Filipino maids in Mideast jobs say they face abuse

Amnesty International says about 10 foreign workers are believed to commit suicide in Jordan each year.

filipino maids 88 248 (photo credit: )
filipino maids 88 248
(photo credit: )
Forty narrow mattresses line the carpeted floor of the basement at the Philippines Embassy, a damp and dimly lighted room where 20 women have sought refuge from abusive employers. The room is one of two shelters run by the embassy for Philippines citizens in Jordan - a country that human-rights groups accuse of not doing enough to protect about 500,000 foreigners, including 30,000 Filipinos, who are here working as maids and servants or in construction. Jordan, like other Middle East countries, offers little legal protection for foreign workers, forcing governments like that of the Philippines to operate shelters. Many of the victims are women who accuse their employers of beating them, refusing to pay wages and forcing them to convert to Islam. "I was ironing when madam snatched a hot iron from my hand and branded my arm," said Francis, 30, a shelter occupant who fled her Jordanian employer's home six months ago. She refused to give her last name, saying she did not want to worry her family in the Philippines. Recently, the government in Manila decided to stand up for its citizens working in Jordan and elsewhere in the Mideast, saying the money sent home isn't worth the cost of shelters and court cases against workers who flee their employers. Almost a year ago, the Philippines imposed a ban on sending more workers to Jordan unless the government enacted regulations protecting them. The demands included blacklisting abusive employers, setting maximum hours, guaranteeing one day off a week and quadrupling the minimum monthly wage to $400. While abuse of maids from poor countries by employers in richer ones is not limited to the Middle East, Philippine officials say it's particularly widespread in the region, including in wealthy states like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. "We are very strict in enforcing new rules," said Virginia Calvez, labor attache at the Philippines Consulate in the emirate of Dubai. "If the employer does not want to comply with our regulations, we advise [the worker] not to go." Jordan has made some concessions, but has not mandated the $400 monthly salary. Neither has Lebanon. Other Mideast countries - including those in the oil-rich Arab Gulf - have agreed to the minimum wage. But as a result, many employers are hiring maids from countries like Sri Lanka and Indonesia without minimum-wage laws. Since new rules were put in place in the Emirates in April 2007, the demand for Filipino maids has dropped by 50 percent, Calvez said. The number of Philippines citizens working in other Gulf countries, including Kuwait, also has declined. In Amman, Samia Elyan, a 47-year-old housewife, said she replaced her Filipino maid with a less expensive worker from Indonesia, who gets just $100 a month. "Who cares if the Philippines stopped sending workers to Jordan," she said. The bans in Jordan and elsewhere also have not prevented Filipinos from slipping into the countries for work. More than 5,000 Filipinos have defied the ban in Jordan since January, said Julius Torres, the Philippines ambassador to Amman. "The ban made our voice heard, but I know it doesn't solve the problem of employers' maltreatment or abuse," he said. Torres said the Philippines and Jordan have negotiated a protocol on work conditions, but that it would not be signed until the Philippines decides on a mechanism for exporting laborers to Middle East countries, which would probably take three or four months. The ban on exporting domestic workers could be dropped once the protocol is in place, he said. Meanwhile, Jordan has changed its labor law to give foreign workers some rights, including compensation for being fired without a valid reason. Labor Ministry Undersecretary Ghazi Shbeikat said the government has ordered prosecutors to actively prosecute abusive employers and is considering expanding police-run shelters for battered women to take in foreigners. "We're dismayed by the alleged abuses," he said. "We're doing our best to improve the conditions." Jordanian human-rights activist Assem Rababah lauded the improvements to the rules as a step in the right direction, but urged enforcing them rigorously. The new regulations have not dampened the criticism. Amnesty International issued a scathing report in November, saying about 10 foreign workers are believed to commit suicide in Jordan each year. It accused employers of abusing workers and recruitment agencies of routinely beating newly arriving workers to "frighten and discourage them from running away or from making complaints about their employers." But Adnan Fawzi, who owns a private Jordanian recruiting firm, denied employment agencies administer beatings. "We go by the book. It's not us, but some employers who practice modern-day slavery," he said. Sarah Balabagan, a Filipino who was once a maid in the United Arab Emirates, became the subject of an international outcry after being sentenced to death in 1994 for killing an employer who she said tried to rape her. Reprieved and back in the Philippines, she says many domestics become utterly despondent after regular beatings in Middle Eastern households. "Some want to end their suffering with death," she said, citing a maid who jumped from a house window in the Middle East last year to escape frequent beatings. The maid broke her leg and is now home, Balabagan said. The issue of mistreating maids has prompted a Saudi-based advertising agency to launch a public-service TV campaign aimed at decreasing the abuse. The ads, shown on several pan-Arab satellite TV stations, feature reenactments of employers verbally abusing their maids. But the ill-treatment persists. In one recent case in Jordan, Fayzah Ismail, 20, said she worked for her employer for two an a half years for an agreed meager monthly wage of $150, "but she never paid me." Ismail is staying in a Philippine Embassy shelter. A 17-year-old from the Philippines claims her employer and his son raped her. She went into hiding last month and agreed to speak to The Associated Press on condition her name not be used nor her hiding place revealed because she feared arrest after her employer reported her to police as a runaway. The teenager said she came to Jordan five months ago to help her poor parents. To comply with a Jordanian law requiring workers to be at least 18, she said she used a fake passport saying she was 28. "I have no tears. My tears have all dried up," she said. "I'm frightened and helpless."