From April to July this year, Ms Jonnalyn Arcillas, 32, "performed" household chores, sometimes for as long as 15 hours a day, for "would-be employers" in Singapore said to be watching her via CCTV cameras.
She had left her home in Zamboanga city, in the south, for Manila, trusting in a promise by a family acquaintance that in three weeks she would be working as a maid in Singapore.
She was taken to a building south of the capital city, where she was told she would have to be prepped for her new job.
One floor of the building was used as sleeping quarters, where she was crammed with about 80 other "trainees", and another floor served as a "training facility".
There were CCTV cameras mounted all around both floors, their red LED lights like tiny, unblinking eyes watching her even as she slept.
When her "training" began, Ms Arcillas was told to surrender her mobile phone. She was also told to stay inside the building at all times, and that if she had to go out to shop, a guard would have to accompany her.
There was often not enough food for everyone, and she remembers days when she ironed clothes, did the laundry, cleaned rooms and cooked from 6am to 9pm as part of her "training". "Trainers", both men and women, berated her often.
When four months had passed and it became clear to her that she was never going to set foot in Singapore, Ms Arcillas asked to be released but was told she would have to pay everything her recruiter had spent on her.
She paid up and ran to the police.
Last month, agents from the Anti-Transnational Crimes Unit swooped down on the "training facility", arresting the Filipino couple running the place and 12 others, including Singaporean Yvonne Phua, 55, who police said was a "trainer" sent by PEM Maid Employment Agency in Singapore.
It was an unlicensed operation, the head of the police unit, Senior Superintendent John Guyguyon, said.
"PEM is a registered agency in Singapore, but here in the Philippines it is not," he said.
He said it was not illegal to provide board and lodging to women being trained and recruited for jobs abroad.
But the conditions that the women were subjected to broke the law, which he suggested was probably the reason those behind the operation did not bother to secure a licence in the first place.
Government regulations bar recruitment firms from taking live videos of applicants simulating domestic work, so they can be vetted by off-site employers, he said.
Senior Supt Guyguyon said it was the first time he came across such an operation.
"It's like Amazon," he said, referring to the American online retailer. "If the clients like what they see, they just order one, and the maid gets sent to them."
Recruitment industry consultant Emmanuel Geslani told The Straits Times that illegal recruitment of Filipinos for jobs as maids in Singapore is still thriving despite the many arrests, deployment bans and tighter regulations introduced in recent years.
Senior Supt Guyguyon added: "Money is easy with this racket."
The Philippines has about 1,000 licensed recruitment firms that handle the deployment of over 1.8 million migrant workers each year.
About two-thirds get sent to the Middle East. The rest head for Singapore, Hong Kong and China.
Illegal recruitment feeds on this ecosystem.
In 2012, there were three cases of illegal recruitment filed every day, according to the Philippine Institute for Government Studies, a think-tank.
An individual, group or company is considered breaking the law when they recruit workers for jobs overseas without a government licence.
Illegal recruiters act as middlemen for employment agencies abroad. They also supply applicants to licensed recruitment firms.
Illegal recruiters fly under the radar, so they can circumvent government regulations that limit the fees agencies both in the Philippines and abroad can charge to workers.
For instance, a woman applying for a job as a maid in Singapore does not have to pay for her plane ticket, training expense, work documents, medical check-ups and insurance, much less the commissions of her Philippine recruiter or the foreign agency that places her.
Her employer is supposed to cover all these expenses, which can run up to S$4,000.
Mr Richard Hoey, president of Reach Manpower International, a licensed recruiter, said his company earns about S$400 for each maid it sends to Singapore.
Illegal recruiters, on the other hand, can make 10 times as much by passing on as many fees as their victims are willing to accept - airfare, passport, board and lodging - on top of hefty commissions.
Illegal recruiters get their cuts up front, while the receiving agencies they are in cahoots with deduct the total sum in monthly instalments from the workers' salaries.
In Singapore, Filipino maids who have fallen prey to illegal recruiters have complained that they have worked without being paid, sometimes for as long as eight months.
Some enter Singapore as tourists and the receiving agencies then apply for their work permits.
According to the Philippine authorities' data, there are around 70,000 documented Filipino maids in Singapore.
The actual number, according to Mr Geslani, is closer to 150,000.
Singapore's Ministry of Manpower website says there are 214,000 maids in Singapore, mostly Filipinas and Indonesians.
Mr Alfredo Palmiery, president of the Federated Association of Manpower Exporters, said the maids themselves add to the problem.
"These women aren't illiterate. They knew what they were getting into. They were told that they will have to pay for this and that, that their salaries would be deducted. Yet, they leave anyway," he said.
Ms Anita, a 48-year-old Filipino maid who requested that her real name not be used, is one such example.
The former school teacher told The Straits Times she had little choice when she headed to Singapore as a tourist 10 years ago and then got herself hired as a maid.
"I couldn't send my children to college on a public school teacher's salary, so I bit the bullet," she said.
26 maid agencies under probe over 'unauthorised' pay deductions
The Philippines is investigating 26 maid agencies in Singapore accused of collecting placement fees that have been banned.
The move followed a petition submitted to Labour Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz by the Association of Licensed Recruitment Agencies to Singapore (Alras), a group which represents 120 of around 150 Philippine recruitment firms that supply maids to Singapore.
Alras accused the Singapore agencies of taking an equivalent of eight months' pay from maids they recruit, or up to S$3,800, as placement fees.
The collection of such fees, which include airfare and training costs, was banned by Manila in 2007.
Among the agencies named in Alras' list were Homekeeper and Budget Maid, which the Philippines last month suspended from hiring Filipinos.
Alras accused Homekeeper of charging up to $2,000, and Budget Maid as much as $3,500.
Mr Mark Chin, a director of Homekeeper, rejected the accusation.
"We are only charging the maids two months of their salary in recruitment fees, which is in line with MOM guidelines," he said, referring to Singapore's Ministry of Manpower.
The ministry allows employment agencies to deduct as placement fees a month's worth of salary for every year in a maid's work permit.
Since a work permit is usually valid for two years, the agencies can deduct at most two months of a maid's salary.
Ms Baldoz told The Straits Times that whatever action to be taken against the agencies in Alras' list - which could include a ban - will depend on the outcome of the investigations.
Alras has been campaigning to limit salary deductions to two months, if an outright ban on placement fees is not possible because of Singapore's regulations.
In September last year, it suspended sending maids to Singapore to press for a ban on placement fees.
But it resumed business a month later after it received commitments from 60 per cent of some 300 Singapore agencies that they would stop taking placement fees or keep them to two months' pay.
But now Alras says it has received reports that "a sizeable number" of Singapore agencies "continue to exact illegal fees" from Filipino maids.
More than half of around 180,000 Filipinos in Singapore work as maids. They earn anywhere from $400 to $600 a month, six times more than the $75 a household helper in the Philippines makes.
This article was first published on August 19, 2014.
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