OVERSEAS employment is a dream for a majority of working Filipinos. The chance to earn a salary several times bigger than what they would make in the Philippines seems too good an opportunity to pass up. With an extended family to feed and children to put through school, many of our kababayan take up the offer to work abroad without fully assessing the challenges and hazards of the job they’ve agreed to take on.
This is especially true of our female household service workers (HSWs) in the Middle East who are the most isolated and at risk of abuse behind the closed doors of private homes. Classified as unskilled workers, HSWs in the Middle East are not covered by labor rules and regulations. With no labor law protections, employers can, and many do, overwork, underpay, and abuse these domestic workers.
Recently, I had the chance to personally welcome at the airport several of our OFWs from Riyadh who availed of Saudi Arabia’s amnesty program. Those who had no means to travel to their respective provinces were temporarily housed at the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) “halfway home” where they were provided free food and lodging until they were sent off to their onward journey by bus, boat or plane.
At the halfway home, I asked some of them to narrate their experiences in Saudi Arabia, which I plan to share during our pre-departure orientation seminar (PDOS) at OWWA in order to educate prospective domestic workers about the realities of life as an HSW in the Middle East. I have changed their names to protect their privacy.
Maggie hails from a remote barangay in Samar. As an HSW, her day usually began at 5 a.m. when she started cooking the meals for the family, and bathed and dressed her employer’s two teenage children. After the children were sent off to school, she did the laundry and then cleaned her employer’s huge house.
As if that were not enough, Maggie was forced by her employer to regularly clean five other houses. If she refused or did something that displeased her employer, she would be struck with a vacuum cleaner or grabbed by the collar and threatened.
Maggie also suffered abuse from her employer’s children who would spit on h er drink and mock her. She was fed only once a day. To add to the torment, her mobile phone was taken away from her and she was only able talk to her family after 3 months.
Her employer confiscated her lipstick and other cosmetic items. Maggie was not allowed to leave the house. On the rare occasions that she did, she was always accompanied either by her employer or by her employer’s children. The only time that Maggie could be truly alone was when her employer locked her up in the kitchen. Unable to bear the abuse any longer, Maggie escaped after 7 months.
Mary is a native of Cotabato City. She was employed by a family of three, all of whom had health issues. Both the husband and wife suffered from diabetes while their 40-year old son had epilepsy.
She would get up at 6 a.m. to prepare her employers’ meals, clean the entire house, do the laundry, and attend to her employers’ needs. Mary’s day usually ended at 2 a.m. after her male employer finished smoking shisha. Because of the family’s medical condition, she was tasked to prepare all their medicines as well as bring her employers’ son to the hospital for checkups. She was also prohibited by her employer from using a mobile phone.
Mary also suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her male employer and his son. She was allowed to go out of the house on one condition: that she allow her employer to touch her breasts or private parts. She said that when her employer was taking a bath, she was sometimes forced to stay in the bathroom holding a glass of water. She was not allowed to leave until her employer drank it, oftentimes while naked.
Sometimes her employer or his son would fondle her from behind while she was washing the dishes, causing her to drop and break them. Her employer would then deduct the cost of the broken dishes from her salary. When the wife was not around, her male boss would invite Mary to his room, for her to see him naked and stroking his genitals. Mary endured it for a year before running away.
Carol is a domestic worker from Davao City. After using up all savings that she made working as an HSW in Saudi Arabia for 5 years, she returned to the Middle East to try her luck once more. She only lasted 3 months with her new employer.
Her new boss forced her to wake up as early as 2 a.m. to cook the family’s meals, clean the house, and do the laundry and other chores that were given to her. She always finished work late in the evening. Aside from being overworked, Carol was only fed once a day with noodles, and her salary was withheld for 2 months. With the help of other OFWs, Carol was able to run away from her employer.
Carol is perhaps the luckiest of the HSWs I talked to. Despite her traumatic experience, she was able to stay and work in Saudi Arabia as a “tago-ng-tago” (illegal alien) for almost 10 years. She worked in three beauty salons for 5 years. However, she was asked to resign in 2014 for lack of a proper work permit. She was briefly detained at the Jawazat (the Saudi immigration office) but was released after friend who was employed by a Saudi prince interceded on her behalf.
Subsequently, while working as a massage therapist, Carol was again detained after being caught at a police checkpoint while returning from a client call. She was eventually released after the authorities learned that her client was a Saudi princess. Carol then found work once more as an HSW but without the proper work permits, she decided it was time to go home and took the opportunity offered by the ongoing Saudi amnesty program.