You have reached the main content

The Invisible Majority - Female Migrant Workers

On February 3, 2010

by Khara J Jabola-Carolus for

One of the last (two) countries where divorce is illegal and where the ruling Catholic elite maintains a staunch anti-reproductive rights stance, the island nation of the Philippines boasts a staggering population of 90 million people and (exponentially) counting. To better appreciate this figure, consider that the Philippines has nearly one third of the US population living in an area slightly bigger than Arizona.

According to the latest statistics compiled by the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (part of the Philippine Dept. of Labor and Employment), the agency responsible for facilitating the government’s aggressive export labor policy, ten percent of the Philippine population works abroad.

A fresh batch of 1.3 million citizens leave every year for employment overseas and a daily average of 3,377 workers pass through the country’s international airports to work abroad. Of the Filipino migrant workers who left in 2008, 51.1% were headed for the Middle East and there are 2.3 million Filipino migrant workers in the region (over 1 million in Saudi Arabia alone).

As the world’s largest exporter of women- 70% of migrant workers from the Philippines are women- the Philippines holds considerable bragging rights to the fact that women comprise the majority of the world's migrant workers (this according to an alphabet soup of UN agencies, grassroots organizations and state labor departments).

To be sure, male and female migrant workers are often subject to similar abuse and exploitation as economically displaced persons whose labor is considered disposable and replenishable; however, unlike their male counterparts, female migrant workers experience an entirely unique set of issues and are most vulnerable to abuses as a sex-linked class. Female migrants workers are more likely to find themselves isolated and ensconced within their employers’ homes because they make up the majority of household service workers in the Middle East - official figures indicate that 79% of household service workers and 85% of non-professional nurse caretakers deployed to the Middle East in 2008 from the Philippines were women - and housework is considered unalterably private.

When female domestic workers ready themselves for the daily treadmill of barbarously petty housework activities (there is no clear delineation of tasks), they live with the knowledge that rape and murder are occupational hazards. Indeed, female returnees recount stories of wearing three or four pairs of underwear at night and barricading themselves in their quarters with chairs jammed beneath their doorknobs.

Rape is not sex in the sense that a woman is attractive and a man can’t resist her. Elderly women and babies are raped. It’s about being a convenient victim and dominance. The domestic worker is the highest manifestation of “convenience”.

As activist Angela Davis wrote in describing the collective rape of Black women by their white American slavemasters: “Having already established their economic dominance over their female subordinates, employers may attempt to assert this authority in sexual terms”, especially in environments where employers are immune to prosecution and their authority unchallenged. There are no accurate figures on the rape of migrant workers but it is very common.

This culture of impunity importunes abusive employers to continue to mistreatment their domestic workers: some women are flogged, cut, shaved bald, and even beaten to death as punishment. Cases of abuse filed to the OWWA (Overseas Workers Welfare Association) rank in the hundreds of thousands each year yet the organization has been remiss in its handling of migrant workers’ concerns, refusing to subsidize the shipment of migrants’ murdered bodies home, ricocheting rape victims between one indifferent government agency to another, and acting complicit in the deliberate dissolution of the family as women are forced to raise other children and service other needs at the expense of their own (Awfully reminiscent of the state-implemented separation of Black women and their families in apartheid South Africa, no?).

The desperate situation is reflected in the high death toll and high rate of suicide among female migrant workers. In 2008 a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch reported, “Domestic workers are dying in Lebanon at a rate of more than one per week. All those involved – from the Lebanese authorities, to the workers’ embassies, to the employment agencies, to the employers – need to ask themselves what is driving these women to kill themselves or risk their lives trying to escape from high buildings.”

Despite all good intentions, organizations advocating migrant rights often share a common thread with the OWWA in that they, consciously or subconsciously, ask women to good-naturedly take the backseat to and “not inject gender into” a purportedly genderless overarching agenda. However, the lived reality, as discussed, is not gender neutral. Women’s rights are not the parenthetical, Other issue to be handled by a special caucus, but are an integral part of human rights.

To break women’s invisibility, we have to first realize that women are not being listened to or seen (Note: we are confronted only by photos of male migrant workers on the homepage of this website). We have to take some real, not rhetorical, actions in advocating the fact that the overwhelming majority (both statistically and anecdotally) of the most egregious abuses are perpetrated against female migrant workers. Let us take power out of its hiding place while bringing women’s voices and leadership to the forefront of the struggle against oppression.

One would be hard-pressed to find a Filipino who does not know of or (surprisingly often) in the personal, at least one Filipina co-worker, neighbor, relative, friend or partner who has been raped while working in the Middle East. I can count three whom I know personally: a family friend (impregnated by her rapist-employer while working as a domestic in Riyadh), a former colleague and telecommunications engineer (gang raped while working for a Nokia-Siemens subsidiary in Saudi Arabia) and Grace Vasquez.

This is Grace’s story, told in her own words.

“Sometime in April 2005, my father suffered a second stroke and was unable to work since then. I wanted to be able to work in Oman in order to care and provide for my parents as I did not want them to return to the Philippines. This prompted me to seek for any job placement for Oman. Sometime in May 2005, I read Jinhel International Recruitment Agency’s (hereinafter, “Jinhel”) Manila Bulletin advertisement for job placements in countries in the Middle East. I immediately placed a call in the telephone number contained in the ad.

After one week, I went to Jinhel’s office and paid P3,000.00 for my medical exam. I was assured of a job placement in Qatar so I decided to resign from my work as Guidance Counselor in Systems Plus Computer College in Caloocan City. I went L-R Medical & X-ray Clinic. I paid P2,730.00. Then Jinhel called in March 2006. I was told to prepare as I was sure to be sent for work in Qatar. I paid Jinhel Five Thousand Pesos (P5,000.00) to Haja Fatima as payment, she said, for her services.

Jinhel and I agreed on the following terms of my employment in Qatar: monthly salary of QD700; work is Executive Secretary; the first two months’ salary will go to Jinhel as it’s commission.

At the airport, inside the immigration area, we were asked to pay P1,500.00 each, unreceipted. We were previously advised by Nelia to prepare the said amount. One of the Immigration Staff said "arbor ko na silang tatlo" (Hand those three over to me) because we didn't have proper documents.

I arrived in Qatar on June 8, 2006. At the airport, I was met by Faruq, a Pakistani National who introduced himself to be from Al Waleed Agency – Jinhel’s Qatari counterpart agency. Faruq asked me to sign a contract with the following terms: monthly salary of QR600; work is to take care of a five-year-old child all day long with no day-off. I can't do anything just to accept the contract.

Mr. Faruq brought me to my employer, Dr. Abdul Aziz Al Jumiah (hereinafter, “Dr. Abdul Aziz”). I came to know that Dr. Abdul Aziz is a Saudi National and a surgeon at the Al-Ramelah Hamad Hospital. His wife, Dina, was then pregnant and they had a five-year-old son.

I worked from 5:00 in the morning until about 1:00 or 2:00 the next morning as I was not allowed to sleep while my employers’ child was up. And since the child was asleep most of the time during the day, he usually went to bed past midnight.

Sometime in June (after about 2 week-stay in Qatar), I called the Philippine Embassy and I was able to talk to one Mr. Jack. I told him about my situation but, in return, he coldly told me: ”Hindi pa naman grabe ang nangyayari sa yo. Tapusin mo na yang 2 years mo.” (What’s happening to you isn’t even that bad. Just finish your two years.) He also gave me Overseas Workers Welfare Administration’s (OWWA) telephone number.

In the last week of June, I called OWWA and talked to one Mr. Sam to whom I repeated my story. He told me: “Tumakas ka na kung ayaw mo na. Lumabas ka at sumakay sa taxi.” *Escape if you’ve had enough. Walk out and get in a taxi.)

Madam Dina brought me with her to her hometown Syria. Where I cleaned all the house of her parents and brother's house. I slept past 3 am and woke up at 6 am also.

We came back to Qatar in September.

On 14 September 2006, I was at the kitchen while Madam Dina was upstairs taking a bath, when Dr. Abdul Aziz arrived from the office. He suddenly embraced me and touched my breasts. I pushed him and told him that I would report to his wife. He just gave me a devil’s grin. When Madam Dina came down, I told her about what her husband did to me. But Madam Dina slapped me and blamed me for what had happened. And she shaved my head.

On the same day of September 14, 2006, Dr. Abdul Aziz asked for the key in my room. He ordered me not to lock my room from then on. I became so scared that I started to use the table in my room to block the door. I also kept a knife in my room.

On the third week of September, I again called OWWA. I told them about the harassment but I was given the same advice – to run away! I again requested that I be fetched or rescued but I was given the same answer – that OWWA does not rescue workers.

At around midnight on November 2, 2006, Madam Dina gave birth. He was brought to the hospital by Dr. Abdul Aziz. At about past 4:00 in the morning of November 3, 2006, I heard Dr. Abdul Aziz’s car arrive. I was then taking a shower. I got out of the bathroom. I just finished putting on my uniform when Dr. Abdul Aziz banged the door in my room. I was so shocked. Then Dr. Abdul Aziz immediately twisted my hands, laid me on the bed and tied my two hands on the bed using some cloth. He forcibly tore my clothes then raped me.

I pleaded and begged him not to do it. It hurt. After he raped me, he untied me. Then I saw that I was bleeding. I was so weak and almost went blank. I thought of the knife but I could not think or move. After what he did, I even saw him pray the Muslim prayer. Then I heard his car leave. I checked if he left any door unlocked. All doors/gates were locked. I was still bleeding.

At about 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning, I saw the window in my comfort room. I jumped out of that window. Luckily, Lorna (a fellow domestic worker) was then working in our neighbor’s garden. She told me to look for chairs I can step on. As I was jumping to our neighbor’s garden, Lorna saw that I was bleeding. Lorna let me out of her employer’s yard through their gate. But there were guards and so Lorna hid me behind a tree. We had to wait until the next prayer time at 11:00 in the morning. When she saw the guards entered their prayer house, Lorna advised me to run.

I hailed the taxi. I saw that it had passengers but I later learned that the taxi driver, a Filipino, saw me bleeding and so he stopped the taxi. From the taxi, the driver placed call to the Philippine Embassy.

When we arrived at the embassy, there was a party which I later learned was a party for Connie Sison and TJ Manotoc for their Kwentong Disyerto. There were media people at the embassy. The driver called Mr. Sam to inform him that we were already outside the embassy. Mr. Sam got out and even saw the blood on my body. He did not invite us in. He just told the driver to proceed and take me to OWWA. The driver even repeated that I was bleeding but Mr. Sam insisted that I be taken to OWWA.

When we got to OWWA, there was an ongoing ballroom dancing. We were asked who we were looking for. The taxi driver was making a call to Mr. Sam in order to ask who we would look for but he was not yet responding. We waited for two hours.

After two hours (or about 9:00 at night of November 3, 2006), one Sir Levi arrived at the OWWA from the embassy. He led me to a quarter that they call “shelter” inside the OWWA. I saw many (about 30) Filipino women inside the quarter .

On the night of November 3, Connie Sison’s group also proceeded to OWWA from the embassy. Sir Levi told the leader to hide those who needed to be hid including myself because I did not look good and I was hysterical. Out of the 30 plus women, only 15 were presented to Connie Sison’s group. I later learned that they were introduced as Filipinos studying computer inside the OWWA. I stayed in OWWA the whole day of November 4, 2006. We were fed “lugaw" (water mixed with rice). No one counseled me. I was not checked up or brought to the hospital.

On the night of November 4, 2006, Ma’am Ferida without first talking to me or asking me, called my employer. At about 8:00 in the morning the following day, my employer came. He was first attended to by Sir Levi. He was asked if I was his employee. They were later joined by Ma’am Ferida. They then invited me to sit down with them inside Ma’am Ferida and Sir Levi’s office. The door of the office was left open. Ma'am Flerida talked to me and told me "wag ka na magreklamo anyway may asawa ka naman na, wala naman nawala sayo" )Don’t make a complaint [because] you already have a husband, you have nothing to lose.)

I was angry at the sight of my employer-rapist. But I could not do anything because Ma’am Ferida and Sir Levi facilitated the negotiation. I was asked not to file charges against my employer. In return, my employer would give me my five months salary, a plane ticket to the Philippines as well as return my personal belongings that I left at their house when I escaped. I was made to write and sign a waiver which I worded as follows: “I will not file charges against my employer, the rape case, although it happened.”

In the morning of November 6, Sir Levi called me and gave me a plane ticket. I asked him about my personal belongings and the agreed five months salary that my employer would return. He said my employer only gave the ticket. I insisted, at the very least, on my things, but he said “Mamili ka. Uuwi ka or made-deport ka? Basta’s kailangan ko ng sagot mo hanggang 3:00 dahil alis tayo ng 3:30.” (Buy (new) things. Will you go home or will you have to be deported? Either way, I need an answer by 3:00 otherwise we’re leaving at 3:30.) I cried and demanded for my things but he said ”Wala akong magagawa.” (There’s nothing I can do.) I had no choice but to agree.

Sir Levi and I left OWWA for the airport at 3:30 in the afternoon. But before leaving, I got my mobile phone that was earlier confiscated by Ma’am Ferida. I was penniless. I was not even given any money for snacks or any emergency.

At about 6:00 p.m., I boarded the plane for the Philippines. I arrived in the Philippines in November 7, 2006 where I was brought o the hospital by my family. Not one from OWWA of the Department of Foreign Affairs assisted me in the Philippines.

When I arrived at the airport in Manila only my husband was there to receive me. My relatives took me to the hospital where I live in Batangas.* There was local press at the hospital that picked up what had happened to me.

I had to go to therapy for almost a year because I was in shock.

I’ve been waiting for the response of the government but until now there’s been absolutely no help.

It’s still not over.”
Grace with her daughter a year after returning to the Philippines.

On the right: Grace with her father before going to Qatar.