Remembering Flor, Delia and Sarah

FLOR Contemplacion, aged 42, hanged in Singapore in March 1995. Delia Maga, aged 34, murdered in Singapore in May 1991 together with her four-year-old ward, allegedly by Flor. Sarah Balabagan, aged 17, sentenced to die in 1995 by a court in the United Arab Emirates after stabbing to death her 54-year-old employer/rapist but was later freed.

All the above-named are Filipina domestic helpers who were forced to leave their families behind to venture into foreign lands in search of a greener pasture. Their cases, I would say, helped shape what is now conceived as the Philippine government’s “best” way of looking after the millions of overseas Filipino workers.

Sad to say, when Filipinos, by the thousands, started to work in foreign countries in the early ‘70s, the Philippine government had no concrete plans and laws to govern what it then termed as labor export. Filipinos, I remember then, were in demand especially in Saudi Arabia and the surrounding oil-rich areas in the Gulf. The struggling economy of the country, just over a year after the big bulk of Filipino workers left overseas to work, began to show improvement. Why, you may ask. The overseas Filipino workers regularly sent money home, which, collectively, amounted to more than what the government could get from its other export products!

Millions of dollars that year were funneled into the mainstream of the country’s economy. In the ensuing years, millions turned to billions and the government started to rely on the overseas Filipino workers’ earnings abroad. Officials though were silent about this development but were very aggressive in encouraging Filipinos to work abroad. They never minded sending Filipino workers even to countries where the Philippines has no bilateral relations or whatsoever with.

With their numbers increasing by the millions every year, cases of Filipinos running into trouble started to pile up. With women being the most numbered of those going out every year, cases of abuse, maltreatment, rape and even death soon surfaced.

These cases, according to government officials, are isolated, very isolated that they could afford to be quiet about them. Until Flor Contemplacion entered the limelight and created a chain of events which prompted them to move and do something for the protection of the millions of overseas Filipino workers!

In a statement given to the press after a meeting with a number of recalled heads of selected diplomatic missions abroad, then Secretary of Foreign Affairs Roberto Romulo said and I quote:

There are lessons to be drawn from the Contemplacion case. This case compels us to take stock of all existing government policies and procedures for assistance and protection of overseas workers.”

In the same year that Flor was hanged in Singapore, a law passed by the Congress was finally enacted. This law, popularly known as the “1995 Magna Carta for OCWs” (or overseas contract workers, the term used before by public officials), for me, is a strong indication of the government’s haphazard way of protecting its citizens working abroad. It could do better though.

Being into this roller coaster of an issue in the past 11 years or so, I would guess that improvement to existing policies or amendment to this existing law will again require another isolated case or cases. What, where and who – these questions all remain to be seen.

But one thing is clear to me – had it not been for the likes of Flor Contemplacion, Delia Maga and Sarah Balabagan, the overseas Filipino workers would have not been heard of at all! Ironic so it seems, heroic deeds and outstanding work performances of this “special class of Filipinos” – to borrow President Joseph “Erap” Estrada’s latest term – remain unheard of!

 

Author: Freda Editha O. Contreras
Published on: August 31, 1999

 

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