DUBAI – The ordeal of a Filipino truck driver freed by militants after his country withdrew its troops from Iraq has not deterred Philippine migrant workers from making their way to the occupied Middle Eastern country through the United Arab Emirates, despite an official ban by Manila.
The Philippines banned its citizens from going to work in Iraq after Angelo de la Cruz, a father of eight working as a truck driver in Baghdad, was kidnapped by Islamic militants on July 7 and threatened with decapitation unless Manila withdrew all its 51 troops from the United States-led coalition in the country.
About 120 workers due to leave for Iraq via Dubai on July 8, were stopped by immigration officials from boarding their flight after President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo issued the order to halt new deployments.
"This is not fair," said Joseph (not his real name), a Filipino construction worker, who was already in Dubai on a visitor’s visa and making plans to leave for Iraq.
"The conditions and the kidnappings do worry me. But I would rather go there [Iraq] and work than return to my country and my dependents without any job in hand," he told IPS.
"It should be left to us to decide whether we want to go there or not," added Joseph.
Joseph is one of many Filipinos who transit through Dubai and often end up in Iraq undertaking risky construction work. About eight million Filipinos work abroad supporting their families back home. The total remittances of Filipino migrant workers are more than $7 billion a year and for them, Iraq is just another means to escape the poverty and unemployment in the Philippines.
According to available statistics, at least 4,000 Filipinos are working in Iraq, mostly as contractors with the U.S. military and private companies. Government sources say Filipinos are likely the largest single group of foreign workers in Iraq, with many more unregistered.
"We are sending carpenters, cooks, administrative assistants, warehouse workers, laundry machine operators and drivers to Iraq regularly and many of them are Filipinos," said an employee of a recruiting agency in Dubai who did not want to be named.
"The 500 to 1,000 U.S. dollars a month they earn in Iraq might not be a fortune, but bit’s far better than the pre-tax minimum wage of around 140 U.S. dollars they get in their country," the employee revealed.
The recruiting agency employee said the ban by the Philippine government would have little effect on Filipino workers who want to make their way to Iraq.
"Around 100 to 150 Filipino workers still leave for Iraq every day [from Dubai]," he said.
"They know about the ban and realize that their lives could be in danger there. But higher wages and burdensome responsibilities make them turn a blind eye to such things," he added.
While Filipino workers can be stopped if they try to make their way to Iraq directly from Manila, they can, however, circumvent the ban by traveling to Baghdad from other Middle Eastern countries.
Of all the Middle Eastern countries, that employ foreign workers, the pay in Iraq is still the best, said the employee of the Dubai recruiting agency.
"It is so obvious that I can get better pay in Iraq," said Joseph. "I don’t want to settle for less and am willing to take the risk to do so."
Joseph’s friend, a driver who only wanted to be known as Ramon, agreed with him.
"I can get 300 U.S. dollars a month if I work in Iraq compared to back home where I won’t even get half of that," he told IPS.
"It’s hard to find jobs in the Philippines. I won’t allow fear or risks to come in my way of earning money and providing my family with a decent meal everyday," said Ramon.
Ramon said he knew there is a great demand for workers in Iraq.
"One company is hiring around 25,000 people, including construction workers, secretaries, cooks, engineers and designers, for Iraq. My friends and I will definitely apply," he said.
Some 4,000 undocumented Filipinos are reportedly employed in American and British construction projects in Iraq.
Reports said the Filipinos were hired and sneaked into the war-torn country by American and British companies without informing the Philippine government.
Amid the reports, President Arroyo asked Filipinos in Iraq, especially those without documents, to get in touch with the Philippine embassy in Baghdad.
"We are determined to ensure their safety and keep them out of harm’s way in the event of any crisis or emergency," she said in a statement.
But Deputy Presidential Spokesman Ricardo Saludo told reporters in Manila recently that the government could not monitor the movement of all Filipinos abroad, especially if they travel without proper documents.
"The same thing can be said of other countries in Asia, particularly those whose nationals are in Iraq, but are not accounted for by their documents," he said. "And this is just because of porous borders which allow people to travel around sometimes with no proper documentation."