(October 27, 2008, Manila, Philippines) Today, convened by unions under the banner of "Solidarity Action of Labor against the GFMD," (SALAG), thousands of members of national and international civil society, workers, migrants, trade unions, migrant rights and human rights groups, women's rights, lgtb rights groups, working class political parties, youth and families "massed-up" in Likagawa Bonifacio Park to march through the broad avenues of Manila under the blaring sun, a blessing of rain, and blocked in the end by a police cordon.
The GFMD is the governments' "Global Forum on Migration and Development," a process that is pushing policies to further subordinate migration and migrant labor to the predatory needs and demands of trade and capitalist development at the expense of the human rights of all migrants and workers.
Dozens of members of international delegations that came to the People's Global Action on Migration, Development and Human Rights (PGA) hopped on several jitneys and were taken to the SALAG mobilization.
When we arrived at Bonifacio Park (named after one of the Philippine's independence leaders) we joined hundreds of workers of all ages and genders, mostly dressed in black, who stood in the sun, some in the shade, hearing speakers, chanting slogans and waiting as contingents of unions and other organizations converged for the march.
A few days before the march, the Philippine government announced that in September they had reached their 2008 goal of sending one million Filipinos to work abroad! 3,000 Philippine women and men leave the country each day as "Overseas Foreign Workers." Once abroad they are treated as disposable workers, subjected to all kinds of vile treatment and abuse -- a fate shared by all international migrant workers.
Migrant workers are a gold mine for governments and corporations. Corporations and other employers exploit migrant workers as cheap labor, which can be fired or deported if they complain or demand their rights; and governments receive with open arms the billions of dollars in remittances migrants send home. The economy of the Philippines depends on migrant remittances and not only encourages but facilitates the export of Philippine workers with different skills and capacity just like any other commodity, except this "commodity" is human and saves both the economies of receiving and sending countries.
The governments' GFMD is debating the fate of millions of workers worldwide as it considers "managed migration" schemes to make easier to export and exploit migrant workers to the almost exclusive benefit of corporations and capital. The GFMD agenda poses a historic threat that would destabilize communities everywhere, making everyone a candidate to forced international migration to survive.
"Migrant Rights! Human Rights! Worker Rights! Human Rights!"
Organizers called the march the biggest one in years. Estimates of how many marched ranged from 2,000 to 5,000.
However large, the numbers did not speak to the unprecedented nature of the march: people from all over the world convening to join their Philippine brothers and sisters to demand rights for the displaced in any country they may find themselves in.
As the march headed out of Bonifacio Park, the drumming swelled, the voices of thousands joined in chorus after chorus of chanting for human rights. From gigantic signs to life-size puppets depicting migrant men and women, banners, signs everywhere, the human rainbow of colors, class, genders, age, languages, nationalities, communities all walking at their own pace with the same dream and vision.
The march was full of excitement, energy and hope. Children with their parents, young men and women, teenagers, elders, people from Africa, the Americas, Europe and Asia all walked together several miles chanting, holding up banners and signs, to proclaim the demand for rights and integration of migrants worldwide.
The march stopped on the slope of the underpass. Why? The march was being blocked by police in riot-gear. The planned route of the march included several stops to deliver a joint message from SALAG, PGA and others to the GFMD. The march organizers tried to negotiate with the police to let the march continue but they did not budge.
Everyone waited patiently. Many of the marchers walked to the side of the boulevard where there were slivers of shade. Many sat where they stopped under the shade of their banners and signs. A group of youth danced with unbridled joy to the hard driving percussion rhythm of a group of drummers. The sun returned with all its powers but the march remained undaunted by the heat or the police. The sheer energy and enthusiasm of the marchers made most of us oblivious to the blasting sun.
"Do they expect migrant workers to eat only grass?"
At the head of the march, the sound truck was eventually parked across the boulevard; the police were just 50 feet behind it, also being cooked by the sun.
A migrant rights defender from Korea then walked up to the police, turned his back to them and began a long silent protest with his message to the GFMD and the rest of the world. With a red head-band, the man stood silently, almost stoically ignoring the tension of the cops blocking the march with threat of force.
He placed a large handful of grass in his mouth and another bunch in his left hand. In his right hand he held a powerful message to the governments and the police: "Do they expect migrant workers to eat only grass!?!?"
Our answer is obvious or should be. The GFMD cannot ignore the reality of the power of migrant workers, families and communities. In spite of the shortage and even overwhelming lack of resources, migrant rights groups from across the world either sent their representatives and delegations or sent in their endorsement of the People's Global Action declaration to tghe GFMD and the world.
Then speaker after speaker railed against the GFMD, the governments and the corporations. The unifying message was unequivocal: migrant rights cannot be ignored or violated; the GFMD has to be accountable and responsible to migrant communities. Without migrants at the table, the GFMD is taking the world into a dead-end alley.
"Migrant workers are human beings, not commodities."
Migrants now number over 200 million -- about 1 out of every 30 persons in the world has been forcibly displaced across international borders by neoliberal policies and structures whose mantra is the privatization and exploitation of everything under the sun, beginning with workers. The migrant nation is as big or bigger than some of the countries that benefit and many times are critically dependent on migrant labor and/or their remittances.
However, migrant families, workers and communities have rights regardless of how much remittances they contribute. One of the main ideas of the PGA and other forces here in the Philippines reminds the world that "Migrant workers are human beings, not commodities." A simple idea that eludes many who forget that you have rights whether or not you pay taxes, are single, don't work hard or aren't straight.
Today, in Manila, I saw the future of our struggles -- a multi-national, multi-lingual, multi-generational, multi-border demand for justice and human rights regardless of migration status, citizenship or what country you happen to be working in or standing on.
Migrants have rights no matter what governments and their police, employers and their corporations, NGOs, non-profits, lobbyists and other organizations who think they can negotiate our communities' rights without consultation or consequences.
If we are an army, we are an army of Spring. If we are a nation, we are a nation of colors, a cross-pollination, that has been dispersed into other places strengthening humanity. If we are workers, we are indispensable. But above all, we are humans who have dignity and rights that nobody, no border, no corporation and no state can take away from us no matter how repressive or shortsighted their laws and legislation may be.
The People's Global Action brought together a new weaving of voices and dreams in the making that promise to change the world, just as the world and her injustices have transformed many of us into migrants.
Today, in Manila, I saw migrants reclaim their place in the world. And their place is everywhere.