Trapped by the System – An OFW story

malflagBefore I begin to share my story and indeed views, I would like to pay tribute to the publishing team at AURA magazine who have invited me to write about topical issues of concern affecting Filipino’s worldwide. I wish the publishers every success with this exciting visionary and I am enthusiastic about accepting this opportunity.

For nearly twenty years now, I have been actively involved within the Filipino community, always sharing a keen interest in the issues concerning the Philippines and the Filipino people.

This stems from my youth, when I took my first trip abroad to Manila. I was always amazed by the beautiful scenery and wonderfully warm-hearted, happy people. Yet I struggled to comprehend such a massive gap between the rich and poor. On one side of highway you witness tall skyscrapers, shopping malls and new apartments; yet across the road, you have homeless families sleeping on the sidewalk.

I have fallen in love with the country and its people, feeling this overwhelming passion of wanting to do more to help them. Being part of a Filipino/British family living in the UK, I have developed the understanding that any unkind remarks, racism and stereotypical attitudes towards the Filipino people, is a direct insult towards me and my family.

Therefore in the past, I have been involved in some protests, writing letters and campaigning against racism towards the Philippines and her people. The issue that most recently comes to mind was the racist attack towards the winning candidate of Miss World 2013, Filipina Megan Young. An Indian lady based in Singapore, Devina Da Diva made some derogatory comments towards Megan in a Facebook rant. I decided to respond by writing my ‘letter to Devina’ which quickly went viral, being shared thousands of times across the internet. Since then, I have gone on to write a couple more letters and blogs when I have felt the need to express. Of course, these can’t change the world, but hopefully can help a little.

One of the issues I have become concerned about lately and the topic of my first article is the plight of Filipino domestic workers. Due to the lack of well paid jobs back home, in order to support their families, hundreds of thousands of Filipino’s leave the Philippines each year to work abroad.

There are approximately eleven million Overseas Filipino Workers or OFW’s worldwide. They are employed in many professions such as engineering, teaching, hotel workers, nurses, doctors, Airline Pilots; the list goes on.

In addition, there are also many who leave the Philippines to seek employment overseas as carers, domestic staff or nannies. Many end up working in the Middle East for little pay and long hours, and may often become victims of mistreatment.

I am sure there are many stories where Filipinos have left the Philippines and actually benefited from immigration. I have heard of many success stories in Dubai and other Gulf States where some Filipinos have been treated well, ending up with worthwhile jobs and lives.

I am hoping, therefore, to feature positive stories in the future as well as tackling difficult stories which need to be addressed.

Last week, I had arranged to meet a Filipina who has not had a pleasant experience, for reasons of confidentiality and to protect her identity, we have decided to call her ‘Jane’.

Jane originates from North Cotabato in Southern Philippines, who is one in a family of six siblings. At just seventeen years old, Jane made the decision to seek work abroad. She was able to find a recruiter and it was agreed that to pay the agency, she would hand over her first month’s salary.

To be honest, I have heard stories in the past, where some people have had to sell land, give vast sums of money to recruiters to get the chance to work abroad, so it does seem that Jane didn’t have such a bad experience with the recruiter or so it seemed.

The recruiter had arranged for Jane to fly out to the Middle East to work. However, her young age had been a problem. As Jane was only 17, she was made up to look much older, like she was 27 so that she could travel. Jane explained that within her group of eight workers, at least three looked much younger.

The first issue I have, is why did Philippine authorities allow workers clearly very young to leave the Philippines and seek employment abroad? It is not my intention to be critical of Philippine law or procedures, I am just wondering whether this is something which the Philippine government is attentive towards?

Jane ended up on a Gulf Air flight to Doha, Qatar and was met at the airport. A member of a family of Sheikhs apparently signed all the necessary documents and Jane was supposed to be working for this family. Jane told me that she was then taken to a very large house, like a palace and there she remained for the next three years.

Jane was informed by her recruiter that she would receive a certain salary and conditions, however, what Jane experienced couldn’t be further from the truth. She was forced to work 24 hours a day on call. Her duty was to look after an elderly lady and ended up sleeping on the floor in her room on a folded blanket! That was it, no privacy, no comfort, hard floor for 3 years. I have to say, when I heard her story, it was hard to hold back the tears.

She informed me that she received shocking treatment by her ’employers’ who only paid her a salary of 100 Qatari Riyals a month, (around £100). She was only allowed to eat left over foods, but only from plates of food that had been half eaten, if there were no left overs, she had to eat noodles only.

It would be wrong of me to assume this shocking treatment of OFWs happen regularly in the Middle East. Suffice to say, I have heard many similar stories, in particular quite a few from Qatar. Jane told me she was employed by a family of Sheiks, I assume these people were well off financially, so my first question is why was this worker who was forced to work so many hours, got paid so little?

As Qatar is such a well-developed forward thinking Gulf state, why does this abuse of domestic workers still allegedly take place there? I am sure the Qatari government would be shocked to hear about this. So my second question is really, what laws have the government of Qatar and indeed other Gulf States put in place to address this?

Jane explained that as well as being regularly tormented, shouted and sworn at, she was subject to physical violence, having her hair pulled and been burnt with a hot iron! Jane who was actually wearing a jacket when we met, removed it and rolled up her sleeves to show me several scars where she alleges she was burnt.

Eventually one of members of the famiy in Qatar had a stroke and Jane had to travel to London with the family to seek medical treatment. They were taken to a private hospital in central London, and Jane had to stay in an apartment across the road, where the harsh treatment continued. On the final occasion, Jane was ordered to iron some clothes by one of the daughters, Jane told her that the iron was not hot enough yet, so the daughter then pressed it against Jane’s arm, inflicting terrible pain.

Finally, after this traumatic incident, Jane gained the courage to escape. She managed to find another Filipino who helped shelter her for the next 6 months. In exchange, Jane helped to do some chores around the house. Finally, she was introduced to some charity workers from a Filipino migrant workers charity called the ‘Filipino Domestic Workers Association’ or FDWA.

I was also able to meet its chair, Phoebe Dimacali, along with two other OFWs who shared similar stories of mistreatment and abuse; one of which also attempted suicide as a result of the suffering and shocking abuse she had suffered.

FDWA helps Filipino Workers who, like Jane, were in difficult situations; often they are trapped, working here in London for little or no pay. In fact, I was able to meet another Filipina, Helen, who, after escaping her employer several years ago in a similar story to Jane’s, she ended up being employed by a European diplomatic family. I was somewhat shocked to learn that after working for this family for three months, she was also not paid and when she complained, she was just told that she would be reported.

I asked Phoebe to run through the aims of the charity and program of action.

We will uphold the rights and welfare of the documented and the undocumented domestic workers.

The group will endeavor to empower ourselves on training, workshops and education,mobilize ourselves and to struggle for our rights and welfare.

Assert and recognize the rights and welfare of the undocumented domestic workers.

Oppose Labor Export Policies (LEP) which institutionalize the commodification of labour and consequent abuse of migrant workers, especially the domestic workers.

Demand socio-economic reforms that will create decent jobs in our home country.

Oppose unjust and discriminatory health policies and demand access to appropriate health information and services.

The Filipino Domestic Workers Association (FDWA-UK) campaigns for the ratification of the ILO Convention 189.

At the moment there are only 17 countries around the globe who signed and ratified the ILO Convention. And we are calling to the UK government to ratify the ILO convention 189 to help end domestic violence and modern day slavery.

Domestic work is an important source of employment. However, the people behind these numbers are often invisible behind the doors of private households and unprotected by national legislation. Therefore, this allows for the worst types of abuse often amounting to modern slavery.

Around the world,there are at least 64.5 million domestic workers; over 15% are children.

We are also campaigning for the reinstatement of the concession.

Last April, 2012, the Conservative government took back the concession. Domestic workers are no longer allowed to change employers. This is what they call the TIED VISA LAW and this leads to worst types of abuse and exploitation to domestic workers.

I wish all the OFWs I met last week the best of luck and hope that they will achieve a successful outcome in their situation. I also hope and pray that the FDWA are able to obtain the true justice that they deserve for their members.

FDWA relies on the generosity of donors for their continuous work. In particular they are in urgent need of volunteers who are willing to house these victims of shocking abuse, and in many cases, trafficking.

I would be happy to provide contact details of the charity and indeed respond to any questions/comments, please email me at [email protected] or follow me on Twitter/Instagram under FilEvent. Thank you
By Malcolm Conlan (As published in the 1st edition of Aura Magazine)