There are now 53 million domestic workers worldwide. In the Philippines, where 25% of the country lives under the poverty line the lure of a job abroad has pulled more than 10 million people out of their homes and scattered them across the world. Yet moving abroad to find work as a domestic worker is a calculated risk that millions of women take every year. Some women simply vanish; others turn out to be “mysterious deaths”, their bodies coming back mutilated or with signs of poisoning or stab wounds, recorded as suicides or heart attacks. “They would like you to believe that these women are always hanging themselves or throwing themselves off high buildings,” says Laorence Castillo, a caseworker at Migrante International, a small Filipino NGO that helps domestic workers and their families. When women die or go missing, there is rarely an investigation, he says. “Everyone is happy to let these women go abroad and keep the economy going, but aren’t happy to fight for them when things go wrong.”
Official remittances sent back to the Philippines by overseas workers now top $26bn, or nearly 15% of the country’s GDP. Domestic workers wield serious economic clout. Collectively, they account for 4% of total global employment and nearly 8% of total female employment. There are 1.5 million domestic workers in Saudi Arabia alone, and recruitment agencies fly in 40,000 women a month to keep up with demand. Muslim women from the Philippines are considered the highest calibre of workers in many richer households.
According to the United Nation’s International Labour Organisation, domestic workers are some of the most likely to face abuse and exploitation in their place of work. In the Gulf, the International Trade Union Confederation says that 2.4 million domestic workers are facing conditions of slavery. Rothna Begum of Human Rights Watch says that “in many houses these women have absolutely no status – they have been bought”. The many Filipino women who go to the oil-rich countries of the Gulf work under the kafala sponsorship system, which legally ties migrant workers to their employers. To get a work visa, these women are sponsored by families, and are then not permitted to leave their jobs or the country without their employer’s permission. If they run away, they become “absconding workers” and can be fined or thrown in jail. There is also little they can do if their employers decide not pay them. The International Domestic Workers Federation estimates that families save $8bn (£5.1bn) a year by withholding wages from their domestic workers. “With kafala and other legal systems around the world that give no labour rights to migrant women, you are giving almost total impunity to employers to treat these women however they like,” Begum says.“It’s startling what cruelty can emerge when one person has complete control over another.”
The Philippine government is considered one of the most progressive and proactive when it comes to fighting for justice for overseas domestic workers. It demands the highest minimum wage, of $400 a month, for its domestic workers abroad. “So if you think of the situation for women in the Philippines is bad,” Begum says, “it’s much worse for those travelling from places like Sierra Leone, Kenya or Bangladesh.” She says. “At least the Philippines’ embassies provide shelter for women who are trying to escape exploitation and abuse. These other women are absolutely on their own.” The Filipino department of foreign affairs, the government provided assistance to 20,939 overseas workers and their families in 2014. “The Philippine embassies concerned are extending all necessary and appropriate consular and legal assistance to these overseas foreign workers,” he says. However, the reality is that the inequality between migrant worker and employer is often mirrored by the relationship between poorer labour-sending countries and rich and powerful “host” governments. When things go wrong, those governments that rely on the remittances sent back by migrant workers can be slow to demand justice.
Marina Sarno explains that her hard her life in the Philippines will never compare with the hardships she experienced abroad. Marina’s recruitment agency sent her to the UAE. As soon as she arrived at her new employer’s house, she knew she was in trouble. Her passport and phone were taken away and she wasn’t allowed to contact her family. “My employer was like a lion with no mercy,” she says. Marina says she was forced to work 22 hours a day without rest. She woke at 4am to start cleaning the family’s fleet of cars and worked through to 2am the following morning. “I had no time off, no time to rest ever. Even when I was trying to eat, she would be calling me: ‘You are not here to rest. I paid a lot of money for you.’ To her, I was a slave. I was not a human.”
After a month of working constantly on two hours sleep and little food, Marina’s health was deteriorating fast. She lost sensation in the right half of her body and couldn’t use her hands. “I was so tired it felt like I couldn’t control my brain. After a few weeks I was in so much pain, I couldn’t walk or lift anything. I didn’t know if my children were OK. I felt so alone.” But if Marina left, under the UAE’s kafala system, she would become an absconding worker. Marina told her agency that she was being mistreated, but they said she had to stay until the end of her contract. “They said, ‘Your madam has paid good money for you.’ This is when I knew my agency wouldn’t help me.” After failing to get any help from her agency or government departments, Migrante International helped Joseph file a repatriation request. When Marina’s employer found out, she was enraged. “She said, ‘You can’t go back to the Philippines because I paid money for you,’” Marina says. She claims her employer threatened to get her sent to jail, or kill her, and screamed that she would dump her in the desert. “She told me, ‘If I killed you, nobody would care and nobody would find you.’ I said, ‘Madam, if you want to kill me, go ahead.’” The husband of the house then threatened to beat her with a baton, and locked her in a prayer room for three days and nights with no food or water. The room was boiling hot and she drank water from the toilet. Marina’s lips peeled away and her skin became loose. She felt pain all over her body. When the family went out, she managed to climb out of a window into the kitchen, where she wrote an SOS on a piece of paper. To get the note over the wall of her employer’s compound, she made a hole in a potato and threw it over, where it was found by an Indonesian domestic worker. The note was passed to Migrante, which went to the Philippine embassy and Marina’s agency, and she was rescued. But even then, Marina says, the agency tried to make her sign a form promising she wouldn’t sue them or her employer.
She says that she would now rather face poverty at home than risk life as a domestic worker again. “I would just say to anyone who is thinking of going to work abroad, don’t trust anyone,” she says. “They will kill you and nobody will do anything to help.”