it is always an upwards struggle.

 

One system, deux justices

2013 Lea Pelletier-Marcotte 100x150 Par Léa Pelletier-Marcotte

Je suis arrivée au Cambodge à la fin du mois d’avril, pensant débuter mon stage le lundi suivant. Finalement, on m’annonça que je ne débuterais que le 21 mai et donc, plutôt que de n’avoir qu’une semaine d’adaptation, j’en ai eu quatre.

Je considère toutefois que ces quelques semaines durant lesquelles je découvris différentes régions du Cambodge faisaient partie intégrante de mon stage : sans avoir eu cet aperçu de la diversité du pays, de ses gens, sans avoir été témoin de la vie à la campagne au sud, puis au nord, et sans les avoir mises en parallèle avec le rythme effréné de la capitale, je ne crois pas que j’aurais saisi l’importance du travail qu’effectue la LICADHO et la variété des situations auxquelles elle est confrontée.

De même, je ne pense pas que j’aurais su comment rendre justice à la mosaïque qu’est le Cambodge au sein de mes tâches. Je ne prétends pas posséder une connaissance exhaustive du pays dans lequel je passerai mon été, loin de là. Mais ce dont je fus témoin fait, il me semble, une grande différence dans l’appréciation de mon stage, dans ce que j’y injecte et en retire.

Le ballet des bateaux de pêche

Le ballet des bateaux de pêche

La Ligue cambodgienne pour la promotion et la défense des droits de l’Homme (LICADHO) où j’effectue mon stage est, depuis 1992, au premier plan des efforts pour promouvoir et protéger les droits économiques, sociaux et culturels des Cambodgiens. Je suis basée au bureau principal de la LICADHO, à Phnom Penh, mais elle possède des bureaux dans 12 autres provinces. À l’approche des élections, prévues pour le 28 juillet prochain, je peux vous dire qu’on n’arrête pas une minute, ici. Quand le parti au pouvoir en place de puis des lustres tente de convaincre les Cambodgiens qu’un changement de gouvernement est une anomalie, et que la plupart des partis ont recours à l’imagerie de la guerre, puisant des votes à même les cicatrices du pays, il y a de quoi s’inquiéter.

Human rights are also being used by the government as a tool to ensure its re-election and unfortunately, it is not being done « in a good way ». For instance, while the authorities are using disproportionate force to evict entire communities on one side, on the other, the government’s brigade of some 2,000 military-clad student volunteers distribute individual land titles across the country. While distributing land titles should be applauded in theory, especially in the face of forced evictions and the massive wave of economic land concessions, this strategy hides a tremendous lack of respect for basic democratic principles and the State’s own institutions. Prime Minister Hun Sen’s June 2012 Directive on the distribution of land titles bypasses the State’s institutions mandated to do exactly that, but in a more transparent manner. The actual program is clouded with opacity, and NGOs were warned against trying to figure out its inner workings. But that’s not all: according to credible reports, landowners are being told that the individual land titles distributed under the Directive might be taken away if the ruling party, the CPP, fails to be re-elected.

La quête.

La quête.

Le pouvoir judiciaire est également utilisé à des fins électorales. Sous des apparences de justice se cache une stratégie grossière qui vise à jeter de la poudre aux yeux du people ou à instaurer en lui la crainte. Depuis que je suis à la LICADHO, j’ai eu la chance de suivre de très près deux affaires : la première implique une activiste, Yorm Bopha, et la seconde implique un homme près du pouvoir, Chhouk Bandith.

Mes premières heures à la LICADHO, je les ai passées dans une voiture en direction de Svay Rieng, une ville au sud-est du Cambodge. Là-bas s’ouvrait le procès de l’ancien gouverneur de la ville de Bavet, Chhouk Bandith, pour « blessures accidentelles », après qu’il eût fait feu sur un groupe manifestant pour de meilleures conditions de travail devant l’une des nombreuses usines de vêtements du Cambodge. Trois employées furent alors sérieusement blessées. C’était en février 2012 et depuis, les yeux étaient tournés vers le Cambodge. En effet, il y avait dans cette affaire, beaucoup d’enjeux cruciaux : la puissante industrie du vêtements et les conditions de travail de employés, la colère grandissante de ces derniers, leurs droits d’assemblée et d’association, le rôle des autorités et leur utilisation de la force,  et l’identité du suspect principal, entre autres.

Pendant les trois heures de route, on me dit que faire s’il y a des manifestations, que faire si c’est la cohue, que faire si on nous parle, que faire si on nous prend en photo, que faire si y’a du grabuge, que dire, comment agir. Avoir l’air de savoir ce qu’on fait. Ne jamais avoir l’air à douter. Ne jamais se regrouper entre étrangers. Faire attention à ce que l’on dit, à qui on le dit, avoir des yeux et des oreilles tout le tour de la tête. Où se mettre. Qui de nous doit entrer coûte que coûte dans la salle d’audience. Pour une première journée, disons que tout cela fait peur à la nouvelle stagiaire.

We get to Svay Rieng as the procedures start. The accused is absent. His lawyer asks for the trial to be delayed in order to respect « the rights of the accused ». The judge grants this request, and the trial is pushed back to the 12th of June. I am outraged, I curse the guy, I want to scream. What a lack of respect towards his victims (who sacrificed a day’s wage to come to the court). Another one who thinks he is above the law. But then, I look at my colleagues, other NGO workers, the families, the journalists and other people present, and they do not seem surprised. As if they expected it. And right there, at that very moment, I tell myself « Welcome to Cambodia ».

On June 12th, we go back to Svay Rieng. Chhouk Bandith does not show up (again), the judge decides to go through with the trial. Chhouk Bandith’s lawyer quits upon what he says is a « procedural » mistake, and here we are, no accused, no defense lawyer, three victims and about twenty witnesses. Over the next two days, victims and witnesses take the stand. Most testimonies confirmed the absurdity of the «unintentional bodily harm» charges : Chhouk Bandith fired his weapon aiming at the crowd, which is hardly accidental. On Friday, the judge announced that the verdict would be released on June 25th. On June 25th, we head to Svay Rieng for the third time, not knowing how Cambodia’s justice system would surprise us this time. The judge announces  Chhouk Bandith is sentenced to 1.5 years in prison (6 months per victim), an arrest warrant is immediately issued, and compensation for the three victims amounts to 38000000 riels (about $9,500 – $5,000 for one, $2,500 and $2,000 for the two others). Briefly stated, a slap on the wrist.

L’autre cas que j’ai eu la chance de suivre est celui de Yorm Bopha. Pour bien comprendre celui-ci, il faut l’insérer dans le contexte plus vaste des expulsions forcées dont sont victimes plusieurs communautés. C’est le cas de la communauté du lac Boeung Kak, à Phnom Penh. En mai 2012, 13 activistes de la communauté furent arrêtées et détenues alors qu’elles manifestaient pacifiquement sur des terres de leur communauté qui furent confisquées et cédées par le gouvernement à une compagnie privée. Yorm Bopha est alors devenue l’une des figures de proue du mouvement pour la libération des activistes et conséquemment, de sa communauté. Dès lors, elle commença à être harcelée, menacée et intimidée par les autorités.

Peu de temps après, Bopha et son mari furent arrêtés pour avoir, semble-t-il, planifié le passage à tabac de deux motodops. Leur procès, qui dura 5 heures, eut lieu le 26 décembre 2012 et très vite, l’aspect politique de celui-ci transpira. Malgré un manque flagrant de preuves, malgré les témoignages des témoins qui confirmèrent que Bopha et son mari étaient absents lorsque les violences commencèrent, Bopha et son mari furent condamnés à 3 ans de prison, mais la sentence de son mari, non-activiste, fut immédiatement suspendue.

La Cour d’appel accepta d’entendre Yorm Bopha et donc, le 5 juin, nous assistâmes au début des procédures d’appel. Bopha, son mari et les deux victimes témoignèrent. Alors que Bopha n’a pu entendre le témoignage de son mari, et son mari n’a pu entendre le témoignage de Bopha, les deux victimes/témoins ont pu, eux, entendre le témoignage de chacun. Et donc, leurs témoignages étaient calqués l’un sur l’autre. Et ce, même si le premier à témoigner contredit sa déposition. Donc, les inconsistances se répétaient d’un témoin à l’autre. Bref, c’en était assez déconcertant. Tout comme le reste des procédures, d’ailleurs. À la fin de l’audience, il était clair que les allégations étaient fabriquées de toutes pièces et que la crédibilité des victimes/témoins laissait grandement à désirer.

Les procédures reprirent le 14 juin en après-midi.  Cette fois-ci, je décidai de rester à l’extérieur, avec la communauté assoiffée de justice. Sous la pluie battante, ils étaient nombreux à être là, à crier et chanter tout au long des procédures qui se déroulaient entre les murs qu’ils ne pouvaient que regarder de loin. C’était très différent que d’être assise dans la salle, à observer les procédures et analyser le fonctionnement du système judiciaire cambodgien, mais d’un autre côté, la frustration contre celui-ci en fait partie intégrante. En soirée, le verdict tomba : la sentence de Yorm Bopha était maintenue mais réduite à 2 ans plutôt que trois. Ayant déjà passé presqu’un an en prison, il lui en reste une autre à être loin de son jeune fils. Ayant été la première à recevoir le jugement sur mon téléphone, je dus l’annoncer à mes collègues qui eux, le partagèrent à la foule qui était, jusque là, si confiante. Après l’euphorie, le silence. Puis les cris. Le désespoir. La rage.

Devant la Cour d'appel de Phnom Penh, sous la pluie battante.

Devant la Cour d’appel de Phnom Penh, sous la pluie battante.

Ces deux verdicts, mis en parallèle avec le contexte pré-électoral, m’ont poussée à m’interroger sur les messages que cela envoie aux Cambodgiens. Alors qu’il est clair que le pouvoir judiciaire est contrôlé par les hautes instances du pouvoir, quelle est la stratégie du CPP avec ces deux importantes décisions?

Yorm Bopha’s verdict was announced before Chhouk Bandith’s. Althought the Appeals Court suspended one year of her sentence, this harsh sentencing (for allegedly plotting an attack on two motodops although no evidence was presented supporting this claim, nor did any witness testimony) sends a clear message to actual and would-be human rights activists : stay away, or else…

But with this warning also comes popular anger, and a possible decrease in the CPP’s popularity with potential voters. This is where the Chhouk Bandith verdict comes in handy: it wants to show that the justice system is « fair », that it manages to condemn some high-ranking officials and bring justice to garment industry workers. Most people will stop at that, seeing this as some sort of re-equilibration. But looking at the two verdicts, one can see that although there is one Cambodian justice system, there are two types of justice: a harsh one for human rights defenders, and a soft one for well-connected individuals.

Chhouk Bandith has yet to be arrested, and probably never will be, while Bopha has spent 4 months in pre-trial detention. Bandith was sentenced to 1.5 years in prison for « accidentally » shooting and injuring 3 factory workers although most witnesses saw him aiming at the crowd, while Bopha was sentenced to 3 years in prison for allegedly plotting an attack despite any evidence or testimony supporting that charge. Chhouk Bandith might appeal the sentence (the in abstentia sentencing gives him a solid ground to do so) and show up then. This might be what was planned all along. But this will have to wait until after the elections. Then, no one will have to worry about votes, as only good connections will matter.

Meanwhile, Yorm Bopha has appealed to the Supreme Court. This, too, will have to wait until after the elections…

A Chance For Change

2013 Jim Burman 100x150After more than two decades of war, there are glimmers of hope in Somalia.  Gains by UN-backed troops against the Al-Shabaab rebel group and the selection of a former human rights activist as the new president last year have created a sense that there may be a window of opportunity to move the country towards a more peaceful and prosperous future.
Since the nation’s dictator fell from power in 1991, the country has been without a central government.   In the vacuum that followed, fighting between warlords left vast swaths of the country’s people displaced and impoverished while a privileged few profited from the war economy.  With a semblance of security returning, it seems possible that a new order might begin to prevail and bring benefits to a widening circle of Somalis.
A key to any sustained recovery will be increasing opportunities for all Somalis to participate in the rebuilding of their country through paid employment.  Among those seeking to generate jobs and increase prosperity in Somalia is an organization based outside of Denver, Colorado, called Shuraako.  The group, whose name means partnerships in Somali, aims to boost employment-generating investments in the nation.
While the Somali people have shown remarkable economic resilience and ingenuity during the last two decades, there are significant challenges as the country seeks to re-integrate economically with the world.  The informal, often innovative, arrangements that have served the people during these times of turmoil may need to be modified if Somalia hopes to attract investment and increase trade.
Among its different activities, Shuraako hopes to serve as a resource for those seeking to navigate this transition towards international economic norms.  In support of this work, I have been researching land tenure practices in Somalia as well as international financial regulations and their impact on the country.   These first few weeks have been intellectually very engaging and I’ve enjoyed getting to know my cosmopolitan group of colleagues.  Overall, I hope my work this summer will contribute in some small way to helping Somalia seize this chance to head in a new direction.
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