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‘I Want To Go Home’: Pandemic Exposes Exploitative Conditions Filipina Domestic Workers Face

Nearly three million Filipina women work abroad as migrant domestic workers, where they are paid low wages to clean homes, cook meals and care for comparatively wealthy families — under often exploitative conditions.

A year into a global pandemic, thousands were stranded with even fewer options to flee exploitation.

This story with the Guardian focused on Rowena, a 54-year-old Filipina domestic worker in Bahrain. She is one of more than a dozen Filipina women across Asia, Europe and the Middle East interviewed by Fuller Project reporter Corinne Redfern over nine months in 2020. Most of the women had lost jobs or had salaries cut by their employers during the pandemic. Others had found themselves subjected to physical abuse. 

In April, Rowena’s boss said that due to the pandemic, he could no longer pay her monthly salary of $333. Instead, he said, he would provide her and the three other women he employed with $27 for food every two weeks, to be split between them. Rowena was due to leave Bahrain that month and return to the Philippines. But a few weeks later, her flight out of the country was canceled, and she found herself trapped. In September, her employer stopped giving the women their food allowance, leaving them with nothing. Rowena started working odd jobs around the neighborhood to earn enough money to eat. 

In May, Rowena applied for a one-off sum of $208 in financial support from the Philippines Department of Labor and Employment. In early  December, she received 75BHD ($204), seven months after she first applied for aid. She repeatedly told Redfern that she only wanted to go home, but the cheapest ticket from Manama to Manila costs more than twice as much as her aid check. 

Redfern’s story was also featured in the Guardian’s Today in Focus podcast. Dozens of readers and listeners asked how they could support Rowena, and many offered to pay for her flight home. The Philippine Embassy in Bahrain intervened, and helped Rowena leave her employer. Embassy staff moved Rowena and the other two women to the embassy, where they were given food and shelter until flights home could be arranged. 

The Philippine Ambassador to Bahrain confirmed that they recovered unpaid wages from Rowena’s employer, and that our reporting “brought to light” Rowena’s circumstances and “paved the way” for the Embassy to intervene. Rowena was repatriated to the Philippines on March 5.

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