Wednesday 27 May 2009

Are we allowed to Abuse Servants?

Every year, millions of women leave their own families in Africa and Asia to look after other people's in the west. But many domestic workers find themselves abused, beaten, raped, even murdered.

The slum mothers of Manila Metro are permanently elsewhere, maids and nannies to the world, with about one in seven Filipino workers abroad at any given time. It's a worldwide phenomenon. About 300m economic migrants from India, sub-Saharan Africa, South and Central America and southeast Asia are scattered across the globe, supporting a population back home that is closer to a billion. Were these international foreign workers to constitute a state, a migration nation if you like, it would rank as the world's third largest. They are an economic powerhouse. Migrants from the developing world sent home an estimated $300bn last year.

Consider the figure. It's nearly three times the world's foreign-aid budgets combined. These sums, or "remittances" as they are known, bring Morocco more money than tourism, Sri Lanka more money than tea and, in the Philippines, this foreign legion of workers is so essential to the government that the economy would collapse without them. More than half the world's migrants are women, many caring for children abroad while leaving their own at home.

More than any other country, though, the Philippines has become synonymous with migrant labour. In Greece, for example, the modern Greek word for a maid is a "Filipineza". The most recent figures show that there are 1.2m Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) registered in Saudi Arabia, closely followed by Japan, Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates and Taiwan. And with workers in at least 170 other countries, OFWs are everywhere, including the high seas. About a quarter of the world's seafarers come from the Philippines. But behind the hard-earned dollars sent home, there are many tales of abject exploitation and sorrow, sexual abuse, violence and even murder.

A tattered billboard welcomes drivers on the dusty highway that winds its way towards the down-at-heel town of Alaminos, 170km north of Manila: "May God Praise Our Seafarers and Overseas Foreign Workers". Underneath the sign is the sponsor of the tribute, the town's largest shopping mall, which has sprung up largely on the back of OFW remittances. Just short of her 22nd birthday, Jennifer Perez would have passed the same sign as she left her village home in the northern Luzon province of the Philippines in the summer of 2006.

Like most migrant domestic workers heading for the Middle East, she packed a roll-on bag, stuffed with loose clothing, befitting Jordan, the Muslim country that would become her new home. Fatefully, she also packed her aunt's mobile phone to allow her to text her parents. Clutched in her left hand was the rosary her mother had given her before departure. She was proud of the carefully laminated documents in her luggage: certificates for 12 hours of on-the-job-training in elderly care, first aid, CPR and hospitality services, and the driver's licence she would never get to use.

A college graduate with a degree in physical education and dance, Jennifer had signed up to work for two years in the Jordanian city of Irbid, a dusty, nondescript settlement an hour north of Amman. A few days later, barely 24 hours after arriving in Jordan, Jennifer fell asleep in her small room in her employers' house. She was woken by her female employer (a dentist whose husband was a member of the prominent Obeidat tribe), who stormed into the room with the mobile phone that had been hidden in Jennifer's luggage, and threatened to confiscate it. Like most foreign domestics, Jennifer was banned from having contact with the outside world.

A fight broke out between the two women and, moments later, Jennifer fell four storeys from the kitchen veranda, landing squarely on her back. As the young woman lay in a coma in a Jordanian hospital, her employer claimed it was a suicide attempt. Jennifer's family say their daughter, like hundreds of Filipina workers in the Middle East over the past two decades, was simply thrown off the balcony. The woman was arrested and charged with assault as Jennifer, by now a quadriplegic, fought a losing battle to stay alive. Her employer was released after posting an undisclosed bail.

Speaking two years later from Alaminos, Jennifer's father, Herminiio, himself a former OFW in Saudi Arabia, claims his daughter's death - and those of hundreds of domestic workers abroad - is a tragedy of globalisation.

"It is easier for these girls to go abroad than ever, with agents now paying their airfares and then taking half their salaries," Herminiio says. "My daughter was a slave. She was treated like an animal, a nothing. Every day we read in the newspapers about families who have gone through similar hell: young girls raped, abused, beaten, murdered. A transaction seems to take place when a Filipina domestic helper goes abroad. When she steps over the threshold of her employers' home she gives up her human rights and her freedom. My message to these girls is the money is not important. Poverty is terrible, but it allows its own freedoms from violence and abuse."

What made his daughter's story harder to take was the fact that it took so long for her to die - nine months in total. "We had to fight to get her home," says Herminiio. "We were crippled with medical expenses and had to hold a television appeal to raise funds for her flight. She came home a quadriplegic and died of a broken heart, despite being surrounded by the people she loves and who loved her. Every time a domestic helper returns to the Philippines dead, why is she always ruled to have killed herself? Why are so many of our girls killing themselves, jumping out of windows, off roofs and balconies; are they all insane?"

Migrants have been leaving the Philippines in search of work for decades. The key difference now, however, is where they migrate to. Mired in red tape and post-9/11 paranoia, the US is no longer an attainable promised land. That role has been taken on by the Middle East. The big Arab oil states have small populations but, until recently, grand development ambitions. Only through foreign labour can their lofty aims be achieved, which is why more than 14m migrants, many of them Filipino, are active in the Arabian peninsula alone.

The winter rain is whipping off the Mediterranean sea and pounding the stained glass windows of the 17th-century crypt in the heart of Old Beirut. Inside, the narrow pews are packed with browbeaten women: a league of nations in their Sunday best - maids from India, Sri Lanka, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Ethiopia and the Philippines. Below, in the catacombs, there is only silence. There, the women who have chosen not to be part of the morning congregation sit and contemplate their lives. In the darkness of the church, they seek sanctuary from their lives as slaves. In the past two years alone, more than 100 maids have died in Beirut in sinister circumstances, victims of abuse by cruel masters and mistresses. Countless more have been beaten, raped and even tortured. The walls of the basement are plastered with "Missing" posters of maids who have fled abusive owners, their whereabouts now unknown.

One unnamed Ethiopian maid, in a government hospital after "falling" from a 12th-floor balcony, says her Lebanese employer pushed her off. The police, as is normally the case, dispute her claim and are hoping to deport her as soon as possible. The 25-year-old's testimony, which has been made public, is chilling: "Madam asked me to hang the clothes. Then she came and pushed me from behind." Too frightened to let her name be published, she said her employer had frequently threatened and abused her. "Madam would tell me, 'I will spill hot oil on you.' She would take a knife and threaten to kill me. She would beat me with shoes, pull my hair to the floor."

Her testimony, along with thousands of others', has been gathered by Human Rights Watch (HRW). The group claims that, every week, one of an estimated 200,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon dies. Normally it is recorded as "suicide" or falling while trying to escape their employer. Another major cause of death is untreated illness - hospitals cost money and maids aren't seen as worth the expense. HRW claims that maids in Lebanon, as elsewhere in the Middle East, are increasingly vulnerable to beatings, rape and murder - and there are no laws to protect them from abusive employers.

Indrani Ekanayaka is a 27-year-old Sri Lankan who has lived for the past year in the basement of a Beirut shelter run by the Christian charity group Caritas, after fleeing an abusive employer. She says there are thousands of women like her still suffering in silence. "I was paid for the first year and a half, but then I wasn't paid for the next eight years. When I asked for money, Madam would swear at me and break glasses against the wall. I was only given some bread and rice to eat. Fruit was forbidden. I was not allowed to speak to my parents. They thought I had died," she says, the tears welling up. "I managed to escape. I got a copy of the key they used to lock my door at night and I crept out. I'm certain if they'd caught me they'd have killed me. I filed a police report, but they only told me I would be deported. Now, they have a new maid, a Filipina. They are abusing someone else. I came to Beirut from Lebanon because I had the chance to help build a home for my parents and sisters, but my life is a nightmare."

Indrani, who has four sisters at home and a family torn apart by the country's civil war, believes she has let her family down. "My family expected great things of me, that I would have enough money for a house and a good life, but all I have had is torture and misery and I am left with nothing to show for it. I am penniless. I think I will go back next year and then I will probably have no option but to try another country. I know there is no work for me at home and that's why there are so many young Sri Lankan women all over the world, suffering like me, to send money home."

The majority of abused domestic workers in Beirut, however, are Filipina. One is Mila, 27. "I left Manila for Beirut at 22," she says, "because it was an easy choice to make. Stay and watch my family starve or leave and help to feed and clothe them. My parents were getting elderly and it was me and my sister's jobs to make sure they were secure. I approached an agent in Manila who told me a job in Beirut as a domestic maid, a cleaner, a cook and a babysitter rolled into one would make 10 times as much as I could make in Manila. I accepted on the spot and my parents spent their last few pesos for admission to the airport lounge from where I left. And then I suppose they went home to cry and wait for the money. I wasn't paid for a year and my sister was also struggling abroad, so they had to rely on loan sharks."

When Mila arrived in Beirut she was imprisoned in the basement of a home with only iron bars for a window. "It was damp and it felt like a torture chamber. At times my madam, who told me she was my 'owner', made me do everything. I had to cut her toenails, scrub her feet, wash her clothes, cook and clean. I had to look after her nephews, light her cigarettes. My life was a living hell. Her partner would try and molest me and threatened to tell the mistress I was a prostitute if I didn't comply. I only managed to escape in the end because I got a letter out to a lawyer who turned up at the door and then the mistress simply threw me out on the street. I'm still fighting to get my salary from her. She owes me a year and a half's wages, about $5,000."

Nigerian Agnus Iyo Emeka, 27, is another maid at the Beirut refuge. She came to Lebanon to be a domestic worker, suffered beatings and torture at the hands of her employer and was sexually assaulted by her employer's husband. "Many women who come to the centre talk about how they are treated as sex objects by the Arab men," she says. "It starts off with simple groping, but in most cases ends up in full rape. I was assaulted by my owner's husband. I also had a friend who was raped; she lived in the same apartment block and the man of the house raped her every day for months, until she jumped from a third-floor window and broke her pelvis. So many young women have died in Beirut. I have personally known two who have died - I knew them from church. Praying one day and dead the next."

Another victim of abuse in the Beirut refuge is Ayalnesh Alameraw, a 26-year-old from Ethiopia. "I came from Addis Ababa five years ago. An agent approached my parents and offered to take three of their daughters to 'Europe', but they only took me. My sisters were spared. I thought I was going to London. I had never heard of Beirut until I boarded the plane." Ayalnesh was taken to the agency offices and given her uniform, a pink domestic outfit, but no training. "My first madam was the cruellest woman I have ever met," she says. "I was beaten for staining clothes and fined six months' wages for 'damage'. I was beaten with shoes, belts and even a thin iron bar. I tried to escape five times and each time I was taken back to her by the police. They always caught me and ordered me to return or I would be put in prison. They never listened to any of my stories. They didn't waste a single drop of ink on me until I jumped from a fourth-floor window. Looking over a balcony and being so desperate to escape that you will risk your life is impossible to explain to someone who has never been imprisoned. You may think being imprisoned in a tiny apartment isn't really a prison, but in a city where you have no voice and no rights and nobody hears your screams or cries for help you are in a hell."

When Ayalnesh recovered from her fall she was sent to a detention centre to await deportation. "My madam filed a complaint with the agency and accused me of stealing. I was inside the centre during the 2006 bombing campaign by the Israelis and we thought we would be buried alive in the rubble." The sick went untreated, and almost everyone, eventually, in the stifling summer heat, became ill. "As the war continued we became a hindrance and six of us were taken to Caritas, who still look after me now. I can't go back to Addis. I have a family of seven brothers and sisters and my parents are simple cattle raisers. I have more chance of being a success abroad." Ayalnesh, like many foreign workers, believes her best chance of being treated fairly is now in London, a growing market for domestic workers.

A ragged flock of starlings flies across the roof of the Kalayaan drop-in centre in Holland Park, west London. It's a hard building to find. The narrow entrance blends into the concrete facade rendering it almost as invisible as the women the unit was created for. Only thin writing scratched on the buzzer identifies your location. In the adjacent courtyard, wealthy Londoners sit in the garden of a wine bar. Laughter fills the air. Above them, in a cramped office, domestic workers sit crouched over plates of noodles speaking to each other frantically in broken English.

"The foreign girl next door to you in London never rests," says Gita, a maid from northern India. "She works day and night and is never allowed to leave the apartment. She sleeps in the kitchen with the dog. She does the dirty work. She wipes the bottoms of the young and the old, she gives baths, she washes clothes. She barely eats. That is my story, this is my life even now." And according to Gita, this is the story all over London. "It is happening next door to many of you," she says, "but you just don't realise it. The girl escapes, but her owner finds her in the street and takes her back. I was held prisoner for two years and I wasn't paid a penny for my last year's work. This is the dream your country has to offer."

Around Gita, the other women softly clap their hands in timid solidarity. Few have the confidence to raise their own voices. Britain, and London in particular, is one of the fastest growing markets in the world for recruiting foreign domestic workers. Many of these workers are migrants, serving "cash-rich, time-poor" British families as cleaners, nannies and cooks. Behind closed doors many are exploited and abused. Kalayaan, a campaigning group for migrant domestics, recently conducted a survey which showed that 86% of migrant maids work more than 16 hours a day, 71% have been deprived of food, 32% have had their passports withheld by their employers and 23% have been physically abused. Many of the women who visit the Kalayaan shelter sleep in hallways or in converted cupboards in small London apartments.

Gita, who now works for a new family, also claims, like many of the domestic staff, to have been sexually abused. "I worked for an Indian family in Hampstead. There were bars on the basement window where I slept. At first I only had a duvet cover to sleep on and then later a mattress on the floor. I was up at 5am to prepare roti for the madam and I worked until midnight each night. Sometimes I wasn't given any food and was pushed around by their eldest daughter. Although I shopped for the children's food, the wife never asked me to eat with them. I felt she would notice if I ate their food, so I borrowed money from a neighbour's maid to buy noodles and ate when I could."

The family told Gita they were sending her money home, but they never did. "The husband would come home and make advances on me. After a few months he started raping me. This went on for five months. Many of the maids in the UK are sexually abused, but are too frightened to report it for fear of deportation. Eventually I broke down in tears in front of his wife, but she didn't believe me, and later she was so furious she came at me with a hot iron. I realised she was going to burn my face. I put my arm up when she charged at me and she burnt that instead. Later that night she threw me on the street at 3am and I turned to Kalayaan." Proving what happened to Gita is impossible, she says.The family left Britain earlier this year.

Another London-based worker, Divia, reveals how she was forced to sleep on the stone floor of her madam's kitchen in the West End. She was fed so little her eyesight started to fail and she began to show symptoms of severe malnutrition. Her diet was entirely based on leftovers from the family table. "I was so thin I would faint with hunger. But I have heard stories worse than mine in Kalayaan. When I hear of young girls who work for Arabs in London swallowing acid it makes me depressed. I know that could have been me.

"Sometimes I feel thankful that I had the strength not to try and take me own life. The women I met here are so filled with sadness, they are constantly on the verge of tears at the abuse they receive behind closed doors, but they have no voice and are too terrified of the authorities to trust them. They have seen other women deported for causing a fuss."

According to Kalayaan, stories like Divia's are not uncommon. In the past few weeks a domestic worker in Knightsbridge, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, attempted suicide after years of abuse by her employer. The woman, a Filipina, swallowed acid and is now permanently disabled. Scotland Yard is investigating the case.

Kalayaan spokeswoman Jenny Moss believes the situation is not improving. "There is a saying here which is used by the Filipina workers: 'Kung walang hirap, walang ginhawa', which means 'Without suffering, there can be no ease,'" she says. "Many of these women enter their working relationships here in Britain quite simply expecting to be treated badly. At Kalayaan we register about 350 new domestic workers each year, the majority of whom have been exploited or abused in the UK. Domestic workers are dependent on one employer for their work, their immigration status and their accommodation, and this makes them extremely vulnerable. They often feel they have little choice but to accept their working conditions - no matter how abusive."

It is late in downtown Manila. A young prostitute, no older than 14, stands in a yellow mini-skirt in front of a paunchy Welshman who has, fingers clicking, called her out from a group of around 30 skinny girls. As he heaves himself off a tiny bar stool he flicks up her skirt at the front to inspect her and with a wave of his hand sends her back to the goldfish bowl they stand in. Outside on Burgos Street, one of the most notorious red-light strips in Asia, the dark skies finally open up, breaking the intolerable humidity. Within moments the hot rain runs down the heavily made-up faces of the lowly street girls, the youngest of all the prostitutes, pathetic and ghoulish in their thin clothes and tottering high heels. Sheltering under the awning of a snack bar, Cristiana puts her hands out for a cigarette and shivers.

"The rain is bad for business," says the 15-year-old. As she speaks, she absentmindedly scrawls her number in the menu of the café she is taking shelter in. The menu she is holding is scribbled over with messages: "Hi! Hello! My name is Maria." "I'm Tina. Call for your heart's desire." Inside the café western men bounce tiny Filipina girls on their thighs like babies, the youngsters' infantile appearances exaggerated by their white ankle socks. The younger they look the more money they will make.

"I want to go to Europe, to work abroad as a massage therapist or a nurse. I would be happier there," says Cristiana. "I am working here to pay my way through my entrance exams to become a nurse. That is the dream we all share. To leave these islands for a better life."


The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) quoted God as saying: "O My servants, I have forbidden oppression for Myself and have made it forbidden amongst you, so do not oppress one another." - Hadith Qudsi 17

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “Fear the cry of the oppressed, for there is no barrier between it and God." - Fiqh-us-Sunnah, Volume 3, Number 1

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “Help the oppressed (sorrowful) and guide those who have lost their way. - Sunan of Abu-Dawood, Hadith 2244

Remember, Kindness leads to Paradise:

Narrated Aisha (a wife of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him): "A poor woman came to me along with her daughters. I gave her three dates. She gave a date to each of them and then she took up one date and brought that to her mouth. . .but her daughters expressed desire to eat it. She then divided the date that she intended to eat between them. This (kind) treatment impressed me and I mentioned what she did to (the Prophet Muhammad) He then said: 'Verily God has assured Paradise for her because of (this act of kindness).'"

A man once came to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and asked what act of penitence he could perform for a sin he had committed. The Prophet asked the man if he had a mother. When the man replied that his mother had died, the Prophet asked if he had a maternal aunt. When the man replied that he had, the Prophet said: "Then be kind to her." - Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 1274

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