On this date in 1995, Filipina maid Flor Contemplacion was hanged for murder in Singapore.
Contemplacion had, four years before, strangled a fellow-maid and drowned that maid’s four-year-old charge.
That’s what she confessed to, at least. Even though Contemplacion’s camp would eventually argue that the confession had been coerced, or that she’d been possessed by a strange epileptic, Contemplacion herself never really walked back that admission.
By whatever happenstance of timing and circumstance, widespread publicity of her case in the Philippines during the months leading up to her hanging tapped a national discontent among her countrymen and -women about “OFWs” — overseas Filipino workers.
This economic sector — exported labor — had been intentionally nurtured (pdf) by Manila beginning with a 1974 labor code, and over the ensuing generation ballooned twentyfold into a positively enormous phenomenon.* By the time Flor Contemplacion hanged, everybody in the Philippines knew people who had worked overseas, and whose wage remittances were indispensable (pdf) for supporting their families in the Philippines. (And increasingly, the entire national economy.)
Boom of the overseas Filipino workers sector, 1975 – 2000 (1975 = 1). Source of figures; there are more official OFW stats here.
Ascendance of the OFW industry brought with it the discontents attendant with scattering wholesale quantities of the populace to unfamiliar corners of the globe, many of them to confront the timeless varieties of workplace abuse from positions of special vulnerability: “The dark reality,” one organization says this year, of “low wages, horrid working conditions, little protection for human rights, exploitation, harassment, threats, illegal arrests, imprisonment, criminalization, and deportation.”
To say nothing of the political discontents raised by such a discomfiting abdication of autarky, and the “domestic anxieties” (pdf) of developing “the embarrassing reputation that we are a country of DHs [domestic helpers], entertainers, and even prostitutes.” This is, truly, a rich and complex tapestry.
Flor Contemplacion is practically the patron saint of the indicted Filipino/a abroad, and her fruitless clemency appeal the political breakout of OFWs and their allies as a constituency to reckon with.
The effect was immediate. Contemplacion hadn’t had any great level of consular support early in her criminal process — the time when it might have made the most difference. (The Philippines embassy in Singapore later took considerable heat for this fact.)
But as the story made headlines and some sketchy witnesses accused the victim’s widower husband of being the real perpetrator, the case became a national sensation. Recently-elected president Fidel Ramos, who campaigned on restoring the previously-abolished death penalty in the Philippines, not only had to put on the full-court press for this condemned woman but incongruously declared her a “national hero”; his wife personally received Contemplacion’s remains at the airport. Leaders and ordinary people from Catholics to Communists rallied (sometimes rioted) in anger.
(Singapore was just at this time establishing its own reputation as the place that never gives diplomatically expedient clemencies. Never.)
Whatever the domestic controversies, the labor-export business has only continued to grow in the generation since Contemplacion’s hanging. To this day, the Filipino public has shown great sympathy with OFWs entangled in alien criminal justice systems, and demanded diplomatic support — regardless of particular individuals’ putative guilt.
Flor Contemplacion’s name, well-known still anywhere in the archipelago, was back in the news last year … when her three sons all drew lifetime prison sentences for drug-smuggling.