‘You only export products, not people’: The cost of being an OFW

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Over two million domestic helpers work in the Gulf countries (namely Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates). Why do stories of human rights abuses perpetrated on these workers never stop? Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — After over a year of being spat at, sleeping on the floor next to a washing machine in a storeroom, not getting paid for more than four months straight, and eating leftover food (if there is leftover food), Jenna Baldapan attempted to escape from her employer’s house in Kuwait.

Pero hindi natuloy [‘yung pagtakas] kasi ‘yung bag ko sa bintana imbis na kunin ko, hindi ko makuha kaya bumalik na lang ako,” she says. “Hinayaan ko na lang.

The panic while trying to get her bag was compounded by the fear of getting caught while trying to escape. She knew that running away from an employer is considered a crime in Kuwait, and that she might have to face imprisonment once caught, so she stayed.

A single mother from Bukidnon, Baldapan left for Kuwait in 2008 to work as a domestic worker immediately after her son turned a year old. If she did get paid, she would get 120 dinars or approximately ₱20,000 every month — all of which she sends back to the Philippines. The maltreatment stopped only when she was sold to another employer. She says she was sold because after a year and five months of enduring inhumane hardships, she just refused to work as a sign of protest.

She doesn’t know how much she was sold for, but says that “mahal kaya ang katulong,” not realizing that she identified herself and the entirety of domestic workers as if they were commodities.

Photo-24 (5).jpg A single mother from Bukidnon, Jenna Baldapan left for Kuwait in 2008 to work as a domestic worker immediately after her son turned a year old. If she did get paid, she would get 120 dinars or approximately ₱20,000 every month — all of which she sends back to the Philippines. Photo by PORTIA LADRIDO

In 2015, another domestic helper, Melirose Balagosa, was caught on tape falling from the fourth floor of her employer’s house in Kuwait. She survived the fall, but fell into a coma for 15 days and had multiple fractures. Many speculated that she was pushed by her employer, but when she was able to talk, she said she fell on her own after trying to escape. She is also a single mother like Baldapan and had decided to work abroad to provide for her child.

On February 2018, the Philippines received yet again another extreme case of domestic worker abuse: the murder of 29-year-old Joanna Demafelis, whose body was found in a freezer in Kuwait a year after she was reported to be missing.

Why the age-old tale of domestic worker abuses?

Baldapan, Balagosa, and Demafelis are only a few of the over two million domestic workers listed to have worked in the Gulf countries (namely, Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates). According to Migrant Rights, 90 percent of all Kuwaiti households employ foreign domestic workers, 99.6 percent of domestic workers and personal assistants in Saudi Arabia are migrant workers, and 96 percent of families in the UAE hire domestic workers to take care of their children.

There have been varying degrees of abuses perpetrated on domestic helpers, but these abuses have largely been tied to the Kafala system, a visa-sponsorship system implemented by Lebanon, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, where workers are essentially beholden to the demands of their employers. The employer or the sponsor is required to “assume full economic and legal responsibility” and has complete control over when the worker can leave and where the worker goes.

Migrante International, a global alliance for overseas Filipino workers, have long called for the abolishment of the system. “‘Yan ‘yung system na nagpapatuloy sa enslavement sa ating mga domestic workers,” says Arman Hernando, spokesperson of the organization. “Kahit sa mula ng panahon na nag-deploy tayo ng mga domestic workers diyan sa Middle East, naka-place na ‘yang Kafala system at simula't sapul patuloy at pareho ang itsura ng mga rights violations sa mga domestic helpers.”

Photo-3 (9).jpg “I've talked to a lot of domestic workers and they would say that if they would just have a salary that you know would approximate 15,000 to 20,000 [pesos], they would not leave the country,” says Dr. Jean Franco, an assistant professor at the University of the Philippines whose research focuses on gender and labor-out migration. Photo by JL JAVIER

While the Kafala system also applies to other migrant workers such as those working in construction, in hospitals, or in engineering, Dr. Jean Franco, an assistant professor at the University of the Philippines whose research focuses on the politics of gender and labor-out migration, says that the abuses carried by the Kafala are gravely felt by domestic helpers because they are not within the public sphere.

“[Abuses] keep happening because the private sphere is not regulated,” she says. “Unlike other job categories, say, in hospital, in construction where you are out there in the public and the industry itself is regulated, there's some sort of a freedom, and you're with other people … People living inside the house who hire domestic workers can practically do anything they want.”

In Jordan, recruitment agencies that facilitate the deployment of domestic workers would run ads with taglines like “delivery in 30 days,” “discounts on maids,” and “enjoy a month of discount on maids” among many others.

A study by the Centre for Labour and Mobility states that it’s also hard to monitor the plight of domestic workers because the laws of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the economic union of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, do not allow labor inspectors into the employers’ homes, making it difficult to evaluate their day-to-day living conditions.

In 2013, because of the increasing volume of abuses, Karl Anderson, an American music producer, created a Facebook page called Filipino Domestic Workers Abuse in Saudi Arabia. He started it after helping his friend escape an abusive employer, and later found that many other Filipino domestic workers were under the same hapless circumstances.

Anderson, who is based in Los Angeles, says that the concerns of the workers would range from simple queries like the contact number of the Philippine embassy to more weighted reports on cases of rape and attempted homicide. He says that since opening up the page, the abuses have been fairly similar.

“Rape is very common. Sexual and physical abuse is a common one. Nonpayment is a big issue. Some people are starved and they don’t have enough food, or are locked in the house,” he says. “It's pretty much very similar but I would say they're rescued a little faster now.”

These abuses have widely been covered by the media and in reports of non-government organizations, but Franco stresses that there is also a substantial number of migrant workers who have made a living and have had a good relationship with their employers.

DW Screenshot.jpg The Facebook page called Filipino Domestic Workers Abuse in Saudi Arabia was created by American music producer Karl Anderson in 2013 to help domestic helpers who want to get rescued from abusive employers.

“They've sent their children to school because of their jobs as domestic workers,” she says. Baldapan also says that the employer she was sold to was kinder and better than her first employer. While she still worked seven days a week, she says that at least she was fed well, paid on time, and not at all abused in any way. She worked for her second employer for eight years before coming back to the Philippines.

Anderson, however, thinks that there is a much larger majority of abused domestic workers than people realize.

“I think what the common thing I hear from the worker is a lot of workers, they feel shamed. So if they're abused or sexually abused, sometimes they don't want their family members to know,” he says.

He also says that not getting a day off, not being fed regularly, or experiencing delays in pay have also been the standard working condition that for as long as they are not extremely abused, these are realities domestic workers have known to accept.

‘Pag nag-abroad ka, dapat matapang ka talaga kasi ganoon talaga,” says Baldapan.

The root cause of the problem

Besides these abuses that have plagued workers abroad, there has also been a latent effect on the family, especially the children, whom they leave in the Philippines. Laurence Ligier, the founder of Cameleon, an organization that helps sexually abused girls in Panay and Negros, has seen that the absence of the mother affects the children in unfortunate ways, citing incestuous rape as a common occurrence.

“Children are left alone, especially the girls, in the hand of their father, stepfather, uncle, and brother and without their mother protecting them for many years, then sexual abuse can happen,” she says. Ligier highlights that the age of consent in the Philippines is 12 years old, and so the lack of guidance and support during the girls’ formative years are crucial factors that contribute to their vulnerability.

It was also through her work with Cameleon that she was in touch with Balagosa, the domestic worker who fell from her employer’s building in Kuwait, as Balagosa’s sister is a beneficiary of the organization.

In 2015, another past beneficiary of Cameleon, a young girl who was a victim of incest rape also went to Lebanon to work as a domestic worker, but left abruptly after her employer hit her and threatened to kill her. Ligier says that they usually urge their beneficiaries not to work as a domestic helper abroad. Through the organization, they aim to help the girls finish college so they would be able to find jobs here.

Dr. Jean Franco says that the Philippine government likes to magnify these abuses because they want to project the image that they're not “labor exporters” but rather they're "protecting" their migrants, specifically women migrants.

 

But in places like Bukidnon, where Baldapan is from, she says that jobs are scarce, and the salaries here didn’t offer enough money to send her son to good schools. “Siyempre iniisip ko kailangan ko mag-hanapbuhay talaga na sarili kong sikap kaya nagpursigi akong mag-apply mag-abroad,” she explains.  

Franco says that if one is to think deeply about the abuses, it can be traced back to the fact that there may not be any kind of abuse if only there were jobs in the Philippines for women like Baldapan, Demafelis, and Balagosa.

Photo-15 (1).jpg “Children are left alone, especially the girls, in the hand of their father, stepfather, uncle, and brother and without their mother protecting them for many years, then sexual abuse can happen,” says Laurence Ligier, the founder of Cameleon, an organization that helps sexually abused girls in Panay and Negros. Ligier highlights that the age of consent in the Philippines is 12 years old, and so the lack of guidance and support during the girls’ formative years are crucial factors that contribute to their vulnerability. Photo by JL JAVIER

“I've talked to a lot of domestic workers and they would say that if they would just have a salary that you know would approximate 15,000 to 20,000 [pesos], they would not leave the country,” she explains. Franco also says that the Philippine government likes to magnify these abuses because they want to project the image that they're not “labor exporters” but rather they're "protecting" their migrants, specifically women migrants.

“Highlighting these abuses and highlighting the fact that the government tries to immediately make some moves to prevent these abuses by way of let's say, deployment ban, makes people believe that the cause of the abuses is the employer or the recruiter, but not the state,” she adds.

She explains how the government would institutionalize suffering and sacrifice by labelling migrant workers as “bagong bayani,” which elevates the OFWs but also makes it acceptable to “suffer and sacrifice” when they’re abroad. Franco also adds that no government would identify themselves as labor exporters because no government, she explains, will accept the fact that citizens are abroad to find jobs that are precarious because they could not manage to address or to have an environment where decent work can thrive.

“They would like to believe that they facilitate, they manage overseas employment, but the government will never admit that they are into labor export,” she says. “Because you only export products, not people.”

The notion that domestic workers are treated like commodities is not unfounded. In Jordan, recruitment agencies that facilitate the deployment of domestic workers would run ads with taglines like “delivery in 30 days,” “discounts on maids,” and “enjoy a month of discount on maids” among many others.

Baldapan, over the course of the interview, would also repeatedly refer to herself by how much she costs and how much the employer had to pay another employer to set her free.

30728491_10214487640441225_1126886031333785600_n (1).jpg “‘Yung deployment ban hindi namin nakita na nakatulong sa OFWs mula noong inimplement siya at hanggang sa ngayon kasi una, walang kasabay na pagpapabuti ng monitoring, proteksyon, at intervention program ‘yung gobyerno,” says Arman Hernando, spokesperson of Migrante International, a global alliance for OFWs. Photo courtesy of ARMAN HERNANDO

Migrante’s Hernando says that if the government can’t assert the rights of the Filipinos in the Gulf, especially when we are “mere foreigners,” the Philippine government would have to look on other ways of supporting Filipinos.

Kung hindi pa kayang i-guarantee ‘yung protection ng ating mga OFWs at katulad pa rin ‘yung working condition, dapat hindi pa tayo nag-de-deploy ng domestic workers,” he says, “at instead ay lumikha dito ng trabaho sa sarili nating bansa para hindi na mag-abroad ‘yung ating mga kababayan.

Could the deployment ban help?

Given the reality that job creation has not kept pace with an expanding population in the Philippines, the government’s deployment ban in Kuwait seems to be a solution to the continuous wave of abuses that domestic workers face. However, when the ban was announced, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) said that around 54,000 jobs would be at stake.

“Humahanap talaga ‘yan ng ibang mga channels at pamamaraan kahit illegal para umalis. At doon, mas nagiging vulnerable sila sa human traffickers at mga illegal recruiters.” — Arman Hernando, Migrante International

Anderson agrees that a ban is necessary because he believes the Gulf countries would never abolish the Kafala system, especially when, he says, it is inherently part of their culture. But Franco thinks that the deployment ban was a reactive and palliative move, and that it will just breed more irregular migrants.

Hernando further explains that even with a ban, Filipinos will find ways to get out of the country, making them more vulnerable to human trafficking. “Humahanap talaga ‘yan ng ibang mga channels at pamamaraan kahit illegal para umalis. At doon, mas nagiging vulnerable sila sa human traffickers at mga illegal recruiters,” he says.

Pangalawa, ‘yung deployment ban hindi namin nakita na nakatulong sa OFWs mula noong inimplement siya at hanggang sa ngayon kasi una, walang kasabay na pagpapabuti ng monitoring, proteksyon, at intervention program ‘yung gobyerno.

On the other hand, the ban has pushed POEA to consider more ways to better support domestic workers, particularly in Kuwait. They are now considering housing domestic workers outside of their employers’ homes to lessen the risk of physical or sexual abuse.

After 10 years of working in Kuwait, Baldapan came back to the Philippines to attend her father’s funeral late last year. Her passport expired while being here, and so she had to wait to get a new one while also looking for other opportunities abroad. At the time of the interview, she has just finished submitting her requirements at the POEA satellite office in Ortigas, and is waiting to be approved for domestic work in Hong Kong.

Hindi na pwede mag-apply ulit [sa Kuwait] kasi dapat two years na maghintay din ‘pag bumalik ka dito,” she says. “Kaya apply ulit sa iba.”