Issue 189 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
On 17 March 1995, at about 6am, Flor Contemplacion, a Filipino migrant domestic worker aged 42 and the mother of four children, was hanged at Changi Prison on the order of a Singapore court. In the days and weeks immediately before and after the hanging, millions of Filipino citizens rose in protest at the death of a woman widely believed to be innocent.
Flor Contemplacion was convicted of murdering Delia Maga, another Filipino woman, and Nicholas Huang, the four year old child Delia. was hired to care for as a live-in domestic worker in Singapore.
The widespread belief is that Contemplacion was framed. This view is widely accepted because it is backed up by substantial evidence--evidence that was not allowed to enter into Flor's trial.
The evidence also indicates that Flor Contemplacion was beaten, tortured with electric shocks, drugged, tied to a chair and left almost naked without access to food or the toilet, pelted with ice and submerged in water, molested by interrogation officers and hypnotised as the police extracted a confession from her.
The Singapore state denies the validity of these claims. And while the Philippine government of president Ramos insists that it is committed to protecting the interests of the estimated 2,000 Filipino workers who leave the country every day to work abroad, it is also widely believed that Ramos failed to ensure that Flor Contemplacion received a fair trial.
Up to the time of her execution, Flor Contemplacion and her family denied her guilt in the deaths of her friend Delia Maga and the child Maga cared for. Russell Contemplacion, Flor's 18 year old daughter, when asked what I should tell people in the West about her mother, replied, 'Tell them she was innocent. Tell them she was a religious woman who could never kill anyone.' At the time of writing, the investigation is still going on. A Philippine government commission has been established, and three US forensic experts are to re-examine the body of Delia Maga.
Flor Contemplacion's story struck a chord of sympathy with millions of Filipinos who depend on the overseas earnings, or remittances, of family members to survive. The Philippines is a country of 67 million. Officially, 4.2 million migrant workers are currently employed in over 130 countries around the world. Non-governmental organisations estimate the number to be closer to 7 million.
Since 1974 various Philippine governments have identified overseas employment as a key element in the nation's economic development strategy. Remittances from abroad are now the major source of foreign currency earnings.
The Philippines economy is now officially in a boom, with GNP recorded at a rate of 5.2 percent in the first quarter of this year. According to the government's own sources, the bulk of this growth is from remittances from overseas contract workers. But in a world economy where capitalism is in crisis, countries all over the world are tightening controls on immigration. Filipino workers, fleeing desperate poverty, are compelled to take jobs spurned by workers who have any other choices. The worst jobs, with the worst conditions, are the only ones open to poor Third World migrants.
Flor Contemplacion was typical of the pattern. She had been working as a live-in domestic helper in Singapore since February 1988. She had four children to support, and she came from a town which is desperately, unspeakably poor.
The Contemplacion home is a tiny two storey clay house with a dirt floor and no running water. It is not hard to understand why women like Flor Contemplacion are eager to take jobs in foreign countries that no one who has other options would accept. Russell Contemplacion said that her mother worked in Singapore so that her children could get an education.
When Flor Contemplacion's life was on the line, millions of Filipinos identified with her and her family. And every level of government in the Philippines knew it. That's why a few heads had to roll. Several high ranking officials in the Philippine government and the entire staff of the Philippine embassy in Singapore were sacked, as Ramos scrambled to find a scapegoat for his government's failure.
At the centre of the campaign to stay the execution of Flor Contemplacion were a number of popular organisations such as the mass working class women's group, Gabriela. Cherry Padilla, an organiser for Gabriela, explained how small pickets at the Singapore embassy in Manila turned into mass demonstrations across the country.
According to Padilla, 'Our first demand was to gain justice for Flor Contemplacion. The media was reporting this case, but not demanding anything. We wanted a stay of execution--we didn't call for amnesty, because that presumes there was guilt. We wanted a full investigation We started to have daily pickets at the Singapore embassy. Then the media picked this up, and it started to escalate.'
The night before the execution date, mass vigils took place all across the Philippines. But the discontent grew when it was announced that Flor Contemplacion had been hanged. When the body arrived at the Manila airport, thousands of Filipino workers and peasants lined the highway between Manila and San Pablo, where the funeral would take place, with their fists raised in tribute, and also in anger. A military escort provided by the Ramos government insisted on driving the casket. Seeing the thousands lining the streets, the drivers sped up the highway at 120 miles per hour.
At the wake for Flor Contemplacion--where the casket was laid on a tiny local road as there was no room for it in the family's home--20,000 people every hour came to pay their respects.
Ramos himself was conveniently out of the country the day of the hanging, wooing overseas capital. He returned at Cebu City airport on 18 March, his birthday. He was met by signs saying, 'President Ramos: Happy Birthday from Flor Contemplacion.'
On 26 March, the day of the burial, over 40,000 came out to the narrow streets of Santa Isabel and marched seven kilometres to the church and then to the funeral site. At the doors of the cathedral church officials refused to allow the various organisations to enter. Cherry Padilla, who was liaising with the family, came to mediate. She stated that she understood that friends of the family were allowed into the church for funerals, and the officials agreed.
All 40,000 were identified by the family as 'our friends' and the church officials had to open the doors to the procession. They had to capitulate to what in fact became a political protest as well as a religious procession.
The spirit of Flor Contemplacion is alive in the Philippines. In early June three feature films were produced about her life and the struggle to save it. One of these, The Flor Contemplacion Story, stars her two teenage sons playing themselves, and is scheduled for international release in the autumn. The film is not neutral, clearly condemning both the Filipino and Singaporean governments in the frame up of an innocent working mother.
But just as sustaining to the mood of resistance is the crushing poverty that people like Flor Contemplacion try to escape. It is this poverty that forces millions of workers, a growing number of whom are women, to accept the most degrading jobs anywhere in the world.
The key for the future lies in refusing to allow our rulers to close borders to the foreign born, in refusing to allow racism to divide us, and in refusing to allow immigrant workers to suffer abuse.