IT is both ironically appropriate and tragic that the Philippines marks the traditional Labor Day (today, May 1) with continuing expressions of gratitude and relief for the last-second reprieve from execution granted to condemned OFW Mary Jane Veloso in Indonesia.
The alleged circumstances of the Veloso case and the handling of her initial trial on drug trafficking charges by the Indonesian courts raised serious questions as to whether justice would truly be done by carrying out a death sentence, particularly after the surrender of Veloso’s recruiter and alleged human trafficker to police in Nueva Ecija. While we have to acknowledge that the conclusions reached by the Indonesian courts may, in the end, be exactly the same as what they were prior to last Tuesday night, we must also commend the Indonesian authorities for making the correct decision to take the time to reassess the case.
None of the credit for temporarily saving Mary Jane Veloso’s life, however, should go to the administration of President B.S. Aquino 3rd, and almost none is due the country’s civil society sector. If the Mary Jane Veloso case has revealed anything, it is the deep dysfunction that exists in the country’s institutions, both inside and outside the official halls of power.
What is particularly distressing is how the entire complicated framework of institutions meant to enhance Philippine labor as an export product on the one hand, and to protect and assist OFWs on the other completely and utterly failed Mary Jane Veloso. Law enforcement failed to detect and stop the drug operation abusing the system and the hapless workers who are a part of it.
Agencies created for the specific purpose of supporting OFWs – the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) and the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration (OWWA) – apparently did next to nothing to assist Mary Jane until her sentence was almost due to be carried out, and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) evidently overlooked her until very recently as well. The most damning evidence of this is the fact that in her all-important initial trial she was completely abandoned by the Philippine embassy in Jakarta, and left to contend with a public defender assigned to her by the Indonesian court.
Reports have been circulating in the past few days that President Aquino, contrary to accusations that he, too, ignored Mary Jane Veloso’s plight until the very last moment actually did make inquiries about her case back in 2011, or a few months after she was arrested and tried by the Indonesians. If that is true, he escapes the charge that he was totally unaware of or unconcerned about Veloso’s plight. However, because of his poor (many would say nonexistent) management skills, he failed to follow up on the matter until nearly four years later, and on that basis deserves much of the blame being hurled at him for almost getting a Filipino citizen killed in a foreign prison.
And what of groups like Migrante and Gabriela, who consider themselves champions of the causes of overseas workers and women?
They have been quick to claim part of the credit for helping to raise the clamor that may or may not have helped Indonesian President Joko Widodo to make a decision to delay Mary Jane’s execution, but that clamor might not have even been necessary, had they not earlier shown the same lack of urgency displayed by the government.
What is most distressing is that Mary Jane Veloso is just one of thousands of OFWs in dire circumstances of one sort or another; if she and her rather spectacular problem could be disregarded until she was on the brink of death, how much more neglect can others with more mundane issues be suffering? And, if the key resource – Filipinos working abroad – underpinning a sizeable portion of the Philippines’ economic output is handled in such an off-handedly incompetent way, what are we to make of the efforts that are claimed to be made on behalf of other workers, or for that matter, almost any other responsibility of the government?
We hope that this Labor Day, those who claim to champion the concerns of OFWs and other workers make an honest self-assessment of whether their efforts are practical and effective, or merely fashionable. Mary Jane Veloso was saved (for now) by a stroke of luck and the power of prayer; good for her, but it’s hardly a useful basis for labor policy and action.