Empire Files: The Roots of the Philippines Trafficking Epidemic


In this sequel to The Empire Files’ report on trafficked Filipina domestic workers, Damayan’s Linda Oalican provides a deeper context to the epidemic of human trafficking by guiding us through the history of colonialism, resistance and US domination of the islands

Speaker 1: Human trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry that entraps millions of people across the world. The majority of victims are abused and living in inhumane conditions. Many caught in this dark web originate from the Philippines, where human beings have become the number one export. In our last episode I visited Damayan, a Filipino domestic worker led group that organizes trafficking victims. It’s founder, Linda Oalican, explained these high numbers.

Linda Oalican: There’s no other option for these women to support their children except to continue working in their receiving countries, like the U.S. If I may just remind you, the government of the United States, our country was ruined primarily by the United States.

Speaker 1: Of course the economic crisis can’t be looked at in vacuum and all the root causes began long ago. The Philippine Islands have been choked by colonial powers for the past five centuries. Its mosaic of over 7,000 culturally distinct islands were first claimed by the Spanish Empire in 1525. Spain occupied and rules the Philippines for the next three centuries. This long history of colonial domination is, at its heart, a history of resistance. At least 300 large scale armed revolts were carried out by indigenous Filipinos against the Spanish Empire. One of the fiercest independence fighters was a woman known as Gabriela Silang, born in 1731.

She rose to General in the indigenous Army and personally lead the longest lasting revolt against the colonizers all by the age of only 31 years old when she was captured and executed by Spanish troops. In 1896, Andrés Bonifacio and his underground organization, The Katipunan, declared the beginning of the Philippine revolution with an uprising against colonial forces in Manila. The revolution quickly spread through the constellation of islands. After two years of sustained rebellion and with Spain distracted by a war with the U.S., independence was imminent.

Linda Oalican: About the independence from Spain, we fought our national war over independence against Spain. We already won, but then it was already, at the time, that capitalist America was rising and it was looking for other markets abroad where they could get raw materials for the industries and find new market for their products. They found the Philippines. They connived and so they negotiated with Spain at our backs to say that, “Okay, they’re about to win. You might as well want to sell this country to me. I’ll pay you and we’ll take care of them.” That was The Treaty of Paris.

Speaker 1: In 1898 the Philippines declared itself independent for the very first time, but true to the logic of empires, this was not recognized by western powers. Instead, the defeated Spanish Empire drew up an imaginary deed and signed over ownership to the United States. The U.S. also claimed Cuba, Guam and Puerto Rico in the conquest and even paid a hefty compensation for their lost colony. As one Senator said in celebration, “The Philippines are ours forever and just beyond The Philippines are China’s illimitable markets. The power that rules the Pacific is the power that rules the world.”

Linda Oalican: That did not happen without a fight. The resistance of The Philippine people continued. There was a time, I think it was in 1904 or 1905, where the United States has to kill all the male population in the big island named Samar from 10 years old and above. Why? Because they were outmaneuvered by the Filipino guerrillas and many Americans were killed. The U.S. commander ordered the killing of all male inhabitants of the island from 10 years old and above.

Speaker 1: Tactics like these embodied the war on the Philippine people. As one of the American commanders said openly to the Manila Times in 1901, his orders to the troops were clear. “I want no prisoners. I wish to kill and burn. The more you kill and burn, the better you will please me. Make it a howling wilderness.” The Filipinos strongly resisted this pacification in both conventional and guerrilla tactics. They were outmatched militarily. Only about one in four Filipinos were armed with a gun, the rest with nothing but bolos and spears. Repulsed by this war, over a dozen U.S. soldiers, many of them African American, abandoned their posts to join the native resistance. One of them, David Fagen, even became a Captain in the revolutionary army, nicknamed General Fagen by Filipino freedom fighters. The U.S. rounded up tens of thousands of peasants into concentration camps and designated battle zones that made no distinction between combatants and civilians. The war was officially declared over in 1902, but a guerrilla war bu the revolutionary army raged on for another decade and the atrocities continued.

In 1906, U.S. forces sought to wipe out the stubborn resistance of the indigenous Moro people. When 1,000 of them, including many women and children, retreated to hide together in a nearby crater, they were mercilessly gunned down. Only six out of the 1,000 survived the massacre. The first 15 years of colonization were so brutal that the U.S. had already killed more Filipinos than the Spanish had over the previous 300 years. In that short time, over 1 million Filipinos from a population that barely numbered 6 million. While American politicians waged their pacification campaign with mass killings, they built the structure of their new colony.

U.S. Army generals were installed as dictator of different regions. A series of colonial laws sought to smash any dreams of national independence. Dissidents were either given lengthy prison sentences or executed in unspeakably cruel ways. English only policies were enforced. It even became illegal to display the flag of The Philippines Republic. New trade laws and tariffs made it so that U.S. monopolies were nearly unchallenged. The islands were forced to develop as simply an export economy for a few goods like hemp, sugar and tobacco. Much of the population was subjugated as plantation workers who also served as a reserve labor force the U.S. exported to Hawaii, California and beyond to replace higher paid or striking workers.

Huge logging and commercial mining projects stripped the land of raw materials and decimated the environment. Development centered on producing for U.S. capitalists, not for the Filipino people and dependence on U.S. patronage for survival. This elevated a tiny class of Filipinos. Big landlords and owners of mills and factories accumulated lavish wealth. Knowing the era of colonial rule was cracking, a comprador class was groomed to take over the formal rule from the United States.

Linda Oalican: These stories were not even written in official history books of The Philippines. They are trying to cover up the ugly relationship of American and The Philippines. There was a period where The Philippines was a direct colony of the United States. The United States also experimented something very new in The Philippines, Neocolonialism. Controlling a country not by direct force, not by having Americans rule the country, but by training the elite in the country, training them, educating them, about how American wants and needs The Philippines to be to support their imperial design around the globe. That’s what happened to The Philippines beginning 1946. We were so-called given our independence after the United States has controlled the economy, the military and then the foreign relations, the education, everything that is critical and is strategic for the country, they control.

Speaker 1: That era came with the end of World War II, during which the Japanese empire attacked and occupied The Philippines. The political elite in the country dutifully switched to administrators of Japan’s occupation. Quick to show its imperials face in just one massacre, known as the Baton Death March, an estimated 18,000 captured Filipinos were killed in shootings, beatings and beheadings by Japanese soldiers. President Roosevelt made an appeal to Filipinos, “Join our Army to fight Japan and we’ll give you all the benefits of American veterans.” Over 200,000 Filipinos answered that call, but as soon as the war ended, Congress revoked all benefits for Filipinos in the U.S. military. To this day, Congress refuses to grant those benefits to the 50,000 surviving Filipino veterans.

Many thousands of Filipinos organized themselves to fight the Japanese empire. The People’s Anti-Japaneses Army was born led by socialists and with over 100,000 peasants. They not only fought the occupation, but liberated large areas of the country, set up communal governments and redistributed farmland to the peasantry. Scared of this growing liberation movements, the U.S. promised to grant The Philippines independence when the warm was over; but before granting it independence it had to reconquer it. They quickly attacked the peasant movement and returned the lands to the futile landlords. With the trusted circle of elites at the helm, the U.S. granted supposed independence in 1946.

While the American flag over Manila was lowered, only the form of rule had changed. The U.S. still kept a watchful eye over its colonial project. When the revolutionary army resurfaced in the late 1940s demanding land reform, the U.S. provided military aid and intelligence to help The Philippine government destroy the movement. Its investment wasn’t just for cheap labor and resources. The U.S. empire used The Philippines as its central base for imperial control of Asia, in particular during it’s wars in Korea and Vietnam. Elite after elite traded places as U.S. puppets until one of them, President Ferdinand Marcos, didn’t want to bother with the mask of democracy anymore. In 1972, Marco declared Marshall Law and ruled through a military dictatorship for the next 14 years.

A socialist movement was surging, recruiting everyone from college students in the cities to farmers in the countryside. A Moro Separatist movement dominated an entire region of the country. These groups took up arms to fight Marcos’ dictatorship with the new People’s Army and the Moro National Liberation Front. Again, the U.S. empire provided millions in military training and weapons to the Filipino Army to partner in its global warm on communism. During this repression, Marcos cracked down on all political opponents. The regime jailed more than 70,000 people. As estimated 35,000 were tortured and at least 3,000 killed. For the U.S., killing communists deserved total support.

When President H.W. Bush visited The Philippines in 1981, he honored Marcos with a toast saying, “We love your adherence to democracy,” but a mass movement of people who refused to give in to the dictatorship was growing. Widespread opposition forced Marcos to hold elections, which he lost. Like the pampered dictator he was, Marcos refused to step down until millions of Filipinos poured into the streets demanding his removal in 1986. While the U.S. government supported his overthrow, it still gave the Dictator sanctuary and protection in the United States for his years of loyal service, even after he fled with a billion stolen from the National Treasury. The U.S. backed successor, President Aquino, was just a cosmetic change. Although Marcos was gone, the fascist repression of the left remained and the neoliberal order deepened.

I want you to elaborate more on after 1946 and the era of neocolonialism and what’s happened since. Then, of course, you have the era of neoliberalism where you had these international banking institutions, like you said, imposing these restrictions on these countries and mandating certain things to remove social welfare, etc. Talk about how that shaped The Philippines.

Linda Oalican: You see how The Philippines is primarily an agricultural country. Like 70% of our people are farmers. Not all own the lands. Many are landless and only maybe about 15% are workers. Yeah and dwindling. The number of workers are going down. Why? Also, the number of farmers are going down, too. Why? Because the economy has been undermined. We have a vibrant agricultural economy in the Sixties and early on, but it was destroyed by capitalist agriculture. What the U.S. agriculture did was to deepen the problems and the contradictions in the agricultural sector. Like the small workers became smaller, they lost the opportunity even to support themselves from the wages that they were making before and the middle farmers who owned small lands lost their lands, because they became poorer, they sold their lands, right?

Those that are big, became bigger. The landlords became collaborators, I would say. They work hand in hand with the agribusiness in the U.S. and other capitalist countries, because right now The Philippines is not producing all the rice that it needs. We’re very dependent on rice. We even have rice for desserts. We eat rice three times a day and we use rice for dessert. That’s how bad Filipinos want rice, but now we import rice.

Speaker 1: That’s insane.

Linda Oalican: We import rice right now. The Dictator Marcos, he was the President when I was in high school and college in the 1960s and in the 1970s. When he became President, he embraced with open arms the policies of privatization, deregulation, and neo-liberalization of the IMF. What does that mean? Smaller government. Meaning get the money out of the government, which translates to lesser services for the people so that’s what happened. I was an activist in The Philippines in the 1970s at the time the impact of American economic interests in The Philippines is already well known especially to the students in the academia. I was part of the student body trying to educate our people that a big part of our problem, poverty and the unemployment in the country, is the subservience of our government to the neoliberal policies of the United States in the country.

As a result of those impositions by the International Monetary Fund, many of the government services were really cut down and the people did not just have enough to access basic services for themselves. Water and electricity, those were very prohibitive. If you own a refrigerator in the country you would really worry about paying the electric bills. It was bad. You can just imagine how during the time of Marcos in the 1970s how they the young people, the unemployed and the students, were really up in arms. Their families do not have the basic services, the tuitions are high, there are no jobs. What will they do? They organized and they were really calling for the government to push back on the IMF conditionalities, but Marcos did not do that.

What he did was he invented the Labor Export Policy of The Philippines. The Labor Export Policy means the government programmatically and systematically convinced the people that the right way to go to support your family is to find work abroad. That’s the Labor Export Policy. That was in the 1970s. It’s an invention of Marcos. He was so brilliant, he told the young people, especially the male ones, “Okay, you’re looking for work. The work is abroad. I’m happy to help you.” That was also a strategy to diffuse the student movement and the youth movement, because there were so may rallies in the street. What now? There is no agriculture, there is no industrialization in The Philippines. All you have the driving economy in The Philippines is the export of labor. That’s why over 10% of the people are abroad.

Speaker 1: This is the story behind thousands of families with the heartbreaking burden of being ripped across oceans only to find super exploitation and abuse in the same country that shaped their fates for the past century. Today the U.S. empire has no willingness to lose hold on the geostrategic Philippine islands and the cast of western backed autocrats continue their role. Decades of neoliberal ravaging and a war on the left has given rise to right wing populist Duterte, promising national sovereignty along with a new era of law and order. Since winning the presidency, Duterte has carried out a murderous war on drugs defined by extra judicial assassinations that have left thousands dead.

Once again, Filipinos find themselves under Marshal Law in another extreme measure imposed by Duterte in May. He came to power with rhetoric against U.S. imperialism, but it will take a lot to sever the deep ties with the empire. The Philippines is still tens of billions in debt to the IMF and with development projects like USAID, the U.S. continues to push through Philippine laws and policies that benefit U.S. corporations. Although a mass movement forced the closure of major American bases in 1992, the U.S. still maintains a major military presence, conducts joint war games and has built up a proxy force in the Filipino Army. Already allies, Trump and Duterte have signaled they will strengthen their military relationship under the banner of fighting terrorism. In fact, just this month the U.S. gifted Duterte’s government a weapon shipment of hundreds of machine guns and grenade launchers, but there’s a force more powerful than these two strong men that can change all of this.

Linda Oalican: My understanding of change is truly learning and respecting the value of the poor people for change. The people that are directly effected by problems, those are the people that you need if you want to make fundamental change. Not the senators or the congress people. Not them, because if you look at the interests of these people in the government, what interests will you see? In The Philippines, we know the interests of the bourgeoisie where an export-import country so families, people who are running that industry, those are the people that are running our country too. I’m really unsatisfied. I look at things from a long perspective. It’s very sad. I was an activist when I was 18 years old. How many more years so that the country can do the right thing? How many more presidents?

Speaker 1: Meeting the courageous fighters in Damayan, I was reminded that the history of Philippine resistance is an unbroken chain. From its first hand-to-hand battles against colonizers wearing armor and swords to organizing against today’s exploiters who wear three piece suits. The poor and oppressed in The Philippines are much more than victims of the system, but are indeed the force that will change it.