Originally from Mindanao, they moved to Luzon in search of a better future. Instead, they were treated like slaves by an unscrupulous Chinese businessman. They fled into the night, but not everyone managed to escape their prison.
Manila (AsiaNews) – A group of 32 ethnic Lumad (pictured), adult farm workers plus a seven-month-old infant and a four-year-old chid, made it to Manila early yesterday, after a desperate and daring escape from a human trafficking racket on the island of Luzon, northern Philippines, after two months of exploitation and abuse by a ruthless Chinese businessman.
Nadja de Vera, an official with the Farm Workers Union (UMA), which rescued the 32 Lumad, spoke to AsiaNews about them. Now they are safe at the headquarters of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), an independent body that is constitutionally mandated to investigate human rights violations.
The 32 come originally from Bukidnon province, northern Mindanao (southern Philippines). The adults worked as "tapaseros" (cane cutters) in plantations in Busco. Seeking a future, they accepted the offer of a local labour recruiter who promised them a good salary and a decent job.
Two months went to work for Arian Hao, the Chinese owner of a large fish farm in Pangasinan, a province in west-central Luzon.
"Hao said he would pay workers 7,800 pesos (US$ 152) a month. However, in fact, he only paid them 1,800 (US$ 35), deducting the cost of food from the pay,” De Vera explained.
“But that's not all. He forced his employees to work as slaves, with shifts that started at 6 am and ended at 9 pm. Some got sick. One asked Hao to be taken to the hospital, but the boss refused and struck him hard in the ear. At this moment, the Lumad began to think of escaping."
They decided to escape two days ago, in the middle of the night. They climbed over the fences, crossing tens of metres of barbed wire. Many were injured – legs, arms and clothes still show the cuts.
Unfortunately, not everyone could escape. The escapees said that there were 28 other people with them, 10 employed at a second location.
"Once away from their prison, they managed to get in touch with a veteran UMA activist in Mindanao, who acts as a liaison with Manila,” de Vera explained. Following the UMA activist’s advice, they waited near a church in Suwal, but they were too afraid they might be discovered and taken back to the fish farming."
Eventually, the Lumad got on a bus going to the capital but could not pay for the ticket. They offered as a guarantee some mobile phones in their possession and after six hours of travel they arrived at CHR headquarters.
"They are still exhausted and traumatised by their escape," said a volunteer with the Promotion of Church People's Response, whose name was withheld for security reasons. The religious advocacy group helped UMA in its initial response.
"We are trying to gather all their witness statements but it is not easy. For some, Filipino is only their third language. But other Lumad are helping us; they too fled exploitation and are now hosted by the Commission. Solidarity among tribal people is moving."
The Farm Workers Union is now waiting for the authorities to start an investigation and provide justice to the Lumad. "We asked the CHR to plead with the authorities the cause of the 32 victims,” De Vera said. “In the meantime, we have turned to some lawmakers and have told our lawyers to start all the procedures of the case." (P.F.)