Trigger warning: sexual abuse, maltreatment
Nine overseas Filipino domestic workers are still subjected to inhumane treatment and various forms of violence that the International Labor Organization sought to eradicate more than 10 years ago.
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – Padlocked and hungry.
Mostly first-timers in working abroad, nine Filipino domestic helpers in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia are practically imprisoned and deprived of food by their recruitment agency.
Despite being accommodated at a shelter for distressed migrant workers, the needed assistance coming from the Philippine government remains out of reach.
“Our food ratio is both delayed and lacking, with portions only good for three or four people. We would sometimes get hotdogs for breakfast and our next meal is at 10 or 11 in the evening. With our doors locked, we cannot even get water or escape from here when there is an emergency,” said 43-year-old Virginia Ajoc, one of the nine Filipino women staying at the accommodation.
The stranded migrant workers learned that their inhumane treatment was meant to make them to go back to work despite the abusive and exploitative practices. They want, however, to be repatriated instead.
They are among the 24,000 distressed Filipinos in Saudi Arabia, according to data from Migrante-Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. At least 9,000 of them live in various migrant shelters and have availed of the government’s repatriation program.
More than 10 years after the International Labor Organization’s adoption of the Domestic Workers Convention, it is apparent that “decent work has not yet become a reality” for millions of domestic helpers.
Victim of sexual abuse, trafficking
Among those staying at the accommodation is Leah (not her real name). She was a victim of both inhumane treatment and sexual harassment by a male employer for whose family she worked starting 2019. One time, she was almost dragged into the bedroom but managed to escape and then went inside the room of her employer’s child.
But the last straw for Leah, mother of four, was when her employer masturbated in front of her. She was terrified and shaken, prompting her to escape.
Now staying at the agency’s accommodation for almost two weeks, she said that her suffering has not ended. “I have been living in a stressful condition for years now. I never expected that this is the situation that will greet me here, even drinking water is out of our reach,” she told Bulatlat in an interview via Messenger.
Aiza Villaver, on the other hand, feared she was trafficked by her previous employer where she was sold to another employment agency. Now among the stranded domestic workers, she said that she is being made to sign documents claiming she refused to work. She refused to do so as it may complicate matters.
Like Leah and Villaver, the ILO said that violence and harassment happen to millions of domestic workers worldwide. This, the group said, is often seen as “normal” and “part of life.”
ILO said they are vulnerable to violence because “work is carried out behind closed doors, in isolation and in working environments with deepened power imbalances.”
Economic abuses, overworked
The ILO said that economic abuse is a common experience of domestic workers.
Rebecca Perez, a mother of four, has been at the agency’s accommodation since September 2020 after she escaped from her employer due to delayed salaries and poor working conditions. “I eat standing up because I am still working in between spoonfuls of food,” 30-year-old Perez said.
In her last attempt to get her four months’ worth of salary, her male employer accompanied her to the bank, only to be shown that her ATM card (the PIN code of which her employer knew) was empty. It was then that she realized that she has had enough and later on escaped.
Perez said that the Philippine embassy in Saudi Arabia is aware that she is staying at her agency’s accommodation while they negotiated the release of her remaining salary. But instead of getting her claims in full, her employer initially said that they will release only two months’ worth of salary. But when the papers for signature arrived at the accommodation, it stipulated only a month’s salary.
Frustrated and desperate, Perez was forced to agree. But more than nine months into the agency’s accommodation, there is still no news whatsoever on when she is going to be repatriated.
Apart from being overworked, fellow stranded domestic helper Joynalyn Ancheta was also subjected to verbal violence, deprived of sleep, and often received delayed salaries.
Getting their salaries on time is very important for Filipino domestic workers. For Ajoc, she had never laid eyes on her salary during the three years of working as a domestic worker. Her employers insisted on sending it directly to her children.
Her contract was supposed to expire in April 2020. She was repeatedly promised that she will be sent home, only to be canceled and rebooked for another month or two. Her employers insisted that either the flights were too expensive or that there were none. However, Internet searches showed that prices have already gone down since the pandemic first broke and that there were already commercial flights available.
When her employer gave her 1,500 Riyals ($400) in March 2021, Ajoc took the opportunity to escape. The Philippine embassy first took her to a hotel and later to their shelter in Bahay Kalinga in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. A month later, her employment agency showed up and took her with them with a promise of having her repatriated.
But two months since she arrived in the accommodation, Ajoc is padlocked and hungry, with still no news on when she will be reunited with her family.
Stranded domestic worker Carmina Merillo said that overworking resulted in her ailment. But instead of getting medical attention, she was instead brought back to her agency. Others like 27-year-old Sandra Joe were being locked up in their sleeping quarters. They are only allowed to leave when their employers wake up in the morning.
Demands for repatriation
The ILO said that the economic challenges faced by Arab states amid the pandemic have resulted in either abrupt termination of contract or retaining them without pay, as seen in the plight of many stranded domestic helpers in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Their influx in migrant shelters, said the ILO, further increases their risk of exposure to the virus, with health care inaccessible to them. “Their economic vulnerability also puts them at a higher risk of exploitation and trafficking.”
Another stranded Filipino worker Ana Marie Malayao said that agencies are covering their tracks by making them sign documents and waivers that make it appear that they received their salary claims and their belongings, thus preventing them from filing charges if and when they return to the Philippines.
They are also threatened that they would end up paying at least 28,000 Riyals ($7,400) or face charges. “Why would they file a case against me? They were the ones who wronged me,” said Rachel Adolfo, 27, another stranded domestic worker.
Malayao said that government would only act if their posts trend on social media. She urged the government to revisit contracts of employment agencies that deploy Filipino workers abroad. “We just want to help our family. And we ended up in a much worse fate.”
For now, the nine stranded Filipino domestic workers have no one but each other to lean on. They dig their own shallow pockets to buy bread and egg whenever there is an opportunity.
Their cries for help and justice seem to only resonate within the walls of their padlocked accommodation. They are desperate to be reunited with their loved ones. Nevertheless, they are confident that the day of reckoning will come, and that no Filipino woman should be made to suffer.