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140 Filipinas are slaves in Dubai

Filipino prosecutors who visited in Dubai had good first impression shattered. -Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN

Mon, Feb 22, 2010
Philippine Daily Inquirer/Asia News Network

In November 2009, five Filipino prosecutors from the Department of Justice visited Dubai to attend an international conference.

There, they were welcomed to a party organised by a Filipino woman. They went to a hotel and were greeted by another Filipino who was assigned in the front desk. Later on, they found out that the coordinator of the conference was a fellow Filipino.

The events led to an impression that Filipino women in Dubai were better off in terms of employment compared to their counterparts toiling in other parts of the globe.

And when the group - Amor Robles, Marlet Balagtas, Eden Wakay-Valdes, Elizabeth Berdal, and Lourdes Zapanta - saw other Filipinos shopping and strolling in the mall where many cashiers were Filipino women too, it became easier for them to believe this.

"One of the staff in the conference told us that they hire Filipinos because we are very reliable, hardworking, clean, pleasant, and always smiling," said one of the Filipino workers.

But when the group made a courtesy call to the Philippine Overseas Labour Office days before leaving for Manila, their first impression was shattered.

At the Filipino Workers Resource Centre, which can accommodate about 25 people, they encountered 140 distressed Filipino women dying to go back to the Philippines, but couldn't do so.

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Bitter picture

According to Zapanta, these Filipino workers, aged between 20 and 40, were considered slaves, "abused either physically or sexually" by their foreign employers.

One of the victims narrated that she was frequently beaten up by her employer so she had no choice but to flee. This story was echoed by the experience of another, who suffered a graver fate when she escaped jumping from a window: The incident then left her with broken bones and black and blue all over.

Another Filipino woman relayed how she was recruited and promised work as a waitress but ended up in the flesh trade. She said she was sexually abused by five men in one day. Her employer sold her to pay back the sum she spent for her fare.

"You know what's sad about this?" Zapanta asked. "The one who fetched her and brought her to the place where she was abused was also a Filipino. It then makes us wonder if this Filipino, like her, is another victim or a party to the crime."

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Why they can't come home

Zapanta said altering contracts without the knowledge of workers is common in this kind of trade. Dubai has no laws protecting domestic helpers, automatically rendering these Filipinos vulnerable to maltreatment, she said.

Since there are no existing laws that can favour the many ill-treated Filipino women in Dubai, it is hard to press charges against their employers. Even telling the authorities their stories after they successfully break free from abusive hands is difficult since the effort can work against them.

Usually, employers would counter the victim's account of molestation by saying that she had engaged in a relationship with him, which is prohibited under the laws of Dubai. The Filipino faces the risk of arrest and detention.

Even personal pride gets in the way in running after the attackers. Who would want to wash her dirty linen in public? Zapanta said some of the victims do not want to file cases since they do not want to be the subject of ridicule or be considered a "failure". Some of them conceal the hardships they experience abroad from their families back home. They refuse to speak so as not to aggravate the misery of their families back home.

"Others don't want to come home even if they have continually been bruised and battered since they find no other options in the Philippines," Zapanta said.

Another obstacle in filing a case, Zapanta pointed out, is the insufficiency of evidence. Or, some victims file cases for the wrong reason or wrong crime for lack of knowledge.

Our government addresses these issues through Republic Act 8042 or the Migrant Workers Act of 1995 and RA 9208 or the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003.

Various government agencies have also introduced programs and projects in response to these laws.

However, the need for these legislations to be fully understood by all parties involved, especially the victims, remains a challenge. Some portions in implementing the laws remain unclear even to the prosecutors.

"In RA 8042, there was a mention of this repatriation fund which entitles distressed overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) to (financial assistance) for their fare back home," Zapanta said. "One of the most common reasons why Pinays, after being cleared abroad, can't still come home is that they don't have money for their fare. Now why hasn't this fund reached those who need it? And how can OFWs avail of it?"

Ideally, according to the law, it is the agency which recruited and deployed the OFWs that should shoulder the repatriation costs of these workers-their belongings included-given that they are not terminated by their employers due to their own wrongdoing.

However, if the agency cannot be identified, the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration immediately becomes responsible for subsidising their repatriation expense through the repatriation fund, which initially should "consist of 100 million pesos (US$2.16 million), inclusive of outstanding balances."

Of the 140 distressed Filipino workers in the center, only 10 have come home, thanks to the generosity of some Filipino artists. There are still 35 Filipino women ready to go but cannot due to lack of funds.

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Meeting with OWWA

The prosecutors would want to bring this up to OWWA. They said they are preparing their reports and other materials before finally meeting with the agency.

"We would ask these questions that need to be addressed," Zapanta said.

The prosecutors are collecting full statements from the victims and studying the laws of Dubai for them to formulate the right complaints the victims can use against their employers. The team is closely working with the Interagency Council Against Trafficking regarding this matter and will be coming back in Dubai the soonest time possible.

Review departure process

In a report it made, the group recommends that the process as to how an OFW leaves the country be reviewed.

OFWs must pass through visa verification at the airport, then at the Bureau of Immigration, the Bureau of Customs, and the Bureau of Quarantine to prevent connivance in crimes against them, the report said.

Zapanta and company see it fit to have members of the Task Force Against Trafficking and the National Bureau of Investigation at the airport to conduct inquests and entrapments.

"We should stop sending Filipino women to Dubai as domestic helpers. It is recognised that to demand another country to enact a law protecting domestic helpers will be very difficult, arduous, and ambitious, but this has to be done. A bilateral agreement between the Philippines and the UAE (United Arab Emirates) is also an option," said the report.

"We're going to do our best to prosecute these people who violate (our women)," Zapanta said. "Violent reactions are expected since we'd be prosecuting locals here, but this might lead to finally stopping human trafficking, so we're fortifying our efforts."

-Philippine Daily Inquirer/Asia News Network

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