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US outsources war to Filipinos Print

By Cher S Jimenez 

MANILA - Filipinos are taking up work at US-run facilities in Iraq, dodging an official Philippines travel and employment ban on the war-torn country and providing the US military and its affiliated contractors the cheap, English-speaking manpower it is having increasing difficulty recruiting at home.

The deployments to Iraq represent an illicit spin on the Philippines' global outsourcing phenomenon, where more than 8 million Filipinos have left home for higher paying jobs abroad. The Philippine government imposed a ban on the deployment of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) to Iraq in July 2004, soon after Manila recalled its small humanitarian contingent after militant captors threatened to behead a Filipino truck driver working for theUS occupation forces.

The Philippines remains a staunch supporter of US-led counterterrorism operations in Southeast Asia, including cooperation in combating alleged Islamic terror groups in the southern Philippines. Critics contend that the hotly contested 2004 election had abruptly influenced President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's government decision to withdraw from the US-led "coalition of the willing" occupation forces in Iraq. Two months before the ban was announced, another Filipino truck driver was the Philippines' first casualty in Iraq, which unleashed a torrent of anti-American protests in Manila.

More recently, however, the Philippine government has demonstrated a waning verve in enforcing that ban. Two years later, an estimated 3,000 out of the total 7,000 Filipinos now serving at four US military-run camps in Iraq are undocumented workers, according to Philippine labor officials. Comparatively high wages have been a push factor: Filipinos in Iraq earn monthly salaries from the US military and its affiliated business interests ranging between US$600 to $1,000 excluding special allowances, according to the labor official.

Filipinos already were a massive presence in the Middle East, and have historically shown extraordinary staying power in the region when faced with violent conflict. When the first Gulf War erupted between Iraq and the US in 1991, there were nearly 100,000 OFWs working in a wide array of jobs in Kuwait. When Iraqi forces first invaded the oil-rich sultanate in 1990, despite offers of free repatriation by the Philippine government, only a few of the workers took up the offer to leave their jobs and fly home.

Philippine labor officials estimate that there are currently about 1.5 million OFWs in the Middle East - many of whom are willing to work amid grave security risks rather than face the dismal labor market back home. An estimated 11% of the Philippine's in-country labor force is currently unemployed, and that rate is steadily rising due to an explosive population growth rate. Last year an estimated 8 million OFWs pumped nearly $12 billion of remittances into the Philippine economy.

The comparatively high wages on offer in Iraq has made it an attractive growth market for Middle East-based OFWs, Philippine labor officials say. Despite the "not valid for travel to Iraq" advisory stamped into every Philippine passport, thousands of Filipinos are openly defying the ban and government officials are either hard-pressed or unwilling to find a solution to the subversion of the ban.

US looks the other way

Philippine-based labor groups contend that the US and Philippine governments are covertly using OFWs to advance American interests in Iraq. While Philippine labor officials openly admit that many OFWs stole into Iraq after the ban was imposed and now work openly at US-run military facilities, they do not have hard evidence to confirm that US government or wayward Philippine officials are behind the illegal deployment of workers.

The US Embassy in Manila declined to comment on the allegations. A Philippine labor official wouldn't address the specific allegations, but admitted that US "employers" in Iraq still "favor" Filipinos because of their English-speaking abilities and long experience in the region. Former Philippine Labor Secretary Patricia Sto Tomas said many Filipinos evade immigration authorities by using secret passage points in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Jordan. The Philippine government has a standing agreement with all of these countries to block OFWs from traveling or crossing into Iraq.

In December, 88 Filipinos were stranded in Dubai after immigration officials there stopped them from boarding a flight to Iraq. It was apparently the first time that OFWs were prevented from illegally entering into Iraq. But Rosalinda Baldoz, chief of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), said officials in these countries usually look the other way when Filipinos pass through proper immigration channels. "They don't really care if you have a stamp in your passport that says you're not allowed to enter Iraq," she said.

Jason Cruz, a 40-year-old warehouseman, and Ernie de Leon (not their real names), a 23-year-old lifeguard, told Asia Times Online that they were able to enter Iraq illegally through Dubai. Cruz said he flew to Dubai on a visit visa and then later applied for work through United Arab Emirates-based Prime Projects International (PPI), a subcontractor of US military contractor Halliburton, which provides support services to US armed forces in Iraq.

Communicating by e-mail, both men said they traveled to Iraq from Dubai without any hitches and suggested that this is was at least partly due to their employer's known connection to the US military. "What I know is that PPI is a subcontractor of Halliburton/KBR, so there was no problem for us to come here even if there is a ban stamped on our passports," Cruz wrote in an e-mail.

According to www.icasualties.org, an independent organization that monitors conflict-related deaths in Iraq, a number of Filipinos have been killed in Iraq since the 2004 ban was imposed. Rey Torres, a driver and security guard with Qatar International Trading Company, was shot and killed outside Baghdad on April 18, 2005. Ponciano Loque and Benjie Carreon were killed on November 11 in a roadside bomb in eastern Baghdad. The organization listed their profession and employer as "unknown". The following week, on November 18, Alexander Mesa Ilocto was killed in a road accident between Iraq and Kuwait. His position and employer were likewise listed as "unknown".

Recent reports have revealed that a syndicate operating through the Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs was selling "clean" passports for P5,000 to P25,000 ($100 to $500) to OFWs, with the rate scale depending on how fast the applicant desired to leave the Philippines. However, the tide of OFWs flowing into Iraq has recently kicked up a legal fuss back in the Philippines.

Mark Villacruzes, who has previously claimed to represent US contractor Triple Canopy, a private security and special operations firm founded in 2003 by former US Delta Forces, allegedly recruited former members of the Philippine armed forces after the ban was imposed to work as security personnel for American officials and facilities in Iraq.

Villacruzes, who is now out on bail on charges of illegal recruitment, is alleged to have employed about 300 former Philippine soldiers for Triple Canopy's operations in Iraq since the Philippine government ban was first imposed in 2004. Most of the recruits came from the Subic Naval Base, a former American facility in the Philippines.

Before the ban, Villacruzes ran a brisk recruiting business through Armstrong Resources Corporation, a licensed recruitment firm based in east Manila. In March 2003, he allegedly recruited 21 former Philippine soldiers to work for Triple Canopy in Iraq. That batch of recruits was reportedly offered six-month contracts on a US$1,000 per month salary, US$150 in special allowances and free accommodation basis. While attractive by Philippines' standards, the wages and benefits are considerably less then US national recruits receive.

Last month, Villacruzes was charged with illegal recruitment and breach of contract for failing to pay war compensation payments, which amounted to $9,000 for each of the 21 returnees, who sued him through the POEA. The case has since reached the justice department. They have also asked POEA to put Armstrong Resources Corporation under preventive suspension and bar Triple Canopy from participating in Philippines overseas employment programs.

Significantly, Philippine officials have so far been reluctant to make accusations or pursue charges against the US firms that appear to have played a key role in the illegal recruitment of OFWs to staff their operations in Iraq. That inaction might be explained by previous close government-to-government cooperation in awarding Filipinos work in strategically sensitive business related to the US-led global "war on terror" campaign.

In March 2002, local recruitment firm Anglo-European Services, which is known to have ties with Kellogg Brown & Root, a division of the Halliburton Company that has won massive troop support contracts in Iraq, sent 250 Filipino construction workers to build additional detention cells for US-held terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

The recruitment was kept under wraps by both the US and Philippine governments, which apparently agreed that all worker travel documents and recruitment requirements would be expedited in just a few hours by US embassy officials. According to people familiar with the situation, the Guantanamo-bound Filipino workers were allegedly slipped out of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport without passing through standard immigration procedures and left Manila onboard a chartered flight to Cuba.

Anglo-European Services is now aggressively querying the Philippine government to clarify if the ban on travel and employment in Iraq is still in effect, due to reports that large number of OFWs who continue to pour into the war-torn country. The recruitment company says it has a big job order on hold for Filipino workers in Iraq due to the official but lightly enforced ban. 

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