By Cecil Morella

MANILA, February 20, 2011 (AFP) – “Maid in the Philippines” was how its top export commodity used to be known, with millions of women from the impoverished country hired abroad as domestic workers.

But as menial jobs vanish in the global recession and opportunities fail to materialize at home, more and more desperate Philippine women are resorting to something far more dangerous – smuggling drugs as mules.

Three convicted Philippine drug smugglers, including two women, Friday saw their executions in China postponed after Vice-President Jejomar Binay made a frantic dash to Beijing to plead for their lives.

More than 500 Filipinos – men and women – are currently languishing in foreign jails on drug-related cases, foreign ministry spokesman Ed Malaya said. Women are especially susceptible.

“There appears to be a specific targeting of our Filipina women by international drug syndicates to be used as drug mules,” Malaya told a news conference.

“This luring, particularly of women, started some time in 2007,” he said. “Since then, we have seen a dramatic increase in the numbers.”

He added: “We are concerned about it and China, as a destination of these drugs, is equally concerned.”

Ministry data shows 227 Filipinos jailed for drug-related offences in China alone. A Filipina was this month given 18 years in prison in Indonesia for drug trafficking, while there have been other cases in Asia and the Middle East.

Enrico Fos, a special assistant to the foreign ministry’s overseas workers affairs, said international drug gangs specifically targeted Philippine women aged between 20 and 40.

“One route is for them to pick up the drugs in a third country and smuggle them into China. The other route is, the syndicate comes into the Philippines and recruits Filipinas who take the drugs to China or elsewhere,” Fos said.

The women are paid between 500 and 5,000 dollars to swallow tubes containing the drugs, carry them hidden in their luggage or even dissolved and soaked into paper or books.

The lack of jobs at home is a major reason why women in particular resort to smuggling drugs.

One in four Filipinos lives on a dollar a day or less and a tenth of the population works abroad, from where, according to central bank data, they send home more than 18 billion dollars to their families.

Women comprise at least 60 percent of the country’s eight-million-plus overseas work force, with many employed as maids — even if the number of jobs in that sector has been shrinking.

The condemned drug mules in foreign jails are “victims of poverty”, said labour rights campaigner Garry Martinez, head of labour rights monitor Migrante.

He cited the case of a domestic worker who swallowed a tube of cocaine and tried to smuggle it into a Manila airport, where she was arrested on Friday.

“She had been working in Pakistan but her husband died. She was desperate to come home but nobody would help her until someone offered to pay her to swallow the drugs,” Martinez said.

“She was forced to grasp the business end of the knife,” he said, using a local expression that equates to “biting the bullet”.

Migrante data shows there are 128 Filipinos on death row abroad, including 85 drug-related cases. China makes up the bulk of those and there are others in the Middle East, Malaysia and Thailand.

Six Filipinos have been beheaded in Saudi Arabia for various offences since 2005, it added.

Philippine Star newspaper columnist Cito Beltran urged the government to provide better opportunities at home for its work force, about a fourth of who are jobless or underemployed, according to official data.

“The China three who will be executed are doomed because of their ignorance, poverty and human desire to earn a living,” he wrote.

“We must publicly confront, debate, argue and exorcise this curse where we find Filipinos risking life and limb, grabbing dangerous opportunities and violating local and international laws just to make a deadly living.”