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Labour migration, human trafficking, and Philippine government ineptitude: The case of Mary Jane Veloso


Unless you read Filipino newspapers, you are probably unaware of the case of Mary Jane Veloso. You are, however, likely to be more familiar with the case of the “Bali 9,” which refers to a group of drug traffickers who will face death by firing squad in Indonesia. More attention has been given to the Bali 9′s Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran because their case has galvanized their home countries of Australia and other Western governments. In many mainstream media accounts, such as articles in the BBC and the Guardian, Veloso isn’t even referred to by name. One article even referred to her as a Filipina “maid.”

That Veloso’s case is relegated as a footnote to the cases of Chan and Sukumuran highlights a few matters.

First, the relative inattention made to Veloso’s case compared to Chan and Sukumaran’s shows that the loss of Veloso’s life matters less. Chan and Sukumaran are Australians who’ve been rehabilitated in prison. They have duly repented and are ready to move forward with their lives. Veloso, in contrast, is a Filipina “maid.” Nothing more is said about her. In terms of whose life matters more, the lives of folks from rich countries obviously need to be saved before the lives of folks from poor countries. That reports show that Chan and Sukumaran’s execution may be delayed until after a clemency hearing in May, whereas no such option was given to Veloso, underscores how Chan and Sukumaran are deemed more worthy.

Second, that the Australian government has marshalled all of its diplomatic resources towards saving Chan and Sukumaran whereas the Philippine government has not done much to save Velasco points to the Philippine government’s inability to protect its nationals abroad. Multiple reports have shown that Veloso did not initially get help from the Philippine embassy after she was first arrested. That the Philippine government dispatched numerous security forces against a group of peaceful protesters holding a vigil on behalf of Veloso in Manila illustrates how its priority is the maintenance of “security” and the economic status quo of relying on migrant remittances for development.

Third, this bring to mind the sad reality that despite decades of activism on behalf of migrant workers – activism which calls for alternatives to migration in the wake of Filipina migrant Flor Contemplacion’s death – the Philippine government has barely done its part in finding employment opportunities for its nationals. That the Philippine economy relies primarily on labour migration for economic growth means that the Philippine government is reluctant to antagonize countries that receive its migrants lest this flow of money through migrant remittances stops. And though I recognize that power imbalances between sending and receiving countries means that the Philippine government is irrevocably tied to a neoliberal economic system that makes it hard to conceive of economic alternatives, this does not mean the Philippine government should be given a free pass. There are ways to challenge the economic status quo. Alternatives to labour migration to generate economic growth can be found. There just needs to be political will to implement these alternatives. At the very least, more robust channels to protect its nationals abroad need to be established. The irony is that the Philippine government also eagerly portrays its labor migrants as “national heroes” – the flip side to such depictions is that, like all “heroes” who are dispatched to save others (in migrants’ case, to “save” the Philippines from destitution), the risk of dying for their heroism is ever present.

Fourth, the economic bankruptcy of the Philippines is such that migrants like Veloso have little choice but to go abroad. Veloso first went to Dubai to be a domestic worker but left after an attempted rape by her employer’s husband. She was later duped into carrying drugs into Indonesia by a friend who promised her a job as a domestic worker, leading to her arrest and now, her execution. That Veloso was found guilty despite evidence showing that she was a victim of human trafficking makes her case even more tragic.

Veloso is supposed to be executed as early as tomorrow. If you are in the Philippines and reading this, please consider going to a rally in front of the Indonesian embassy in Manila. And if you are in another country, please consider signing this petition asking for clemency for Mary Jane.


About Ethel Tungohan, Ph.D.

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