Rosemarie Pletero knew how the process worked. She was a domestic helper in the Middle East for almost five years before trying her luck in Malaysia. When her agency in Kuala Lumpur started offering them to potential employers for a "7-day free trial," she knew something was wrong.
Pletero arrived in Malaysia in April 7. She said her agency took away her cell phone and other personal belongings. They were kept in a house before being distributed to employers.
She was surprised when the agency assigned her to a house for a 7-day tryout. The agency claimed that they would not be getting anything in return since it was a free trial but Pletero said she saw the documents, which said they were being hired for 7 days for 480 Malaysian ringgit (S$171).
The 34-year-old overseas Filipino worker (OFW) said she was brought to a large three-storey house with a swimming pool and a fish pond. It had 15 rooms, each with a toilet.
She was ordered to clean the whole house and was only allowed to sleep for about four hours a day.
By the third day, one of her feet was swollen and she started feeling dizzy.
"I would just return to the agency," she told her employer, who was enraged at her request. But Pletero insisted and called her agency.
She was allowed to rest for three days but was afterwards assigned to another house - overworked and with no pay. It was during her stay there that she decided to escape.
On the third day, while her supposed employer was away, Rosemarie snuck out through the back door.
The mother of three walked until she reached the highway where she asked bus drivers for help. An elderly man took pity on her and brought her to a Catholic church. There she was able to seek shelter and was eventually brought to the Philippine Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.
"The contract I signed in the Philippines…was all lies," she told INQUIRER.net in Filipino.
At the time of the interview, Pletero was among the twenty or so OFWs staying at the Migrant Workers Resource Development Center in Kuala Lumpur.
The Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995 provides for the establishment of such resource centres in countries "where there are large concentrations of Filipino migrant workers."
A resource centre should be open for 24 hours, seven days a week and in the case of the Philippine Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, it serves as a "halfway house" for distressed Filipino workers.
Labor attache Elizabeth Marie Estrada said OFWs who escape from their employers or agencies often seek help in the embassy.
"This is where we bring them while their cases against their employers or agencies are being processed," she said.
Estrada said their centre is also used as the meeting place of the Federation of Filipino Associations in Malaysia and its member organisations.
It is also the venue of the embassy's skills training programme.
"This year we are offering 32 courses. These courses run for eight months, from February to October. This is where they gain new skills and knowledge," she said.
Estrada said the aim of the programme is to upgrade the skills of Filipino workers to allow them to further their careers or to pursue other occupations when they return to the Philippines.
Pletero and the other OFWs staying in the centre are able to join and observe the weekend classes. Inside the small compound are container vans transformed into portable classrooms. Serving as instructors are volunteers, many of them also domestic helpers.
Estrada said an average of 300 students enrol and graduate from the centre.
Almost all of the OFWs staying at the centre said they would try to find work in the Philippines or set up a small business when they return to the country.
Sheryl May Tayum, 27, said she and her husband would find another way to provide for their child.
Tayum has only been an OFW for a month. She immediately realised that it was not for her.
"This is the only place where I felt at ease," she said. "I made a lot of friends."
She was a clerk at the municipal office in Pampanga when she applied at the local Public Employment Service Office (Peso). She wanted to work abroad but the only position available was as a maid.
She said the Pesostaff encouraged her to try it out.
During her first month in Malaysia, she was depressed and felt degraded.
"It was my first time to feel degraded," she said.
While one of her employers was good to her, her other employer, a Chinese, often visited for routine inspections. She was often berated and called lazy or fat.
She was also terribly homesick.
"I felt guilty because I was caring for another child…I could not sleep at night," she said in Filipino.
Like other "wards" in the centre, 31-year-old Catherine Abragan was unfortunately assigned to an employer who not only exploited her but also treated her harshly.
Asked why she left, Abragan said, "'I could no longer bear the anger of my employer."
She said there were times when she felt like she was being treated like an animal and not a household worker.
She said everything she did was considered wrong.
Abragan said there were days when she was asked to clean the house of her employer's friend and the only payment was packed lunch. She was also berated for returning home late after cleaning the other house.
"She said I had no right to complain," she said.
Abragan said there were times when her employer would apologise but most of the time she was "hot-tempered."
Echoing the other distressed OFWs' words, Abragan said her fears were allayed when she was brought to the centre after escaping from her employer's house while the family was abroad.
"I can now sleep peacefully," she said, adding that she was always stressed with her employer around.
Prayer and song
Abragan said she is able to eat properly and have fun at the resource centre.
She was also happy that they regularly prayed the rosary
During weekends, they are made to watch livelihood training videos. They are also allotted time to exercise, pray, dance and sing.
Before the interview, the OFWs staying at the centre showed off their talents.
They danced then sang their own version of the novelty song "Pusong Bato," the new lyrics chronicling the difficulties they faced in a foreign land and the lessons they learned.
"I will tread the good path," the chorus ended as 20 hopeful women swayed to the rhythm.
Many of them will be gone in two week, to be reunited with their families in the homeland.
Finding a way home
"There are many reasons why our wards would leave their employers," Estrada said.
She said many would complain about violations in their contract, such as the lack of rest days or being overworked. Sometimes, they are also not given enough food.
Estrada said a number of OFWs also decide to leave their employers because of homesickness or problems within their families.
Through the efficient processing of documents and a conciliatory process between the worker and the agency, the turnover of cases lasts for a maximum of two weeks.
Estrada said this is because the agency is also suspended while the case is being investigated.
This forces the agency to co-operate and negotiate.
At the time of the interview, about a quarter of the habitants of the centre already had their plane ticket or were waiting for their flight details.
Thirty-seven-year-old Luningning Oreta-Gonzales calls the centre a "blessing."
Gonzales was a runaway and she wanted to return home because her father was in a critical condition. Although her father died while she was still in Malaysia, she was able to sort out her employment status.
"When I surrendered, they were able to help me," she said. "It was also a blessing."
"Once you are here, you feel secure," she said. "They will help you."
Gonzales said she will probably set up a small eatery with her husband when she returns to the Philippines to care for her two children.