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Filipinos and other migrants in Netherlands demand equal rights, regularization

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Hundreds joined the national protest MOVE demo in the Dam Square in Amsterdam, The Netherlands last 18 June to draw attention to human rights violations within Europe’s borders and the difficulties faced by asylum seekers who enter Europe. Migrante Amsterdam, an association of Filipino migrants and refugees, called for equal treatment of Filipino asylum seekers as well as the regularization and protection for all migrants living in the Netherlands.

Speaking during the rally, Migrante Amsterdam chairperson Eunice de Asis said: “We have fled economically devastated countries where it is difficult to put food on the table. We are not here to take advantage of your benefits or steal your employment.”

“We are the people working as your cleaners, nannies, cooks, and caretakers…However, we continue to be without permits to stay and without any access to the fundamental rights you enjoy,” she added.

De Asis stressed how existing Dutch immigration laws such as the Benefit Entitlement Act of 1998 (Koppelingswet) denies migrants, particularly the undocumented, their rights to social benefits such as health care, housing, and employment.

“We are left in a desperate situation due to the Koppelingswet and immigration regulations which make us vulnerable to exploitation by our employers, landlords and organized criminals,” de Asis said.

“We are denied access to housing, healthcare, banking, public transportation, supermarkets and everyday needs of life,”

The demonstration – organized by MiGreat, a project focused on changing narratives around migration across Europe – was attended by members of the public as well as activists from diverse ethnic backgrounds and communities, highlighting the message that ‘refuge is a human right.’

The demonstrators also called for an end to wars, which cause forced migration, paying tribute to the migrants who lost their lives, especially in the latest migrant boat that sank earlier this month off the coast of Greece leaving at least 79 dead and many more missing.

YouTube purges ‘Son of God’ Quiboloy’s channel from platform

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Cristina Chi – Philstar.com

June 21, 2023

MANILA, Philippines — YouTube on Wednesday terminated the channel of religious sect leader Apollo Quiboloy, taking away a major digital platform from the controversial pastor who faces charges related to sex trafficking and money smuggling in the United States.

This came after a content creator flagged YouTube’s support team on Twitter, saying that Quiboloy is able to run a channel on the platform despite an existing warrant for his arrest from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“Upon review, we’ve determined that the channel is in violation of Community Guidelines & has been terminated,” YouTube’s support team on Twitter said in a tweet in response to the user.

Quiboloy’s YouTube channel is no longer available on the video-sharing website. Before its removal, the account had gathered more than 40,000 subscribers, based on an archive by WaybackMachine.

Quiboloy is on the US’ most wanted list and is being hunted down by the FBI for “conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion, and sex trafficking of children; sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion; conspiracy; bulk cash smuggling.”   

A US federal grand jury in California has also indicted Quiboloy and his senior aides over allegations that he coerced children — girls and young women — to have sex with him to save them from “eternal damnation.”

Quiboloy, whose lawyers have denied the allegations, has been wanted since February 2022.

YouTube is owned by Google, a multinational technology company whose headquarters is in the United States.

Quiboloy, who has been supportive of the previous Duterte and current Marcos presidencies, is also the owner of Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI), a media network that has repeatedly engaged in the widespread and baseless labeling of human rights defenders, journalists, activists and other individuals as members, operatives, or allies of the Communist Party of the Philippines.

SMNI, which runs a show where the red-tagging against government critics is done, has a partnership agreement with the Philippine Army.

Mary Jane Veloso reunites with family in Indonesia

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Philstar.com

June 21, 2023

MANILA, Philippines — Mary Jane Veloso, who has been incarcerated since 2010 in Indonesia over drug trafficking charges, reunited with her family after five years, Migrante International said Wednesday. 

Veloso’s parents and two sons traveled to Yogyakarta in Indonesia early last week to visit her in the town of Wonosari—where she is detained—and spent two days with her. 

“Our family is very happy. After a long time, we were able to hug Mary Jane… She saw her two sons who are already young men. When they saw their mother, they did not want to let go of her, always kissing and hugging her,” said Celia Veloso, mother of Mary Jane. 

Mark Danielle, Mary Jane’s eldest son, is hoping that his mother will be granted clemency soon.

“Saying goodbye really pains me because I wanted her to go home with us. My mom told us to continue fighting until she is free,” he said. 

“I know my mother is just a victim, and she is a good person and a good mother. I hope she will be given clemency in the soonest possible time so we can be together. Our life in the Philippines may be simple, but what’s important is that we’re together,” her son added. 

Veloso’ family were joined by Migrante International chairperson Joanna Concepcion, Mary Jane’s family lawyers Edre Olalia and Minnie Lopez, and Bishop Nonie Francisco from the United Church of Christ in the Philippines.

Representatives from the Philippine Embassy in Jakarta and the Department of Foreign Affairs Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs who assisted in facilitating the family’s visit were also present.

13 years

Veloso has been behind bars since 2010 after she was caught smuggling heroin hidden in the lining of a suitcase upon her arrival at Yogyakarta’s Adisucipto International Airport. She was sentenced to death by firing squad months after her imprisonment. 

In April 2015, former President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III personally appealed to the Indonesian government to grant Veloso clemency after the recruiters who tricked her into smuggling illegal drugs surrendered. Veloso was spared from the firing squad. 

“This reunion serves as a reminder that it has been a difficult 13-year-journey for Mary Jane and her family, and we challenge President Bongbong Marcos Jr. to take more proactive actions to appeal to the Indonesian government to grant clemency for Mary Jane,” Migrante’s Concepcion said. 

Marcos said in May that the government will continue to try to bring Veloso home. 

“We can be the ones to punish her… Just seeking any way to ask for clemency, to ask for grace when it comes to this,” Marcos said. 

Part 2 | Forgotten Filipinos struggle to remain in Belgium

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Jun 8, 2023

Michael Beltran

They don’t know how long their current job will last, when they’ll hear an update on the case, get to visit their families, take a holiday, speak to a lawyer, or when the Philippine and Belgian governments will take a greater interest in their cases

Additional reporting from Muhammad Owasim Uddin Bhuyan and Goele Vandenberghe

This investigation was supported by Journalismfund Europe’s Modern Slavery Unveiled grant programme.

*Names of the workers have been changed to protect their identities

READ: Part 1 | How Filipinos landed in Belgium’s biggest trafficking scandal

ANTWERP, Belgium – The discovery of trafficked laborers, including 65 Filipinos, at the Borealis plant in Antwerp led the Belgian government to grant them temporary residence. The next challenge for them was finding a job, making the most of their stay while the state prosecutor considers their case. 

Among the 65 workers, Henry, the Batangueño pipe fitter, couldn’t stand working for Flemish manpower agency Job Talent. He endured four months of unemployment in the latter half of 2022, and then he and many others found Job Talent, which they thought would be their refuge.

The agency sent him to live in the city of Zaventem while going to Antwerp as a pipe fitter, around an hour away. Every morning he’d wake up at four just to arrive on time at 6 am. He tired during the long train rides home late in the evening after his integration classes.

Henry joined four other Batangueños at the house in Zaventem, leased by the landlord to Job Talent with regulations that seemed unnecessarily expensive and punitive. During a birthday celebration, the workers were scolded by the agency for singing karaoke past 9 pm on a weekend. 

“Even our neighbors were invited, but they told us to stop,” moaned Henry.

The interim agency never provided the tenants a copy of the contract, only a list of fines if certain rules were violated:

  • Damage to the building – minimum €300 (P18,266)
  • Locking the apartment before a planned inspection – €150 (P9,133)
  • Not cleaning the apartment – minimum €300 (P18,266)
  • Clogging of pipes – minimum €150 (P9,133)
  • Damage to the premises – minimum €150 (P9,133)

Job Talent workers are docked around €85 (P5,175) to €105 (P6,393) a week for housing costs. Henry and his four other housemates had to give up €95 (P5,784) a week, bringing down his take-home pay.

Biktima na nga, nabiktima pa ulit. Ang pangako nga sa amin, €500 ang take-home ko, hindi €300 (P18,266),” he grumbled. (Victims already, then victimized again. We were promised €500 take home pay, not €300.)

It means they were paying close to €2000 (P121,778) a month for a two-bedroom townhouse. They wondered why the house next door, which was the same as theirs with the same owner, only cost their neighbor €700 (P42,622) a month.

The long hours, low pay, arbitrary and unfair housing arrangements were exactly the things he hoped to avoid after what he’d gone through at the Antwerp port.

HOME. The Filipino workers withstand the rain and snow of winter in Antwerp. Photo by Michael Beltran/Rappler

Henry left Job Talent two months after. The agency still employs about two dozen other Filipinos from the Borealis plant while continuing to recruit more Filipinos even domestically.

Job Talent refused to be interviewed. They only emailed a response saying, “We are indeed the leading organization in the employment of Filipino technical workers. We work 100% in compliance with Belgian labor laws and are accredited in the Philippines.” 

Manpower Resources of Asia (MRA) Inc., accredited by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, is listed as Job Talent’s Philippine partner in numerous job listings.

Job Talent’s terms are legal. However, the rental situation is “ridiculous,” because the agency “treats the workers like small children,” said Mieke Van Laer, lawyer to the Bangladeshi and Turkish workers.

She surmised there’s a big chance Job Talent is profiting from the rental arrangements and taking advantage of Filipinos who are unaware they can rent their own homes without manpower agencies as an intermediary.

Job Talent was among the companies to participate in a job fair in late 2022 organized by Payoke, an NGO tasked by the state to shelter trafficked workers in Flanders, and the Belgian labor department, with help from the Philippine embassy and the honorary consul.

Van Dyck said that employer-arranged housing is becoming more common to accommodate the stream of migrant labor.

Despite an overworked staff, Payoke does its best to screen labor and housing contracts for everyone under its care but attested that it has yet to find any red flags.

Keeping afloat

Payoke handles the monthly stipend of from €806.42 (P48,518.60) to €1214.13 (P73,048.65) given by the Public Centre for Social Welfare (OCMW) to each Filipino worker.

It seeks out donors who can provide free accommodations, but most of the time it needs to rent out apartments. 

From the monthly stipend, Payoke subtracts €750 (P45,666) for shelter (unless a donor provides one for free) and €50 (P3,044) for transportation. Workers are then handed €10 (P601) a day for general expenses, including food. 

Van Dyck said that whatever is left from each month, a little over €100 (P6,088) is added to the allowances paid out in one go at the end of a worker’s stay with the shelter.

Support from the OCMW to a worker stops when he gets a new job. When Rappler spoke to the workers in March 2023, none of them received anything more beyond the €10 pocket money.

“We make it work. We’d pool our €10 (P608) together for buying groceries, simple food. The cut for shelter at Payoke was really big. But now my rent in the apartment is just €450 (P27,400),” said Ricky.

Patrick* is approaching his senior years and is one of the oldest Filipinos from the Borealis plant. His peers are in their 30s and 40s. He’s worked around Africa and the Middle East since 1991, having never managed to find a job in his home country.

Right now, he has yet to find a new job, still surviving on €10 (P608) a day. 

Before Belgium, he worked in Hungary for €3.3 (P200) an hour during 10-hour shifts. In Antwerp, his pay wasn’t much higher, just €5.9 (P359) an hour for the same amount of work.

Patrick never wanted to be rescued. In his eyes, he was better off at the port of Antwerp – despite the anomalous arrangement – than having no job at all. His three children now have families of their own, and they still look to Patrick for support.

Undocumented Filipinos are usually reluctant to be rescued. “They don’t want to complain even if there are anomalies. They’re afraid of deportation or a bad record,” said UPB’s Aguila. 

“I’m still looking for a job now. It’s hard because of my age,” said Patrick.

The last few months have left him deflated. He sank to the bottom of his chair as he recounted his predicament to Rappler. He isn’t getting any younger, and operating cranes isn’t getting any easier with his waning dexterity. He mused about one day operating a forklift, but he’s had no luck yet.

When asked how much he wants to stay in Belgium, he motioned to his empty pockets wishing there was more in it. He shrugged, “all of the ayuda (assistance) I got, I’ve sent back to the Philippines.” 

Lawyers wanted

Among all the nationalities involved in the Borealis case, Filipinos are the only ones currently without a lawyer.

Migrante said the lack of legal representation is cause for concern. Navigating the legal wilderness of a foreign country is challenging on its own. Moreover, prospective employers think twice about giving jobs to those whose stay in the country hinges on the outcome of an investigation.

“The problem is we don’t know the status of our case or what the chances are,” said Ricky.

Van Laer and lawyer Jan Buelens of the Progress Lawyers Network, a coalition of law firms committed to social justice causes, initially volunteered to represent the Filipinos. But the embassy had already arranged for different representation. 

When the Borealis scandal broke, lawyers flocked to the embassy to volunteer their services. They took all the initial statements and filed the necessary accounts with the public prosecutor.  

The Filipinos have received no news about their case since then. 

According to Payoke and the embassy, the Filipino workers still do not have any current representation as of May 2023. 

“What’s important is that they have gainful employment here,” said Consul General Mendoza.

Olavare hit back saying, “Our government must address the legal concerns of the Filipinos. It’s nearly been a year, and still our compatriots don’t know who to consult for their case.”

Corporate culprits

Van Laer reckoned it could take a couple of years before the prosecutor reaches a decision as it determines “if there are enough signs of human trafficking.”

The prosecutor denied the Turkish workers recognition without providing any reason. No two nationalities at the Borealis plant traveled the same route and experienced the same conditions – a source of hope but also of uncertainty. 

Van Laer believes the prosecutor didn’t find any irregularities done to the Turkish workers.

Because Belgian definitions of human trafficking are very broad, Van Laer said any decision will subjectively depend on the prosecutor’s biases.

If the decision goes against the workers, it’s likely “they just become undocumented migrants in Belgium. The problem doesn’t go away,” she said.

Buelens, however, asserted that the Borealis workers were indeed trafficked.

He explained that “economic exploitation falls under human trafficking,” which includes not paying the correct wages, deception, and other anomalous working conditions.

IREM, seen as the principal employer, is publicly accused of human trafficking and labor exploitation. 

In a May 2023 statement, IREM said it remains “committed to fully cooperate with the Belgian authorities and to provide all available evidence to allow the authorities to ascertain the correctness of the conduct of the company.” It also pointed out that almost a year since, it has yet to contend with official charges. 

IREM will likely face formal charges when the prosecutor finishes the inquiry. 

However, Buelens and Van Laer, representing trade unions and trafficked workers, hope to enlarge the case to indict Borealis of these crimes.

Borealis maintained its innocence, implying in a statement that culpability lies with IREM as they had no knowledge of any illegal activity.

Last January, Borealis said they have “zero tolerance for any malpractice and puts stringent measures in place to mitigate related risks.” They also committed to setting up a crisis management team among other preventive mechanisms.

Buelens cited the account of the labor inspectorate which says Borealis knew about irregularities in the employment early on and did nothing.  

“Borealis wants to look like the victim. Certain abusers will act like this, and we must be quite naïve to think that they didn’t know anything,” said Buelens. 

After an initial suspension, both Borealis and IREM have resumed operations as early as October 2022.

The Belgian Workers Party (PVDA) decried the lack of urgency in the Belgian government’s actions, taking no concrete steps inside parliament on the case.

Last February, PVDA parliamentary representative Peter Mertens filed a proposition of law. It sought to pin the primary accountability of labor exploitation on “main contractors” like Borealis. 

“We want them to be afraid,” said PVDA veteran Coenegrachts, if not, “companies will continue this practice because they’ve got nothing to lose.”

WAITING. Filipino workers in Antwerp wait with uncertainty. Photo by Michael Beltran/Rappler
Living with uncertainty

Three evenings a week, Peter, Henry, Ricky, Patrick, and all of the others see each other for Dutch language classes. Their hope is that the prosecutor favors their stay. Then they’d actually get a chance to speak the Dutch they’re learning. 

After class, they have routine cigarettes on street corners, rubbing their arms and waiting for everyone to finish before filing back into a tram. They take a few stops and reach a Lebanese eatery, the only affordable restaurant food in sight. They say the shawarmas are much better than in Manila. 

They pool together their €10 and feast well into the evening, knowing only each other in the emergent European melting pot they’ve sought out for their family’s futures.

They don’t know how long this current job will last, when they’ll hear an update on the case, get to visit their families, take a holiday, speak to a lawyer, or when the Philippine and Belgian governments will take a greater interest in their cases. Or even whether Payoke will still be able to arrange for shelter once the next big trafficking scandal inevitably hits.

They live within the profound uncertainty of migration. They take comfort only in the collective dream of staying put and having available work. – Rappler.com

Part 1 | How Filipinos landed in Belgium’s biggest trafficking scandal

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Jun 7, 2023 5:12 PM PHT

Michael Beltran

(1st UPDATE) Employed as pipe fitters and crane operators, the Filipinos were severely underpaid, earning about three times less than the standard. They’re at risk of being forgotten.

Additional reporting from Muhammad Owasim Uddin Bhuyan and Goele Vandenberghe

This investigation was supported by Journalismfund Europe’s Modern Slavery Unveiled grant programme. 

*Names of the workers have been changed to protect their identities

ANTWERP, Belgium – In July 2022, Belgian police discovered 174 illegally employed workers at a factory owned by Borealis, an Austrian multinational and chemical manufacturer. Most of the workers were Turkish and Bangladeshi, 65 were Filipino. They arrived to work at the port of Antwerp between February and May 2022.

Employed as pipe fitters and crane operators, the Filipinos were severely underpaid, earning €8.50 (P512) an hour, about three times less than the standard of around €24 (P1,443) an hour.

Borealis is a big player in the European market for base chemicals and fertilizers. The company denies any wrongdoing and blames the Italian manpower agency and subcontractor IREM group. When news of the trafficked workers emerged, Borealis suspended then terminated relations with IREM. 

Previously employed in Eastern Europe, the Filipinos were recruited to work in Belgium by IREM and another subcontractor, Raj Bhar Engineering. They’d been promised proper minimum wages and all the necessary permits.

They learned that they’d been deceived only when police and immigration officials arrived to accost them and temporarily halt the plant’s operations.

A Belgian public prosecutor, appointed by the state per region, is currently investigating the case to determine if the Filipinos were indeed trafficked. 

Meanwhile, the Belgian state has granted each of the workers an “Orange Card,” a type of residency permit valid for three to six months. Periodically, they have to renew their residency for as long as their case is under inquiry. 

If the prosecutor decides against the Filipinos, they will all be sent back to the Philippines. 

Very little attention has been paid to the Filipinos at the heart of Belgium’s biggest-ever trafficking scandal. The workers, owed months of back-pay for the legally-mandated wages of around €8500 (P517,556), are at risk of being forgotten and could go home with nothing.

Nearly a year since their rescue, the Filipino workers live in uncertain and precarious conditions, a plight that their homeland is apparently not aware of.

Flemish destination

In January, trudging against unfamiliar winter chills, the Filipino workers shuffled into a packed tram across Antwerp Central station. The passengers, the city’s workforce, filled the vehicle with the conversation of what seemed like a dozen languages: Filipino, Turkish, Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Bahasa Indonesia, among others. Nobody uttered a word of Dutch or French – Belgium’s main languages.

MIGRANTS STOP. The huge Antwerp central station is often filled with immigrant passengers. Photo by Michael Beltran/Rappler

They were headed to night classes about integrating into Belgian society at a nearby state-sponsored learning institute, a requirement of their now-temporary residence.

Happy to be reunited after working shifts at various warehouses and construction sites, they crowded at a street corner as they waited for the others before proceeding to class. They smoked cigarettes to stave off the cold of evening winds and huddled to swap stories.

Working student na tayo,” joked Peter* as the workers entered a local kebab shop. The likable Visayan crane operator often treated his workmates to after-class meals. 

“I don’t have a wife and kids like them, just siblings to support anyway,” he said, before jumping in line to order dinner for a dozen people. 

All of them are beginning to learn about Belgian society, their rights as residents and the labor standards that treat them as equals of the domestic labor force.

At the plant, nobody questioned the working conditions. They quietly went along with earning way below the standard because it was also the biggest paycheck they’d ever had.

Livable employment opportunities are scarce in the Philippines. By the end of 2022, the Social Weather Stations surveys revealed that 21.6% of Filipinos were jobless. 

Despite being underpaid, the Borealis workers earned 620% more than what they would have gotten in Metro Manila. 

Foreign and local workers in Belgium have the same rights. The lowest pay in Belgium is €11 (P670) an hour, 29% higher than what the Filipinos received. Pipe fitters and crane operators usually make  €18 (P1,096) up to €24 (P1,443) an hour.

Undocumented labor in the port area has been growing for quite some time now, according to Belgian Workers Party (PVDA) regional leader Ward Coenegrachts. Smaller cases of labor trafficking have been discovered all over the city in recent years, he told Rappler. 

Coenegrachts estimated that among the workforce handled by labor subcontractors “not even 5% are Belgian. They’ve come from all over the world then handed bad or fake contracts. Tens of thousands of people are in very bad working conditions all over Antwerp and you never hear about them.”

The Borealis case didn’t set a precedent. It was a tipping point, revealing the sheer scale of problems in the labor market.  

Antwerp, Belgium’s second largest city, is fast becoming one of the biggest multicultural urban centers in the world with over half a million people divided into 174 nationalities. The port area is a hub for industrial powerhouses, with labor in high demand.

Myria, an organization appointed by the government to act as independent national rapporteur on trafficking, has documented the influx of labor entering Antwerp. They noted significant growth in the employment of non-EU nationals, from 9% in 2017 to 27% by the end of 2021. 

Alexandra Buchler, the group’s migration expert, estimates that the city could now have around 150,000 undocumented workers, over a fifth of the population.

To complete the projects at the port area, Payoke, an NGO tasked by the state to shelter trafficked workers in Flanders, believes around 10,000 more migrant workers will be needed.

According to the Philippine embassy in Belgium, there are 18,000 individuals born in the Philippines and now legally staying in Belgium. Most are employed as domestic helpers or in the service industry where they earn €16 (P977) an hour on average.

Up until the Borealis case, Myria said that Filipinos were rarely seen in the construction industry, which the group has labeled a “risk sector” for labor violations.

The Borealis case “exposed the limits of the Belgian system” to handle the gravity of people involved, said Buchler.

‘Jumping’ into Belgium

Before coming to Belgium, the workers were employed legally in either Poland or Hungary in 2021.

The soft-spoken Batangas native Henry* kept his hands inside his front pockets for warmth while sharing his story about entry into Belgium. He still wore the thin jacket provided by his bosses in Poland. He had barely enough to afford the necessary layers to cope with the Belgian winter when he met up with Rappler in February. 

When asked who his previous employers were, he pointed to the printed logo on the jacket – it said Daeshin Construction plant, a Korean machinery manufacturer. 

A mere US$2.7 (P149) an hour on 10-hour shifts was not the income he hoped for, especially after paying an P80,000 placement fee to recruitment agency VFG International. He needed to put two kids through school and support his extended family in Batangas.

When he learned of recruiters looking for new hands with triple their salary at the time, Henry recalled, “We were convinced we had to jump. If we knew it was illegal, we wouldn’t have.” 

The workers alleged that a network of manpower agencies and subcontractors recruited cheap labor from Eastern Europe into Western Europe.

Many of the workers were recruited through Raj Bhar Engineering, which has offices in Bangladesh, Portugal, and Croatia. On its website, the company lists IREM SPA and two other IREM group subsidiaries as partners.

The Filipino and Bangladeshi workers point to the IREM group as the main culprit. It provided the contracts, paid the substandard wages, and promised the work permits that never arrived.

Peter, the Filipino crane operator, had worked with IREM before in three other countries, developing a level of mutual trust with its personnel. He had a natural charm and was well-liked. Besides his habit of treating his co-workers to meals, he handed out cigarettes during breaks to his supervisors. 

In hindsight, he said, maybe it was his rapport with the staff that blinded him to irregularities earlier.

Attending the Sunday service at Antwerp’s Church of Saint Boniface, Peter led several workers in a sort of confession: he should have noticed something was awry before he reached Belgium. 

IREM arranged for Peter’s ticket on a tourist visa to Eindhoven in the Netherlands, close to the Belgian border. When Dutch immigration asked if he had any intention to work there, he answered, “No, I am just passing through,” repeating what IREM told him to say. Technically, he wasn’t lying.

An IREM employee picked him up at the airport and drove him straight to Antwerp. Peter said they have a vast network of recruiters who can get bonuses of about €100 for each worker they can get on site.

He likened the network of agencies to a family tree.

“IREM is the mother, then Raj Bhar and the others, they’re like nieces and nephews. But IREM is the one dictating their moves,” he said.

The day the police came Peter said the “company tried to hide me. They like me, they didn’t want me to get caught.”

Days before, he recalled seeing IREM staff pacing and arguing onsite, looking worried. They badgered him to marry a Belgian immediately so that he could stay.

Among the workers, outspoken Batangas-born Ricky* is regarded by his peers as a leader.

Hours following the raid at the plant, IREM tried to convince him and many others to cross another border into Greece and work at another plant. They were shown flight tickets to leave that very evening.

Kuha na namin diskarte nila: ibang planta, wala pa ring papel. Sabi namin ayaw na namin. Alanganin na,” said Ricky, wincing. (We understood their methods already: different plant, still no papers. We rejected the offer. Too much uncertainty.)

First responders

For the next three months after the raid, the workers were jobless, then hungry. They relied on donations from the Filipino community that rationed supplies regularly.

Ador Olavare of the Belgium chapter of Migrante, a grassroots organization for migrant welfare, described the post-rescue period as “troubling,” because of the constant need to gather resources for dozens of people. 

“Worse, they had nothing to send to their families,” he added. 

Jon Aguila is the chairperson of the Ugnayan ng Pilipino sa Belgium (Association of Filipinos in Belgium) or UPB. He got a call last year from the Philippine embassy in Belgium asking him to mobilize the Filipino community to feed the rescued workers. It would take weeks before Philippine officials were able to afford any material support.

“They said they were still requesting funding from Manila. We’re here to help. But our officials must also be prepared,” Aguila said.

The workers were scattered, staying and crowding inside the homes of other Filipinos or friends of UPB and other concerned groups and individuals across Belgium. Some had to sleep in tents put up in backyards, while the entire Filipino community in the country scrambled for donations. 

The embassy had requested for the $5,000 (P276,745) Assistance to Nationals Fund (ATN) from the Philippine government.

“We’d rather give in-kind, food and everything. Every week, we’d give them until the fund ran out,” said Consul General Pablito Mendoza.

Mendoza disclosed that should a similar crisis happen again, they could lose direct access to the ATN as it will come under the discretion of the newly-formed Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) in the Philippines.

Apart from the ATN, DMW Secretary Susan Ople arrived as part of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s entourage last December and she distributed cash assistance. Alongside the embassy, Ople handed out €195 (P11,873) for 26 of the Borealis workers. 

They left out the 39 because “they told us that those with jobs wouldn’t receive ayuda (assistance),” said Ricky.

It was only through persistent appeals that the rest of the workers received their share of emergency assistance. It was released in early February, seven months after the rescue.

“Too little, too late. They’ve already been through so much,” Olavare said.

Migrante called on the Marcos administration to up its vigilance on human trafficking and recognition of the workers’ troubles.

“Our government should look at the recruiting agencies and review their track records to spare our kababayan (fellow Filipinos),” said Olavare.

One after another

According to Payoke, 25 Filipino workers are living in apartments arranged by new employers. Meanwhile, 33 are still without a job, as of March 2023.

Ricky shares a modest studio apartment with another worker in the outskirts of Antwerp.

On many nights, he receives calls from other Filipinos, new arrivals in Belgium from Eastern Europe. “Anong gagawin namin, wala pala kaming mga papel. (What will we do, we thought we had the right papers),” said one worker over the phone, crying in desperation.

Braving hunger and fear, some of them escaped from abusive employers, others arrived under false pretenses. Ricky tells them to stay calm, consider going home, or tell the authorities exactly what happened.

A month after the Borealis scandal, on August 17, 2022, police discovered 58 Filipino workers illegally employed by German chemical producer BASF at Antwerp port. Nine of the BASF workers had come from the Borealis factory. All of them were previously working in Eastern Europe.

Olavare noted that more and more workers from developing nations are coming into the continent via Eastern countries then transferring west for better pay.

“It’s difficult to enter Belgium so they come through eastern countries. The Philippines should do a better job scrutinizing the agencies involved,” he said.

Payoke director Anton Van Dyck told Rappler that they normally handle about four trafficking cases a month. Following the Borealis incident, “it became closer to a hundred.”

Their offices were swamped and their operations have been periodically crippled. Payoke needed to double the number of staff in a matter of weeks to care for the unexpected number of trafficked workers in the Flemish region. By their own estimates, they’ve gone €300,000 (P18.2 million) over budget.

“We can’t do it again,” admitted Van Dyck, “should another case arise in the near future.” (To be concluded) Rappler.com

NEXT: Part 2 | Forgotten Filipinos struggle to remain in Belgium

What’s the state of Philippine human rights under Marcos?

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Cecil MORELLA, AFP

Wed, June 7, 2023 at 1:58 PM GMT+2

When Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos was swept to power in 2022, human rights activists feared the worst.

Marcos had been a vocal supporter of his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war that killed thousands of people, and publicly praised his dictator father’s rule.

But, as he seeks to strengthen ties with Washington and attract foreign investment, Marcos has presented himself as more moderate than Duterte, who threatened to kill people and repeatedly disparaged human rights.

In reality, nearly a year into Marcos’s term, activists say little has changed on the ground.

After a judge’s decision on Wednesday to reject jailed Duterte critic Leila de Lima’s bail application, AFP looks at the state of human rights under Marcos.

– Is there still a drug war? –

During Duterte’s six-year drug war, thousands of mostly poor men were killed and an international investigation was launched into a possible crime against humanity.

Marcos has continued the crackdown but has pushed for more focus on prevention and rehabilitation.

He told police to go after major drug dealers and not “the kid who makes 100 pesos ($2) a week selling weed”.

Yet the bodies keep piling up.

More than 300 drug-related killings have been recorded since Marcos took office last June, according to figures compiled by Dahas, a University of the Philippines-backed research project that keeps count of drug-related killings.

That includes 175 in the first six months of Marcos’s presidency.

In November, police acknowledged that 46 drug suspects had been killed since he took office.

– Does Marcos oppose ICC probe? –

Duterte withdrew the Philippines from the International Criminal Court in 2019 after the Hague-based tribunal started probing allegations of human rights abuses committed during his anti-narcotics campaign.

Marcos, who has been careful to avoid explicitly criticising his predecessor’s policies, has ruled out rejoining the court.

His government has opposed the ICC’s investigation, insisting it has no jurisdiction and that the Philippine justice system is capable of investigating the alleged crimes.

Under pressure from the UN Human Rights Council, the Duterte government began examining hundreds of cases of drug operations that led to deaths.

That probe has continued under Marcos, but there has been little progress.

Only four police officers have been convicted for killing drug suspects in two separate cases since the start of the crackdown in 2016.

Rights groups estimate tens of thousands of people were killed during Duterte’s drug war.

Marcos told a democracy summit hosted by US President Joe Biden in March that Manila was committed to “fight impunity” and prosecute crimes, including those allegedly committed in the drug war.

But activists accuse Marcos of paying lip service to human rights during meetings with foreign diplomats, pointing out that he has not explicitly ordered police to end the violence.

– Does ‘red-tagging’ still happen? –

A decades-old strategy to smear or silence critics in the Philippines has been to link the person or group to communist rebels trying to overthrow the government.

The practice, known as “red-tagging”, can result in the arrest, detention or even death of the person targeted, and it exploded under Duterte.

A multi-agency task force set up by Duterte to end the insurgency frequently accused government critics of being communist sympathisers, without providing any evidence.

Hundreds of activists, journalists and lawyers were killed during Duterte’s term, many of them after being red-tagged, rights groups say.

Red-tagging has continued under Marcos, who has “not said anything explicit” against the practice, said Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch in the Philippines.

Vice President Sara Duterte, daughter of the former president and an alleged red-tagger, was recently appointed co-vice chair of the anti-communist task force.

– Is it still dangerous for journalists? –

The Philippines remains one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists and scored below Mexico and Thailand on Reporters Without Borders’ latest press freedom index.

Three journalists have been killed since Marcos took power, including a popular radio broadcaster in Manila that drew international concern and unusually quick action by authorities to find the culprits.

During his term, Duterte went after local broadcaster ABS-CBN and online news site Rappler over perceived slights and alleged “fake” news.

ABS-CBN lost its free-to-air licence after Congress refused to renew its franchise, while Rappler and its co-founder Maria Ressa have been fighting charges of tax evasion and cyber libel.

Many journalists feared Marcos would adopt Duterte’s hostility towards them after he largely shunned mainstream media on the campaign trail.

Since taking office, however, he has been more open to answering questions from reporters, though one-on-one interviews are still rare.

Ressa, meanwhile, was cleared of tax evasion in January, her first acquittal since Duterte’s government began filing charges against her.

She still faces potential prison for a cyber libel conviction, while the future of Rappler, which she co-founded in 2012, remains uncertain.

[The Slingshot] The ICC fallacies of Bato dela Rosa

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Mar 22, 2023

Antonio J. Montalvan II

‘Threatening ICC investigators who will come into the country is an exercise in both ignorance and clutching at straws’

For a lawmaker elected to the branch of government that ratifies international treaties, Bato dela Rosa makes an interesting subject – for his gross ignorance. Either that or he is faking boldness to hide his trembling fears of being prosecuted for crimes against humanity and becoming the scorn of the world.

It is time to fact-check his delusions. After all, he was elected on the strength of troll-generated populism that catapulted him into a world of his fantasy – at our expense.

His outlandish statement on Vladimir Putin’s arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court: “So, who will make the arrest? If other forces of another nationality will enter, that will result in war.”

There will be no world war if Putin is arrested. Many countries will just be too happy to see the bully of Moscow get prosecuted and tried for his war crimes in Ukraine. World sympathy is not on Russia but on Ukraine. As for World War III to erupt if Rodrigo Duterte is arrested, Dela Rosa can try looking up what the German word realpolitik means.

Initially, Putin’s arrest warrant will curtail his movements. There will only be very few countries he can actually visit. For example, he can visit non-ICC member countries like China, India, or in principle the United States. But the US has in place the Global Magnitsky Act of 2016 that can sanction foreign government officials worldwide who are human rights offenders, freeze their assets, and ban them from entering the US. Dela Rosa can still recall the cancellation of his US visa in 2020. It was later restored, but did he get the message? That was a fair warning for him once he becomes a fugitive of international law.

International law appears to be alien to the senator, particularly the mechanisms in place in the ICC. He can tremble in fear at what the European Union can do. In 2006 and 2011, the EU entered into agreements with the ICC. Through the power of negotiations and dialogues with other countries, the EU and its member countries have been promoting universal support for the Rome Statute that created the ICC.

Among the ICC’s operations that the EU and EU countries have committed to is to “take to ensure full cooperation of non-EU countries with the ICC, including the prompt execution of arrest warrants.” In other words, the EU and its member countries can prod another state, which may be or may not be a member of the ICC, to execute the ICC’s arrest warrant. Take note that the EU has tremendous clout through trade and diplomacy. That is a menacing scenario for one like Dela Rosa even if he travels to non-ICC countries. Perhaps the only countries he can travel to would be China and Russia. That goes as well for Rodrigo Duterte. The 123 member countries can certainly execute the arrest. It will be a very tightened world for anyone wanted by the ICC.

There is also another approach for the ICC to execute an arrest. It can elevate the matter to the United Nations Security Council. In which case, the duty to cooperate binds the relevant UN Member States, regardless of whether or not they are a state party to the Rome Statute. This approach was done before in the case of Darfur (Sudan) and Libya.

Somebody lecture Bato that in 2009, the Philippines signed into law Republic Act 9851: An Act Defining and Penalizing Crimes Against International Humanitarian Law, Genocide, and Other Crimes Against Humanity. Section 11 on Non-Prescripton reads: “The crimes defined and penalized under this Act, their prosecution, and the execution of sentences imposed on their account, shall not be subject to any prescription.”

Non-prescription is the same rule that applies to international courts like the ICC. The Filipino international law professor Romel Bagares explains that the crimes of today can still be prosecuted 20, 30, or 50 years from now as long as the perpetrators are alive. Take note that Nazi war criminals have been arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced even if they were already in their advanced age. Bato, Duterte, and their co-perpetrators like Vitaliano Aguirre can still be arrested in the future. The ICC’s information protocol states it best: “Warrants of arrest are lifetime orders and therefore individuals still at large will sooner or later face the Court.”

And then there is the distinct possibility that not all future Philippine governments will be sympathetic to Duterte and those charged before the ICC. For that the prime example is the Serbian dictator and butcher Slobodan Milosevic. When he fell from power, the succeeding Serbian government arrested him. The US government pressured the new government to extradite Milosevic to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) that tried crimes against humanity in Kosovo. Milosevic, like Duterte, was a protégé of China (the Chinese Communist Party considered him and his wife as allies) and Russia, which provided political asylum for him, his wife, and children. These situations echo Duterte’s. Yet, international humanitarian law prevailed. Milosevic was indicted and tried in The Hague.

Dela Rosa has repeatedly said that he and Duterte will not cooperate with the ICC. He said the current Marcos government would not allow ICC investigators into the country. That is a fallacy. The ICC can conduct cross-examination of witnesses in another country. It can also document witness testimonies through teleconferencing. Threatening ICC investigators who will come into the country is an exercise in both ignorance and clutching at straws.

They must also shudder at the thought that major Davao Death Squad players are now in The Hague, possibly granted asylum or at the very least some protection by the ICC. The ICC itself has mentioned the name of Duterte hitman Arturo Lascañas as having been accorded limited immunity, meaning he has access to the ICC’s witness protection program.

If one is an elected senator of the land but has no sense of accountability either because of self-preservation or false pride, one has no business making laws. Bato dela Rosa’s business is at Scheveningen Prison in The Hague. The likes of him and Duterte belong only to rogue states. – Rappler.com

HK OFWs protest proposed policy to keep them from leaving bad employers

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Kaycee Valmonte – Philstar.com

March 22, 2023

MANILA, Philippines — United Filipinos in Hong Kong (UNIFIL-Migrante HK) are protesting the possible implementation of new regulations that would curtail the movement of overseas Filipino workers deployed there as domestic helpers. 

This comes after Hong Kong’s Department of Labour kicked off a public consultation on a policy related to the termination of migrant domestic workers (MDW) contracts and implementing stringent measures on them changing employers. Lawmakers are proposing to regulate the termination of contracts to prevent MDWs from leaving their employers and changing jobs.

“[If] we are treated justly and humanely, our working conditions [are] good and our rights as migrant workers inside our employer’s household [are upheld] and protected,” said Dolores Balladares, chairperson of UNIFIL-Migrante HK, “no migrant domestic worker will be forced to terminate a contract and we will not think of leaving our job.”

Some migrant workers leave their employers due to bad or abusive working conditions and are not able to complete their two-year contract. According to the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body, some lawmakers have accused MDWs of “job-hopping” instead of failing to recognize that some of them have inhumane working conditions.

The group also said there were “many instances” where employers will suddenly terminate contracts, without good reason. The Hong Kong government’s immigration agency does not require valid reasons for contract termination, leaving MDWs stranded and vulnerable in the special administrative region.

Help from the consulate

UNIFIL-Migrante HK also scored the Philippine Consulate in Hong Kong for their supposed silence on the issue and for allegedly ignoring the need to defend the rights of Filipino migrant domestic helpers.

“Though we understand the protocols between Hong Kong and the Philippine government, Philippine Consulate General Raly Tejada should at least help in clarifying the issue and voice the sentiments of Filipino migrant domestic workers under attack,” UNIFIL-Migrante HK’s statement read. 

Tejada on Wednesday afternoon told Philstar.com that the consulate has been working with the Hong Kong government, adding that they have been tackling the issues through their regular technical working group.

He also said the consulate’s hotline is always open to Filipinos who might need any help. 

“I have on several occasions spoken to no less than Hong Kong Minister of Labor Chris Sun who assured me that the legitimate rights of our workers will be protected,” Tejada said, adding that the consulate will also hold a townhall dialogue with the Filipino community “soon.”

There are currently around 330,000 foreign domestic helpers employed in Hong Kong, with over half or 190,000 of whom are Filipinos. 

UNIFIL-Migrante HK said they will be joining other groups for a big protest action on May 1, while a petition will be launched on Sunday to get more support from the public.

The groups said they hope more individuals and groups will join them in urging the Hong Kong government to ensure that migrant workers all have just and humane accommodation and living wages.