Forced labor in countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including the Philippines, generated the highest “illegal profits” according to the latest report of the International Labor Organization (ILO).
Forced labor can occur in many forms. Contrary to popular belief, forced labor not only occurs in the case of human trafficking, sex workers and child workers. It occurs wherever and whenever work or service is exacted by people or employers who have the will and power to threaten workers with severe deprivations, such as withholding food or wages, restricting their workers’ movements or locking them up.
For instance, a domestic worker is in a forced labor situation if her boss forbids her to go outside and threatens her, for instance, with non-payment of her salary in case of disobedience. She may also work for an unbearably low wage, but that is exploitation if she were free to leave work anytime.
Most victims are women and children.
The ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work obliges member States to eliminate forced labor. A work relationship should be freely chosen and free from threats.
The case reported by the Philippine Daily Inquirer where eight female workers died from a fire because they were locked in the two-story house of their employer is a case of forced labor.
According to the Inquirer report, the women were trapped inside the padlocked room at the second floor of the apartment in Pasay City, which was being used by their boss as a DVD warehouse. They died of suffocation as the house was engulfed by fire past 12 midnight last Friday. Their charred bodies were found piled inside the room. The victims were natives of Dumaguete and Cagayan de Oro.
Their boss, Juanito Go, 68, a Chinese businessman, denied locking up the stay-in workers, and said: “Aksidente ito. Wala tayong magagawa doon. Babayaran naman sila ng kumpanya.”
I wonder how much each life is worth to Go.
Go was placed under the custody of the Pasay City Police for investigation. The Inquirer reported that Go and his son-in-law, Joey Cabrera, the property manager, face charges of negligence resulting in multiple homicide and physical injuries, according to Chief Insp. Joey Goforth of the Pasay City police.
The police should also refer this case to the Labor department because other charges can be filed against Go, including forced labor, labor exploitation, even human trafficking, since several of his workers are minors who were allegedly personally recruited by Go.
Go reportedly paid only P2,500 to P3,000 a month per employee and imposed 12-hour work shifts on his all-female crew. His place of business was registered only as a residential area and did not have a business permit.
Go’s workers who survived the fire said they were all locked up in the house when the fire struck. All the doors were locked, including the main gate. The windows were reinforced with iron grills and the house had no fire exits.
Go would leave the place at the end of the day and order the gates to be locked from inside. The workers would then throw the key over to Go. Returning the next day, Go would throw the key back in so they could open the gates.
Economic circumstances can compel people to barter away their freedom, to put up with such horrible working conditions like what Go imposed on his poor female workers, eight of whom died in a fire that they could have easily escaped, if they were not locked in.
But the government must not allow this to happen. And it must prosecute businessmen like Juanito Go to the fullest extent of the law.
May he rot in jail.