What will it take to protect Filipino domestic workers from abuse and exploitation in the Middle East?

There are at least 67 million domestic workers worldwide, most of them women, and nearly all of them from poor or economically disadvantaged backgrounds. A lack of work at home means that every year approximately one-fifth of all domestic workers migrate abroad, particularly to the Gulf region, where they are vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, forced labour and violence.

The Philippines is one of the world’s top four sending countries of migrant domestic workers, along with Uganda, Kenya and Indonesia. An average of 86,000 Filipinos migrated abroad for jobs as household service workers every year between 1992 and 2015.

Sheila Mabunga was one of them. The 37-year-old single mother left her 13-year-old daughter in Oriental Mindoro in southern Philippines to find a job in the capital city of Manila. But on the train there, she was given a flyer about job openings in Saudi Arabia advertised by a local recruitment agency. She applied for a job as cook.

“I was desperate,” Sheila tells Equal Times. “My mother was sick and selling cooked meals back home did not earn me enough money to buy her medicines or send my child to school.”

Sheila arrived in the Saudi capital of Riyadh in August 2014 where she was met by a different employer (or kafeel, which specifically describes the individual or company that sponsors a migrant’s employment visa and work permit) to the one indicated on her job contract. It was then that she found out that she would be working as a house help.

“It was such hard work. I endured physical abuse and humiliation,” she says. Every day, Sheila had to walk up and down 80 steps to clean the three-storey mansion in Riyadh where she worked and attend to her employer’s four children aged five to 16.

The abuse began on Sheila’s second day of work when her employer’s wife hit her around the head with the shower because the youngest child, who was still getting used to Sheila, refused to take a bath and started crying.

From then on, things just got worse. Sheila’s workday began at 05.00 and she was not allowed to eat until 16.00. “I would wait for the leftovers of the couple to snatch a few bites but they would tell me to feed their cats instead,” she recalls tearfully.

Although she is a Roman Catholic, Sheila used to join her employers at the mosque. “I would call on their God, Allah, to save me. To allow me to go home to my family once more and end my suffering,” she says.

After one horrific year in Saudi Arabia Sheila’s prayers were answered; she managed to return home thanks to the assistance of the Center for Migrant Advocacy (CMA), a Manila-based NGO working to protect the rights of migrant workers, but her story is far from unique.

Death sentence

One in every five Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) is a domestic worker. That’s an estimated 2.067 million, mostly women, out of 10 million people. And every year many of them suffer from terrible, even fatal, abuse.

Sonny Matula, president of Federation of Free Workers, the oldest general trade union in the Philippines, says it is difficult to obtain accurate data on the number of migrant workers that suffer from abuse while working abroad.

“However, we have reports from our foreign service that more than 90 per cent of all the problems involving Filipino migrant workers in Middle East concern household service workers,” Matula tells Equal Times.

One of the most notorious examples is the case of Jennifer Dalquez, a 30-year-old domestic worker and mother-of-two who has been sentenced to death by the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for murder.

Dalquez says her employer attempted to rape her at knifepoint on 14 December 2014 and that she accidently stabbed him in self-defence. The case has caused international outrage: during the trial Dalquez was not allowed to claim self-defence, nor was the long history of abuse that she suffered at the hands of her employer taken into account.

“My daughter is a good person. She went to work abroad because she could not bear to see her children go hungry,” her mother Rajima said in a telephone interview. “We just want to see her come home.”

A group of United Nations human rights experts recently called on the government of UAE to quash Dalquez’s conviction, saying the trial failed to reach international standards.

“Discriminatory treatment by criminal courts, in particular of migrant women who are not provided with interpretation services and quality legal aid, leads to disproportionately severe sentences and seems to be a persistent problem in the United Arab Emirates,” they noted.

Between 10 and 16 April 2017, the Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte visited Saudi, Qatar and Bahrain where he called on Arab leaders to strengthen the protection and welfare of OFWs in the region, particularly domestic workers. The Philippine government also offered to pay a diya, or blood money, to the relatives of Dalquez’s employer in order to secure her freedom. The offer is still being negotiated.

Stricter protections

With 760,000 OFWs – down by half from a one-time high of 1.5 million a few years back – Saudi Arabia is home to the largest number of Filipino migrant workers in the Middle East.

The Philippine government banned the deployment of domestic workers to Saudi Arabia between 2011 and 2012 due to the rising number of abuse cases.

The ban was lifted after a bilateral agreement on the recruitment of domestic workers was signed between Saudi Arabia and the Philippines on May 2013. As a result, the number of domestic workers deployed to Saudi Arabia sharply increased from 42,440 in 2013 to 71,316 in 2014. In 2015, the figure was 68,005.

But according to Lito Soriano, who helped create a new office to help OFWs (the Presidential Assistant for Overseas Filipinos) the bilateral agreement with Saudi Arabia has “created an oppressive environment for domestic workers” since there is so much money to be made by Saudi and Filipino recruiters.

“Volume and speed is now the name of the game,” he says. Prior to the agreement, domestic workers had to pay placement fees but now it is the employers who have to pay huge amounts ranging from US$3,000 to US$5,000. Meanwhile, the average domestic worker salary remains between US$200 and US$500 a month; sometimes domestic workers get paid even less as employers seek to self-compensate recruitment fees through illegal salary deductions or total non-payment.

In the first half of 2015 alone, the Philippine Congress logged 358 cases of migrant Filipino workers in prison, detention centres, under house arrest, or with pending criminal cases.

As Professor Philip Alston, the current United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said in his 2017 report on Saudi Arabia : “The many bilateral agreements between Saudi Arabia and sending countries containing labour protections for female domestic workers cannot make up for the domestic enforcement gap.”

In 2013, for example, the Saudi government adopted new regulations to protect domestic workers, but Alston highlights the “chronic lack of enforcement” which allows for the proliferation of abuse, particularly trafficking. Some domestic workers are transferred or sold from one kafeel to another if the original employer cannot afford to pay back the recruitment fee but this is done illegally, without the transfer of the original employment visa, which makes it difficult to track workers once they have been moved from their original placement.

Limited deployment? Easier said than done

In May, the Philippine labour secretary Silvestre Bello III announced that the government might soon limit the deployment of Filipino domestic workers to the Gulf region.

“I receive a lot of concerns and complaints from our Filipino household workers in the Middle East. This is why I am seriously considering, if not to suspend, to decrease the number of deployment of domestic helpers, OFWs, and skilled workers, especially in the Middle East,” Bello said at a press conference in Manila on 9 May 2017.

But this is easier said than done. The financial contribution of OFWs is significant. Cash remittances of Filipinos abroad hit a record US$26.9 billion in 2016, up 5 per cent from $25.61 billion in 2015.

However, working abroad is not always a ticket to a better life, says Hans Cacdac, administrator of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), an agency of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE).

“The tragic side of overseas employment is that there is a breakdown in the recruitment process,” Cacdac tells Equal Times. Prior to our interview, Cacdac received 23 distressed domestic workers from Kuwait and one from Dubai who arrived at 03.00 in the morning. Most of them have harrowing stories to tell, he said.

Cacdac was with Secretary Bello II in Saudi Arabia last August to facilitate the repatriation of displaced workers. Cacdac recalls visiting Irma Edloy, a 35-year-old domestic worker who fell into a coma after she was violently assaulted and raped by her employer.

“Irma died few hours after our visit to the hospital,” Cacdac says, visibly upset.

He also mentions the case of Amy Capulong Santiago, who died in Kuwait on 25 January after allegedly being beaten to death by her employer.

The deaths of these two women, who were both mothers, could have been prevented with proper monitoring of worker conditions by recruiters, Cacdac says. But while such measures are already in place they are seldom implemented.

Ethical recruitment

As a result, the Philippine government is planning to institute even more measures to protect its migrant domestic workers. As well as pushing for ethical recruitment practices – which should start with recruiters preparing workers physically, emotionally and culturally for their assignments, according to some observers – the government has also created a new office, the Presidential Assistant for Overseas Filipinos, to map OFWs, address their concerns and help formulate protection measures.

In 2013, the Philippines passed the Kasambahay (domestic worker) Law as part of its commitment to implement the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) historic Convention 189 on the recognition of domestic work, and the protection of domestic workers.

Marieke Koning, a policy advisor at the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), commends this pioneering achievement by the Philippines and urges the country to take a more prominent role in cooperating with other Asian and African departure countries to convince Arab host nations to extend their labour laws to migrant domestic workers.

The Philippines has recently concluded several new bilateral agreements with Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Labour agreements have also been signed with the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar but these do not cover domestic workers. In addition, the Philippines is currently finalising an agreement with Lebanon – a country where an estimated two domestic workers die every day – and is in negotiation with Bahrain and Oman.

Worryingly, however, new trafficking routes are opening up to OFWs in Iraqi Kurdistan. Elmer Cato, the Philippine Charges des Affaires to Iraq, says that in the last two years, the number of Filipino workers in Iraq has doubled to 4,000.

Although some go voluntarily, many of the women are trafficked under false promises of finding decent work in other parts of the Middle East, and some are even forced into sex work.

Later this year, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia will pilot a new database mechanism to profile recruiters, both at home and abroad. “The database will guide workers on the blacklisted recruiters and guide them on how to protect their rights,” says Cacdac.

In addition, Saudi Arabia has started to give domestic workers a free SIM card, although these are often confiscated by kafeels. The Ministry of Labour and Social Development also told Alston that a migrant workers’ helpline had been set up and received 165,095 complaints from domestic workers.

On the home front, the Philippine government’s US$40 million reintegration program for repatriated domestic workers has already benefitted 3,000 distressed workers with start-up funds ranging from 10,000 pesos to 200,000 pesos (US$200 to US$4,000), and loans of up to 1.8 million pesos (approximately US$36,000)

But one important step in the protection of domestic workers is educating people everywhere about the value of domestic work, the rights domestic workers should enjoy and the vital role they play in making all other types of work possible.

“Governments need to pro-actively promote positive public perceptions of migrant domestic workers and raise awareness of the positive social and economic contributions of domestic workers, while combating discriminatory attitudes and gaps in rights and protections – in law and in practice,” says Koning. However, this promises to be one of the greatest challenges.