No Bed of Roses for Filipino Women Workers Abroad

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Foreign domestic work is one of the most important sources of employment for Filipino women as changing labor markets resulting to globalization have added opportunities for women to leave home.

Of the latest estimated 2.3 million Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) (those with existing work contracts), 55.8 percent or 1,283,400 are females. Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) contributes about 2.3 percent or 52,900 female OFWs.

Economic security is the major concern of women who wish to work overseas, seeking to earn a decent income that can support needs of their families and in the process, sacrificing being away from families even for long time and willing to forego the oft-repeated wish of any wanderer, “home is where the heart is.”

But for all Filipino women domestic workers in foreign lands, whether coming from CAR, nearby regions or faraway regions as well, no beds of roses await them at the workplace.

While working abroad enhances women’s earnings, it, on the other hand, exposes them to severe challenges, most serious however, is violation of their human rights.

From start of recruitment, Filipino women workers need to overcome vexing requirements by recruiters and when already in another country, face prospect of being vulnerable to all forms of gender-based discrimination.

Extreme degradation, humiliation, verbal abuse, rampant sexual harassment, rape, physical abuse and death plague Filipino women overseas workers. Most of the crimes are imputed to their employers.

The latest tragedy occurred when Jeanelyn Padernal Villavende was beaten to death in December 2019 purportedly by her employer. She was already lifeless when brought to the hospital and nurses who attended to her wrote in their reports her body bore contusions marked by “black and blue.”

Villavende’s fate was the overriding reason why the Philippine government imposed a partial deployment ban to Kuwait.

In 2018, President Rodrigo Duterte banned deployment of OFWs to Kuwait following death of Joanna Demafelis, whose body was found in a freezer. Since 2016, 196 Filipino workers died in Kuwait.

Both bans imposed seek to find an answer to a troubling question: do the benefit of allowing Filipino women to work abroad as domestic helpers outweigh the costs?

Given the current employment situation in CAR and elsewhere in the Philippines, many would say yes.

Analysts and authorities, of course, challenge this assumption, President Duterte being the first when he imposed the 2018 ban.

When President Duterte imposed it, his leadership brinkmanship took into consideration, among others, whether the benefits are only illusions that hid the real costs of misery of Filipino women labor.

In the Middle East which imposes strict policies on women as a matter of custom and tradition, the Filipino women workers’ situation is damnable.  They are often the objects of sexual desire and abuses of the nationals.

It does not “seem,” but in reality a sad fact that sexual harassment is a cross Filipino women workers abroad have to bear in their workplaces.

If seen in the eyes of Filipino society with its patriarchal values, it’s often the women who get the blame if they succumb to sexual coercion. Prospect of humiliation, loss of their job, plus despair that their case would even get justice, have   discouraged a lot from making a formal complaint.

Aside from sexual harassment, personal interviews conducted by Daily Laborer, Ah Kong, with Cordillera and lowlander women who became OFWs but returned home never to go back, revealed cases of hazardous conditions, which included wage discrimination, ill-treatment or contract substitution by employers and other offenses degrading to Filipino womanhood and to workers in general.

Amelia Estabillo, former domestic worker from La Union but now residing in La Trinidad, Benguet, having married a highlander, said she and her former domestic worker friends   have encountered the “your body or your job, “attitude of employers when they were abroad and still unmarried, reason why after finishing their contracts, they came back to CAR and Region 1 and stayed home for good.

That, in addition to the health hazards and physical rigour or severity attendant to their work.

One former OFW from CAR, having worked places in Asia and Middle East, Carmen Lumbina, recounted, “Employers scolded or shouted at us at the slightest mistake and I have known of many OFW friends who were given left-over food and forced to work even when they were not feeling well.”

Contract substitution is a serious complaint. Before leaving the Philippines, overseas workers sign a written contract of agreement with employers, detailing forth job description, working hours, definite wages or pay ranges including other terms and conditions.

Another former OFW, Meredith Obinto, Cordilleran lady, explained that sometimes, upon reaching their destinations, many of her co-OFW compatriots, especially the domestics, were obliged to sign another contract with disadvantageous provisions different from those stated in the original contract.

Hence, it was not surprising that someone originally hired as a baby sitter, for instance, would be working as an all-around housemaid. “Because of maltreatment, we feel the loneliness and homesickness for the family, eventually affecting our health, emotionally, psychologically and physiologically, “Obinto explained in good English.

Or, sometimes, nothing is said of the load of chores the Filipina house help may have to face. “It can even mean doing all the household chores from cooking to washing cars, serving not just a family but as many as ten or more if one has the misfortune of working in an extended family household,” Obinto said.

Many may not be aware that foreign employers often prefer Filipino women, regarded as “prized” help because of their proficiency in speaking English, when compared with other women domestic workers from other nationalities.

Another former OFW, Constancia Alkuwis, a highlander who’s now engaged in production and lucrative selling of oyster, shitaki and milky white mushrooms, said while many of her OFW friends returned to work abroad, others also returned home in desperation and at great financial loss.

Alkuwis lamented those friends that returned home found out they were not covered by local laws in place of work, suffered maltreatment and contract violation and could only turn to their agents, the Philippine embassies or welfare associations, so those friends packed up and came home.

As for Ms Alkuwis, when she came home, she decided she can earn profitably by not being an OFW anymore. She became a mushroom entrepreneur, passionate about growing of mushrooms and earning profitably.

Another big problem being faced by OFWs is confiscation by employers of passports of the women to prevent them from transferring to other employers, forcing them to finish their contracts but receiving lower wages compared with other nationalities doing the same jobs.

Outside of these anomalies and abuses, however, many of the women interviewed expressed satisfaction with their working and living conditions.

Beverly Cuttermas, residing at Dizon Subdivision barangay, Baguio City and OFW-nurse working in the Middle East summed it up for all Filipino women workers who go abroad, “Do you think we like to leave our families? No!  But we are determined to face whatever consequences, to meet these difficulties for the sake of family, particularly the children who to have to be provided with education. If only we have the opportunity in our country . . .”

“Saan me met kayat nga panawan pamilya mi, nu mabalbalin kuma,” Beverly passionately stressed.

Experiences of the Filipino women workers interviewed only show the serious challenges confronting Philippine government today on employment: that there are just too many people competing for the relatively few jobs available.

On the other hand, it shows the breadth and depth of Filipino women working abroad as a telling commentary on economic life prevailing among many Filipino families.

In the 1980s, when economies of the Newly Industrialized Countries boomed (NIC) and experienced labor shortage, the development fueled growth of overseas employment of Filipinos and made overseas work a top dollar industry and pillar of the national economy. That started the women migration influx.

Still, and above all, it is indisputably right that Philippine government and President Duterte implement deployment bans when needed, to protect Filipino migrant workers. For that is primarily the intent and declaration of the government and its various laws. —Bony A. Bengwayan