Thursday, January 19, 2006

Grace's Story

Working overseas is the dream of many Filipinos. With unemployment running at 25% and notoriously low wages, the opportunity to work and for foreign wages makes being an OFW (Overseas Foreign Worker) an extremely attractive escape from poverty. Working in all countries at every imaginable kind of job, OFWs are the Philippine’s major export. Returning in excess of US$8.5 billion a year in remittances to families, OFWs are a major supply of foreign income. To the extent that there are several sections of government concerned with their welfare. But it isn’t always plain sailing.

This is Grace’s Story.

Grace is a 20 something, attractive Filipina. Her father had been an OFW for 20 years in Saudi Arabia and an aunt had worked in Japan. The offer of a 2 year contract to work in Kuwait as a waitress at 80 Dinars (AU$360.00) a week plus a 10% service charge and tips with food and accommodation thrown in compared to the Philippine equivalent of 1800 (AU$47.00) was great news. She was aware that her first 6 months wages would cover her relocation costs, but even so 18 months would see a tidy nest egg put away.

When she arrived in October 2003, she discovered her wage was actually 60 Dinars (AU$270.00) a week and she was there on a tourist visa. She was working 12 hours a day in a billiard hall/internet cafĂ© and 14 hours a day during Ramadan. When Grace wasn’t working, she was locked in her accommodation upstairs from the billiard hall. Her employer had her papers, including her passport, under lock and key.

During her first 3 months, her only income was the 10% service fee and tips. An associate of her employer took an unrequited shine to her during this time and started to press her to marry him. But Grace had met Farouk, a customer at the billiard hall who was fast becoming a very close friend.

Using the ruse of a medical examination for the regularization of her papers from a visitor’s visa to a domestic work visa, the associate took her to an apartment and raped her. Her employer was unsympathetic to her plight and suggested she marry his associate. Grace subsequently fled her employer’s custody and made her way to the Philippine embassy. She also filed a complaint with the Kuwaiti authorities about the associate’s behaviour.

The embassy advised the resolution of her complaint would take years rather than months and all they could do was offer her a safe haven. Her recruitment agency advised she return to her employment and consider the marriage proposal. Grace was in limbo, her papers were in the hands of her employer and without them she wasn’t going anywhere.

Secure with the knowledge that Farouk would be a regular visitor, Grace returned to her employment. With only her tips as income, her employer ceased passing on the service fee, Grace preserved with her 12 hour working days and being a virtual prisoner in her own time. Her relationship with Farouk, much to her employer and his associate’s dismay, blossomed.

In July of 2004, when the re-imbursement of her location costs had finished, her expectation of a pay check didn’t eventuate. Her employer advised her that this situation would continue, although marriage to his associate would certainly put things in a new light.

After 3 months of this situation and no sign of her employers resolve weakening, Grace, with Farouk’s assistance, escaped again. She and Farouk moved into an apartment with 3 other Filipina OFWs. For the next 10 months, she was still a virtual prisoner. With no papers, any expeditions out of the apartment were fraught with danger. To all intent and purposes, Grace was an illegal alien. Her papers were still under lock and key with her employer.

In August 2005, the inevitable happened. On a shopping trip to the supermarket with her Filipina flat mate, Grace was arrested by the Kuwaiti authorities. Farouk was able to get her passport but her employer was on holidays and couldn’t be contacted. His decision was required on whether Grace was his employee or not to resolve the situation. Grace cooled her heels in jail for 10 days awaiting his return.

Upon his return, her employer decided she was no longer an asset to his business. With financial assistance from Farouk, Grace returned to the Philippines. She was home with family, a lot wiser but with no more than what she departed some 22 months before.

Any redress available to her has evaporated as the recruitment agency that placed her in Kuwait was unregistered and has subsequently disappeared into thin air. Her complaint against her assailant will no doubt wither on the vine as she is in no financial position to pursue the matter.

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