D.C. Teachers Victims of Human Trafficking Scheme


Dec. 18, 2013

Valerie Francisco, Chairperson, GABRIELA USA, gabrielawomen@gmail.com
Nicole Cunanan, Vice Chair of Propaganda & Cultural Affairs, GABRIELA Washington, D.C., Nicole@gabrieladc.org

GABRIELA USA Exposes Human Trafficking Scheme at the Nation’s Capital on International Migrants Day

WASHINGTON—On Dec. 18, 2013, International Migrants Day, GABRIELA USA, an alliance of Filipina women’s organizations across the United States, stands with the GABRIELA Washington, D.C. chapter to expose the trafficking of teachers from the Philippines to the U.S.

Since 2003, the Philippine-based labor recruitment agency, Renaissance Staffing Support Center (formerly known as Great Provider Service Exporters, Inc. and World Goal Corporation) represented by its president, Isidro Rodriguez and its U.S. partner Green Life Care International, LLC have been trafficking teachers to the U.S. The agency promised applicants high salaried jobs with benefits in public schools in North Carolina and Washington, D.C. It also promised them housing and transportation. Applicants were required to attend various expensive seminars and pay excessive fees to successfully secure H1B visas. Teachers paid between $18,000 to over $20,000 for the entire process. In many cases, their passports were held until they submitted the entire fee amount and were not returned until their departure for the U.S.

When teachers arrived to the U.S., their promised jobs did not exist, leaving them to fend for themselves.

 Some teachers have even reported that recruitment-agency owner Rodriguez also committed various acts of sexual harassment against female teachers and asked for sexual favors in exchange for papers. If victims voiced concerns or went against the recruiter, they were threatened to be deported or told that their families will be harmed.

“This illegal recruitment and trafficking scheme made us suffer in slave-like conditions and in debt bondage. We sacrificed so much just to try to support our families back home and we are still trying to survive day-to-day,” stated Ma. Fen Ecleo, Co-Chairperson of GABRIELA Washington, D.C. and one of the trafficking victims.

 “This situation with the teachers is not an isolated case, and is an example of a larger systemic problem in the Philippines,” says Tina Shauf, Vice Chair of Campaigns of GABRIELA USA. GABRIELA USA demands that the Philippine government ensure that true justice is delivered to the the teachers as they pursue legal cases against Rodriguez and Renaissance Staffing Support Center. Rodriguez should be jailed for the crimes he has committed and the teachers should get full compensation for debts. GABRIELA USA also demands that the teachers get T visas, as human trafficking victims, so they can continue to work and live in the US without fear of deportation. We call on the Filipino community and our allies to support the teachers’ ongoing legal cases in both the Philippines and the U.S.

 “The Philippine government hails the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) as “Modern Heroes” and yet in their time of need, the OFWs are treated with apathy,” said Jo Quiambao, Co-Chairperson of GABRIELA DC. “Workers’ remittances to the country keep the economy afloat but the government fails to address the concerns and well-being of distressed OFWs.”

 On the occasion of International Migrants Day, aside from recognizing the efforts, contributions, and rights of migrants worldwide, GABRIELA USA calls on the Philippine government not only to respond to the problems of migrant workers in the host countries, but to also address the root causes of migration which is poverty and underdevelopment in the Philippines.


GABRIELA USA is a grassroots-based alliance of progressive Filipino women’s organizations in the United States seeking to wage a struggle for the liberation of all oppressed Filipino women and the rest of our people.

While we vigorously campaign on women-specific issues such as women’s rights, gender discrimination, violence against women and women’s health and reproductive rights, GABRIELA USA also addresses national and international economic and political issues that affects Filipino women.
GABRIELA USA is an overseas chapter of GABRIELA Philippines, and is a member organization of BAYAN USA and the International Women’s Alliance.

Knowing Karen Empeño

To commemorate the birthday of Filipino revolutionary Andres Bonifacio, founder of the Katipunan and the founding anniversaries of  Anakbayan and Kabataan Makabayan, we’re dedicating today’s (11/30)  16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign  post to youth and student organizers.

Knowing Karen Empeño

A conversation with Jonna Baldres on her mentor and friend, Karen Empeño, who was abducted by armed military forces of the Philippine government. 

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Jonna’s painting “Baril Baraha Biktima”; photo of Jonna (leaning, front), Karen (left), and friends.

Jonna is to the New York Filipino community as Reese Witherspoon is to Hollywood: a darling powerhouse who commands your respect because she’s smart and works damn hard.  After organizing at the prestigious College of Fine Arts of the University of the Philippines  – Diliman (UP), Jonna has become one of the cornerstones of the Woodside, Queens community.  Jonna’s ease and familiarity with the surrounding neighborhood and its people is unexpected given she’s spent three of the last five years living between Manila and New York City’s outer boroughs.  In recent years, she has played a major role in local immigrants’ rights campaigns and was also a main coordinator for the International Assembly of Migrants and Refugees,  while being a full-time employee of the Bayanihan Community Center in Woodside.

Jonna’s drive to grow as a community organizer developed as the result of several factors, but none of them are more important than the abduction of her friend, mentor, and fellow activist,  Karen Empeño, 23 at the time, who disappeared on June 26, 2006.

The pair met in 2005.  Karen was a sociology student about to begin her thesis, and a lead organizer with STAND UP (Student Alliance for the Advancement of Democratic Rights at the University of the Philippines).  Jonna was already working around Manila, but the pull of on-campus student activism proved to be more worthwhile than meetings with clients as a freelance graphic designer.  Both women had reputations as fierce student leaders on the UP campus, so despite being in different graduating classes from different colleges, their meeting was inevitable.

Nung na meet ko sya, parang feeling close na si Karen, kasi kilala na nya ko sa mga picture na nakikita nya galing sa rally or kung ano ano.  Talagang makulit siyang tao, minsan nga super-hyper.  Pero nag gigitara din sya, so nag click kami. / When we met, Karen already acted comfortable around me, because she recognized me from past event and rally photos.  She is a really talkative and perky person, and was sometime super-hyper.  But she played the guitar, like me, so we got along well.”

For the next few months, the two would work closely together planning campus events for STAND UP, facilitate occasional student workshops, and organize youth retreats.  These were all learning opportunities for Jonna, a bit out of touch with the campus since her graduation.  She was relieved that Karen was able to take the time and help her transition back into campus organizing.  “Siya talaga ang tumulong sa ipagkaorginiza ko.  Maraming akong natutunan sa kanya na kinakaya kong ipasa sa mga nakikilala kong kasama dito. / She is really the person who helped organize me.  I learned so much from her, that I hope I can pass those lessons on to other organizers here.”

By the summer of 2005, Karen began her immersion with peasant farmers for her thesis research, and Jonna returned to live with her mother in New York. “The last time I was able to spend time with Karen was right before her immersion began.  She was really excited to start this part of her work, to the point that she was crying tears-of-joy in anticipation.”

Jonna didn’t learn of Karen’s disappearance until about a month after initial reports, and only by accident: through an update email posted to a listserv.   Initially, Jonna was left with more questions than answers upon reading the email.  Which Karen was taken?  Why has she been missing for a month?  Who is responsible for this? It took Jonna the longest night of her life to confirm whether the Karen who disappeared was, in fact, her talkative and bubbly mentor.  There were hours spent sending a flurry of text messages to UP alumni and old activist friends still in Manila. “Yung Karen ba natin yan?/ Is that our Karen?”

The reply was, “Oo, Karen natin./ Yes, our Karen.”   Jonna’s heart broke and she cried for three days straight.

The details that surfaced were these: Sherlyn Cadapan, a 29 year old student at the UP College of Human Kinetics, and Karen Empeño were forced into a van.  A local farmer, Manuel Merino, tried to stop the armed men, and was abducted, too.  Since 2000, thousands of community organizers, students, union leaders, members of the press, and other civilians were disappeared or blatantly murdered under the corrupted administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo which hoped to quell the growing people’s movement in the Philippines.  Arroyo’s time in office has proven to be equally fatal to the Martial Law Era, with thousands of innocent civilians dead or missing during her term.  These human rights violations were unmasked to the mainstream when Melissa Roxas, a Filipino-American community health worker, was kidnapped by armed plain clothes soldiers and her story was featured on the New York Times’ front page.

Manuel, Sherlyn, and Karen were brought to a camp. They were tortured and beaten.  The women were raped.  The public only knows this because another victim, Raymond Manalo, escaped this same camp and survived. There are many graphic accounts of his time as a prisoner chronicled in major publications.  The most harrowing one being the description of the farmer who attempted to prevent Sherlyn and Karen’s abductions, Manuel Merino, being burned alive.  Raymond Manalo was the last person to see Sherlyn and Karen, tied to table legs and laying on the ground after beatings by their military captors.

Being thousands of miles away from answers, Jonna only had the humidity of a New York summer to contain her anger.  She would spend hours, which turned into months, combing the internet for articles.  “Only when I started reading the press, that’s when the reality of Karen’s disappearance sunk in.  There was one Manalo interview in particular that was too detailed : 4x4s and bamboo sticks inserted into Karen, legs tied and bound.  I couldn’t even finish reading it.  By that time, my anger was immense.”  However, the graduate of the Fine Arts College was able to turn to her artistic training, and redirect her anger into what resulted in several poems and songs, and a painting called “Baril, Baraha, Biktima” (“Gun, Playing Cards, Victim”).

“Karen was really excited to start this part of her work; all she wanted was a deeper understanding of the lives of these families.  When you come from a prestigious university like UP, students embrace their privilege.  They don’t look forward to living in humble communities the way Karen did.  Nakakagalit na yung mga gustong tumulong, yun ang mga hinuhuli.  Yun ang mga dinudukot ng gobyierno at sundalo. / It makes me angry knowing that the people who want to help, contribute to society, those are the ones who are taken.  Those are the ones disappeared by the government.”

In the meantime, the anger has found a workable plateau within Jonna’s body, and it’s easier for her to laugh again.  A smile appears on her face, because she suddenly remembers the last youth and students retreat she and Karen attended together.  The site was near a beach, and during a longer break between sessions, the two took a boat ride with some of their friends.  Also a skilled photographer, Jonna remembers the compositions of Karen along the boat and playing by the water.  The photos were taken on Jonna’s 35mm SLR camera, and never developed.

Jonna understands that the mere retelling of Karen’s story doesn’t correct injustice; doesn’t return the 2000 victims of human rights violations in the Philippines.  “I won’t stop organizing my community, and holding the Philippine government accountable for what they did to Karen and countless others whose names haven’t even surfaced in the media.  This is about ending the exploitation of farmers by their landlords, living a life free of military violence and state repression, creating jobs within the Philippines, living in affordable housing, getting an education the average family can manage, and having access to enough food and medicine to live healthy lives.  This is what Karen fought for, and this is what I’ve learned during her disappearance.  We are fighting for  justice and equal access to basic human rights not only for the people in my life, but for every Filipino.  Yes, it’s difficult knowing that she is not beside me, but this movement and my commitment to it – neither  waver. 

“Dapat nyang alamin na kumakapit pa rin ako, mahigpit pa,  at ang daming din bagong tao na kumakapit rin./ I want to tell her that I am holding on, holding on tightly,  and that many people who have been moved by her story are holding on, too.  I have hope. Until there is no evidence of her body, Karen is still alive.”   She adds, “ I still have that roll of film from the boat.   It’s somewhere in a drawer at my apartment.   Maybe I’ll get the chance to develop it sometime soon.”   

Attached is a poem dedicated to Karen Empeño and a photo of Baril, Baraha, Biktima by Jonna Baldres.



Tinitingnan ko ang larawan mo,

ang larawang nalimbag sa mga pahayagan

nitong nakaraang isang taon at limang buwan

nang ikaw at mga kasama’y nawawala.

Nakangiti ka.

Walang bakas ng paghihirap

Paghihirap na dinanas sa kamay

ng mga hayop na mapagsamantala.

Narinig ko ang balita.

Ginahasa raw nila kayo, pinahirapan.

At ngayo’y huwag na raw kayong hanapin pa

sapagkat kasama ng magsasakang kanilang niliyaban

ikaw raw ay hindi na makikita pa.

Marahil kahit ang isang tanga

ay maiintindihang ito’y pananakot lamang

na akala’y sa kanilang babala ay magpapadala

at ang aming paghahanap ay ititigil nang tuluyan.

Hindi tayong tulad nila,

na noon pa ma’y buong loob at kusang binitawan

ang dangal at kalayaan sa pagsunod

sa utos ng berdugo’t diktador.

Hindi namin titigilan ang paghahanap.

Hindi lamang sa inyo,

kundi para sa hustisyang

kailanma’y hindi naibigay sa inyo.

Mananatili ang larawan mong nakalimbag,

hindi lamang sa mga pahayagan.

Nakaukit ito sa isipang kung saan ang ngiti mo’y

hindi lamang simpleng pagbuka ng mga labi.

Ang ngiti mo’y mapagpalaya.

Ngiting sa mga magsasakang inaapi

ay naghatid ng pag-asa’t pagkamulat.

Tinitingnan ko ang larawan mo.

Nakangiti ka.

At iyon ang mananatili sa isipan ko.



Health Care Workers Should Be Released To Their Families And Communities Who Rely On Them For Health Care Given The Government’s Neglect Of This Basic Need

Walking from the court of appeals, one of the 43 healthcare workers raises their fists.

Contact: Valerie Francisco, Vice Chair, GABRIELA USA, fire.nyc@gmail.com

Filipino women member organizations of GABRIELA USA across the United States demand the release of the 43 illegally detained healthcare workers. Of the 43 healthcare workers, 26 are women including a woman doctor and midwife, and two are pregnant. Most of the healthcare workers are peasant women from various poor communities that were taking classes on first aid and basic healthcare. However, the Philippine military justifies the illegal arrest, detainment, and torture by claiming that they are members of the New People’s Army.

For a great majority of poor women and children in the provinces as well as urban poor areas, community healthcare workers provide the only access to basic healthcare, education, and prevention services because it is not being provided by the government. The ratio of doctors to patients in the Philippines, according to the Department of Health, is at 1:30,000.

These healthcare workers should be praised and supported for their work in their local communities. Instead, they have been illegally detained and maltreated with forms of torture and sexual harassment. During their detainment, they were also denied access to food and bathroom privileges, and subject to inhumane treatment. They were also blindfolded and handcuffed for days on end. In this process, the Armed Forces of the Philippines has even defied the Philippine Supreme Court’s writ of habeas corpus, an order that compels them to present the 43 community health workers.

“While so many nurses and doctors have left for greener pastures to the United States and other countries, these community healthcare workers have chosen to stay and serve the poor. Many of them are mothers who have volunteered their time out of their busy schedules from working on their farms and taking care of their children to serve their communities with basic healthcare. They should not be criminalized. The real terrorism that has plagued our country is a broken, fascist government that has denied basic necessities like healthcare to the majority of the people.” stated Raquel Redondiez, chairperson of GABRIELA USA, chapter of GABRIELA Philippines.

Child at Rally for the 43 healthcare workers outside of Court of Appeals

GABRIELA USA, a national alliance of progressive Filipino women organizations, stands in solidarity with the members of 43 illegally detained healthcare workers and their families. GABRIELA-USA is an overseas chapter of GABRIELA Philippines, with Babae in San Francisco, Pinay Sa Seattle, Sisters of Gabriela Awaken in Los Angeles, and Filipinas for Rights and Empowerment in New York City.



Fil-Am Women in NYC Demand the Release of 43 Illegally Arrested Doctors and Healthcare Workers and Condemn the Use of Torture

Help by signing this petition!

10 February 2010
Reference: Cris Hilo, Vice Chair, Filipinas for Rights and Empowerment NYC, fire.nyc@gmail.com

Fil-Am Women in NYC Demand the Release of 43 Illegally Arrested Doctors and Healthcare Workers and Condemn the Use of Torture

Filipinas for Rights and Empowerment, a grassroots organization of Filipina women in New York City, are outraged with the current detainment of 43 doctors and healthcare workers, 26 of whom are women, by the Arroyo administration and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). FiRE strongly condemns the use of torture and sexual harassment on those who have been illegally detained. Before their detainment, the health care workers were participating in a health skills training in Morong, Rizal, in order to learn how to administer basic health services to poor rural communities. Over 300 soldiers from the AFP and the Philippine National Police (PNP) abducted them at gunpoint and proceeded to handcuff and blindfold them. The 43 healthcare workers have been brought to Camp Capinpin in Rizal. They were arrested because the AFP and PNP, acting in accordance with Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s Oplan Bantay Laya 2, have falsely accused them of being members of the New People’s Army. Oplan Bantay Laya 2 (or Freedom Watch) is a government operative that aims to eliminate so-called “terrorist” organizations in the Philippines, but has instead been responsible for countless human rights violations.

During NYC's snow day, women from FiRE picketed the Philippine Consulate with other Filipino community members.

“The abduction and torture of these 43 innocent healthcare workers is a disgrace to humanity. It unfortunately adds to the record of atrocities that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and the Armed Forces of the Philippines have performed on the Filipino people. It must anger numerous Filipino immigrants in America, most of whom are women who are also nurses, caregivers, and healthcare workers, just like the victims. These 43 selfless healthcare workers took care of patients in the poorest sectors of Philippine society and provided endless support to the people that the Philippine government has forever neglected. It is ridiculous that they were silenced in the most violent of terms for simply being critical of the Arroyo administration,” stated Valerie Francisco, chairwoman of Filipinas for Rights and Empowerment.

“This case is too similar to what happened to Filipino-American human rights advocate and healthcare worker, Melissa Roxas. We must never allow anyone to fall victim to torture, sexual harassment, and illegal detainment,” added Francisco.

As a member organization of GABRIELA-USA, a progressive grassroots Filipino women’s alliance in the United States, Filipinas for Rights and Empowerment denounces the ongoing crisis of human rights violations that has been systematized by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s Oplan Bantay Laya 2. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is conducting a witch hunt that condemns activists, teachers, and human rights advocates who are critical of her regime by labeling them as terrorists and allowing the Philippine military to detain and torture them. These illegal arrests and the recent massacre by the Ampatuan clan in Maguindanao are the Arroyo government’s threat and scare tactics against citizens who will vote for progressive leaders in the upcoming Philippine presidential elections.

Filipinas in New York City urge all freedom-loving and pro-people citizens of the United States to stand for basic human rights and dignity in the Philippines! This is a cry for true justice and hope that the perpetrators of these crimes will be held accountable by our judicial system.



Never Again to Martial Law

Never Again to Martial Law 2

December 10, 2009

Reference: Valerie Francisco, Chairwoman, Filipinas for Rights and Empowerment, fire.nyc@gmail.com (925) 726-5768

Martial Law in Maguindanao will only Threaten Basic Human Rights for
Women and Children

New York, NY- December 10 is International Human Rights Day, a day to commemorate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which promotes universal respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. Historically, this document was written to establish peace worldwide after World War II, when millions had died due to global warfare and fascist regimes had taken away people’s civil liberties and freedoms. On this day, which is meant to uphold basic human rights in the Philippines, Filipino American women in New York City implore the Philippine Congress to overturn President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s
Proclamation 1959 that has declared Martial Law in the province of Maguindanao.

On December 4, 2009, after 11 days of one of the most horrific massacres in Philippine history that took the lives of at least 64 people, 14 women including 2 women lawyers and 30 journalists, GMA has declared Martial Law in the province of Maguindanao. Filipinas for Rights and Empowerment (FiRE) demands that Congress revoke Proclamation 1959, the declaration of martial law and call for all Filipina women and the global community to be vigilant on the hostile political climate in the Philippines. As citizens living and working in the U.S., we also demand that US President Barack Obama stop spending U.S. tax dollars on military aid to the Philippines as US military presence is only being used against our Philippine counterparts.

Recently, arms stockpiled in the hundreds were discovered in Ampatuan compounds that can easily be linked to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and serial numbers that can be traced to US military armaments. The relationship between GMA’s martial law and choice to give the AFP control of Maguindanao and the Ampatuan clan’s violence is crystal clear. It is a joke and an underhanded political move to give the very collaborative suspects of the Maguindanao Massacre, the AFP and the Ampatuan clan. To expect the AFP to deliver justice for the Ampatuan victims, when the AFP themselves are the prime suspects is a ridiculous claim.

This political move only shows GMA’s greed and hunger to maintain power and protect her allies. Martial law in Maguindanao capitalizes on the horror of the massacre surrendering power to military forces and has deep implications for martial law in the whole country. Martial law only means more killings, arrests, abductions, human rights violations, and the militarization of communities for civilians.

With the increase of militarization, women and children are easily made victims and they are susceptible to rape and other wartime sex crimes. When women are arrested, they face the danger of being sexually molested or raped by the military. During times of militarization, women and children experience a sense of fear created by military control; loss of home, crops, animals for entire communities; displacement of indigenous people meaning loss of cultural identities and the destruction of their close relationship with the land; loss of education, when children cannot go to school; emotional and psychological effects of militarization; and increased poverty.

As a member organization of GABRIELA-USA, a grassroots Filipino women’s alliance in the United States, we believe that the declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao is a foreshadow of impending escalation of violence and human rights violations to be expected this election season, and should be a reminder for all, including the international community, to be vigilant and participate in ensuring clean and honest elections in the Philippines!

Filipinas in New York City urge all freedom-loving and pro-people citizens of the United States to join the Never Again to Martial Law Alliance to stand for basic human rights and dignity in the Philippines!