Philippine News: R.P. probes 'trafficked OFWs' in Iraq

President Gloria Arroyo has ordered an investigation into reports that Filipino workers were forced to go to Iraq to work on the U.S. embassy there despite a ban on them traveling there, her top aide said Wednesday.

"The Department of Foreign Affairs was instructed to immediately send a team to the Middle East for the purpose of straightening out the situation," Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said.

Ermita's comments were in reaction to testimony at a U.S. Congressional hearing that a company, First Kuwaiti, contracted to build the U.S. embassy in Iraq had smuggled 51 Filipinos into the country against their will, telling them they would be working on hotels in Dubai.

"As far as the Department of Foreign Affairs is concerned, the First Kuwaiti Trading Co. has a contract with U.S. contingent in Iraq, and it is this First Kuwaiti Trading Co. that probably would have to take responsibility for what is happening," Ermita said.

Ambassador Roy Cimatu is slated to leave for Iraq any time to investigate the case of the "trafficked OFWs." But Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Esteban Conejos said Cimatu's trip may be put off owing to the deteriorating condition in the country.

The presence of Filipino workers in Iraq was actually revealed by two former workers of the First Kuwaiti Company who testified before a U.S. Congress committee. However, reports have been floating for months that Filipinos were being enticed to risk their lives in exchange for high "hazard pay."

If the Department of Foreign Affairs decides against sending Special Ambassador Cimatu, he may instead head for Kuwait where the company that hired the Filipinos is based.

The DoF said that the Filipinos are able to leave the country on the pretext of working in Jordan, where tens of thousands of OFWs are working legally.

Late last month, American Rory Mayberry testified before a congressional committee that some 50 Filipinos were working in Baghdad.

In Manila, fears were raised that the OFWs had been misled into believing that they would only work Jordan, and were then carried across the border to Iraq. This would be tantamount to human trafficking.

First Kuwaiti Co. claims there are no Filipinos working for them. The company has invited Cimatu, along with Philippine Ambassador to Kuwait Ricardo Endaya, charge d' affaires Wilfredo Cuyugan and labor attaché Leopoldo de Jesus to visit their Iraq operations.

In a case of semantics, the labor secretary earlier said no Filipino "was forced" to work for the Kuwaiti company. He did not deny that Filipinos may have been hired by the firm with promises of high salaries.

Unconfirmed reports say that Filipinos are recruited through the classified ads of a national broadsheet. Applicants are told to mail their resumes, after which they are called for interview in secret.

A reliable source told Philippine News that an American claiming to be a retired military man was recruiting out of a townhouse in Sta. Ana, Manila. He preferred former soldiers and policemen.

That American has since vacated the residence that he had turned into a recruitment office.

Salary offered would go as high as $5,000 a month for the more experienced recruits. Minimum pay offered was said to be $2,000, a small fortune by Philippine standards.

For those working in security, the job would, in effect, turn them into mercenaries. Unconfirmed reports said they would be given alternate passports, which would hide their Filipino citizenship.

A report from the watchdog organization CorpWatch said that "other South Asians" were indeed working in Iraq. It said that the name of the company was actually First Kuwait Trading and Contracting.

They were made to labor under "horrid working conditions," said CorpWatch.

Arroyo imposed the ban on travel to Iraq in 2004 after Filipino truck driver Angelo de la Cruz was seized by insurgents.

She also caused a mild rift with Washington when she pulled out a token contingent of Filipino troops serving with U.S. coalition forces which was a condition for De la Cruz' freedom.

Officials say more than 4,000 Filipinos working in US camps in Iraq - mostly as cooks or maintenance personnel - remained there when the ban was imposed.

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