Every morning, Rowena wakes early on the pile of blankets where she sleeps, curled up against a desk in the corner of the office she used to clean. It’s not yet 7am, but if her manager catches her alone in her pyjamas, he’ll try to grope and stroke her, as he’s tried to do several times a week for the past six months.
Rowena, who is 54 and asked to be identified only by her first name, left the Philippines for Bahrain in April 2019. After she had been in the Gulf country for a year, her boss told her that due to the pandemic, he could no longer pay her monthly salary of 120 Bahraini dinar (£240). Instead, he would provide her and the three other migrant domestic workers he employed with 10 Bahraini dinar (or £20) for food every fortnight, to be split between four.
The same month, Rowena’s flight out of the country was cancelled, and she found herself trapped. In September, her employer stopped giving the women their food allowance too, leaving them with nothing.
Rowena and her housemates are not alone: the pandemic has left domestic workers like them further exposed to exploitative working conditions and abuse. The Guardian has interviewed more than a dozen Filipina women across Asia, Europe and the Middle East since April. Most have lost jobs or had salaries cut by their employers since the start of this year. Others have also found themselves suddenly subjected to physical abuse.
As Covid started to spread worldwide, the Philippine government organised repatriation flights from Manama to Manila. But Rowena didn’t know about them. In July, three months after her boss first stopped paying her, she wrote on the Philippine government’s Overseas Foreign Workers Help Office’s public Facebook page to ask for help, along with dozens of other Filipina women and men stranded abroad. She also applied for financial support from the Philippine Department of Labor and Employment. Months passed by, but no one replied.
“I don’t want to make trouble,” she says via a call over Facebook Messenger. “I want to go home.”
Government: Nearly one out of every four migrant domestic workers are Filipina
The Philippines government says that approximately one third of its 10 million citizens overseas are women working in “elementary” jobs — a term widely interpreted as referring to domestic workers like Rowena who are paid low wages to clean homes, and cook meals and care for wealthy families under often horrendous conditions. Human Rights Watch has long described migrant domestic workers, thousands of miles away from home and hidden out of sight in strangers’ houses, as one of the world’s most vulnerable demographics. Now, nearly a year into a global pandemic, thousands of Filipina women are stranded with even fewer options to flee exploitation.
According to the International Labor Organisation, there are 11.5 million migrant domestic workers worldwide. By the Philippine government’s own estimate, approximately one in four is a Filipina woman. International advocacy organisations believe the number would likely be higher if those who are undocumented were taken into account.
Together, the women form a scattered community, the majority spread across the Middle East and East Asia, followed by Europe and the United States. Recruited by international agencies who favour English-speaking nannies and cleaners, the women are charged exorbitant fees to find work overseas. For the 60% of Filipina women who work in the Middle East, they’re also subject to the “kafala” system, which generally binds a migrant worker to their employer, resulting in the confiscation of their passports until their contracts come to an end.
Maria, 43, is a single mother from the Philippines who has been working in Hong Kong since 2019. In August, her employer lost her temper after Maria (who agreed to speak on the condition of her anonymity) didn’t cook a bell pepper for the family’s baby. “She slapped me on my face, on the right side of my face with her hand, and beat me on [my] bottom [ I think] around three or four times,” she says. “I felt that I was unworthy for her.”
In Singapore, Robina Navato hears similar stories daily. A domestic worker for almost 25 years, she also volunteers for the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), counseling her peers across the city on their rights. At the start of the outbreak, she received calls late into the night from Filipina domestic workers trying to leave their abusive employers. “I told them that the shelter is packed with people already and we cannot accept [them],” she remembers. “So if you can hold on, for like another month, and then run away after that?”
Researcher: ‘They’re really pushed to the brink of destitution’
The UK issues approximately 23,000 visas to foreign domestic workers every year, half of whom come from the Philippines, according to reports. British laws enabled their abuse before the pandemic, migrant rights advocates say. But research shows illegal, exploitative working conditions have multiplied in recent months. “They don’t have any access to public funds, or furlough schemes or anything like that. From the perspective of the state, they just don’t exist,” says Dr Ella Parry-Davies, a postdoctoral fellow at the British Academy researching the lives of Filipina domestic workers in Lebanon and the UK. “They’re really pushed to the brink of destitution.”
In the first two months of the coronavirus outbreak, more than half of the Filipino migrant workers surveyed in the UK had lost their jobs, according to a report compiled in June by Dr Parry-Davies and the Kanlungan Filipino Consortium—a London-based consortium of grassroots organisations advocating for Filipino migrants’ rights. Others saw their wages drop to less than £2 per hour, less than a quarter of the UK’s statutory minimum wage. Of those who were infected by the coronavirus, one in four were too scared to ask the NHS for help in case it affected their immigration status in the future.
“They’ve got no support whatsoever,” says Dr Parry-Davies, adding that the Filipina women, who clean, nanny and take care of disabled or elderly people, are essentially key workers. “They’re just completely abandoned by the nation.”
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In 2014, Mimi (who asked to go by a different name to avoid jeopardising her safety) arrived in West London, brought over to the UK by a European family she’d previously worked for in Hong Kong. Today, she works from 8am until 8pm, Monday to Friday, taking care of two children under the age of 10, earning approximately £5 per hour. After finishing her day’s duties, the 52-year-old often crosses High Street Kensington and cleans a neighbour’s house from 8:30pm until one or two in the morning. Then she walks for 30 minutes back to the boarding house she shares with four other Filipina women. Her monthly rent is almost half her salary.
“When I am working in the wee hours I am crying, and I am saying, ‘Why am I doing this?’” she says over the phone, late one Friday night. “I know I am being abused. But I cannot complain.”
As the country moves in and out of COVID-19 lockdowns, her employers have insisted she continue working, coaching her on what to say to the police if she’s stopped on the street. Their demands have also increased: she has to disinfect the house from top to bottom, clean their three toilets every day and sanitise the kitchen. But although Mimi fears for her safety, she can’t afford to quit.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte says his administration is helping Filipino citizens stranded overseas, but such support is limited. In April, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) released a one-off grant of up to 10,000 Philippine pesos (£156) for displaced foreign workers, and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has repatriated 277,320 Filipino citizens from countries including Lebanon, Turkey and Bahrain since February.
Risk of deportation looms for foreign domestic workers in UK
Each of the women The Guardian spoke to sends the majority of her disposable income back to the Philippines.
Filipina migrant workers wire back more than £26 billion to support their families every year, accounting for 8.8% of the Philippines’ total GDP, according to the World Bank. Since the start of the year, unemployment in the Philippines has doubled and the pressure to send money home is greater than ever. Without Mimi’s income, her 19-year-old daughter won’t be able to finish her civil engineering degree. “There’s nothing left for me,” Mimi says. “I’m working here with no [money] for myself, just for my family.”
Even if Mimi did decide to hand in her notice, she would risk deportation. Until 2012, an “Overseas Domestic Worker Visa” allowed Filipina women to quit their jobs and find a new employer within the UK without it affecting their immigration status. “But when [Prime Minister David] Cameron and the Conservatives were in power, they removed the rights of the domestic workers to change their employers,” says Phoebe Dimacali, who heads up the Filipino Domestic Workers Association UK, a volunteer organisation of more than 80 women from the Philippines in the United Kingdom. “Once they leave their employers they will automatically become undocumented.”
In 2020, foreign domestic workers can legally change employers in the UK within the first six months of their arrival. After six months, the only way they can stay in the country is if he or she can prove they have been trafficked. “The reason why that is a problematic response is because we have lots of people that come to see us who have been exploited but haven’t been trafficked,” says Avril Sharp, legal policy and campaigns officer at Kalayaan, a London-based non-governmental organisation advocating for migrant domestic workers’ rights. “But they may well be trafficked later in the future, because their visa—if it hasn’t already—will expire, and then they will lose a lot of … the basic fundamental rights that will keep them safe in the UK.”
Many of the women who say they have been trafficked are not allowed to work and have to survive on the national asylum support allowance of £39.60 per week until their visa application is processed, which can take up to three years.
Human rights campaigners, along with Labour MP for Birmingham, Yardley Jess Phillips, are urgently calling for 2012’s Overseas Domestic Worker Visa to be reinstated during the pandemic, and to allow thousands of women the right to escape abusive working conditions. “They’re not being fed, they sleep on the floor, they’re not being given the right amount of wages that they need,” says Dimicali. “Nobody knows what is happening inside these big houses in Knightsbridge, inside these big houses in Kensington, in these very wealthy places in London.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are committed to protecting migrant domestic workers from exploitation and have already made a number of changes to better protect workers. This includes allowing workers to switch to a different employer and explaining how to raise concerns. We are also proud to provide world-leading support for victims of modern slavery so they can rebuild their lives, including by providing accommodation, financial support and counselling.”
‘I’m alone here’: Mother faces uncertain future in Bahrain
After her employer stopped paying for her food in Bahrain in September, Rowena found part-time work cleaning houses in the neighbourhood, earning approximately 16BHD (£30) every week. Her visa has expired, and she’s worried that if she’s caught, she might be sent to jail. “It’s useless,” she said. “Because I’m alone here. This is not my country.”
On December 4, Rowena received 75BHD (£147) in financial support from the Philippine government, seven months after she first applied. The cheapest ticket from Manama to Manila costs more than twice as much as she received. Her boss has promised to pay for her flight home, but he hasn’t told her when.
The Phillipine Department of Foreign Affairs did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
As rates of COVID-19 continue to climb across the world, neither she nor Mimi have told their children the reality of their lives abroad. When Rowena’s 24-year-old daughter and two-year-old grandson ask how she’s doing, she lies.
“She’s asking me, ‘Mama, what date do you come back?’ I say, ‘Very soon…’ But I don’t know, because my boss never says ‘OK, your ticket is ready now’.”
Until he does, Rowena lies on her pile of blankets behind the desk and waits.