Entrapment survivor advocates OFW rights
MANILA, Philippines - In 2006, Sally Claro walked into an employment agency called Green World.
At the time, she was working as a branch collector in small business enterprise and as a freelance agent of PRIMANILA pension plan. A Business Management major, Sally got married during school and was unable to complete her college degree.
"What I wanted, was to have better income for my kids, so that I could send them to school, and buy my own house, and have a little capital to start my own business, so that I could help my husband. But sad to say, that dream was just a dream, it is not a reality, because the reality was a nightmare."
Sally was told by Green World she had received a job as a receptionist in Lebanon.
"I was at the airport," said Sally. "I was so confused because I didn't have my working contract."
Sally's passport arrived 10 minutes before boarding. Against her better judgment, she hurriedly signed.
"While we were waiting for the flight, I gave a run-through reading of the contract and i was amazed that it was not my agency. I thought, oh, oh, oh, what's happening?"
Sally arrived at the Lebanese airport disoriented. Her Lebanese employer threatened to charge Sally US$2,000 if she did not sign a new contract, which was written in Arabic.
"I thought I would be a receptionist in the hotel -- but in the (new) contract, I was a domestic helper -- and I had to be a nanny, and a caretaker to their bedridden grandmother. I was also a tutor for another daughter. At the same time, I was a manicurist, beautician, I did massage. When they had a client, they just pulled me out, do the massage, pedicure. And I didn't even get my salary for 11 months."
At that time, Sally mistakenly believed that her employer was sending the money to her family in the Philippines.
"I wanted to call my family," said Sally, "and every time I asked for permission to make a call she (her employer) would say, we are busy, no time now, later on, later on."
Sally had no further contact with either the Philippine or Lebanese employment agencies, was denied the chance to phone her family, and was closely watched whenever she left home. Her only contact with the outside world was through another Filipina OFW who worked nearby.
"I was never as free or lucky as her," said Sally. "I was only allowed to go out if they needed me to clean the salon or hospital. Almost all of the time that I stayed in Lebanon, I was locked in the room -- to stay with the grandmother who was bedridden -- to be a nanny of the special child, and to clean the whole building."
Meanwhile, Sally's family was frantically searching for her. They paid P60,000 so that Green World would initiate a search-and-rescue mission. But since hostilities between Lebanon and Israel were ongoing, the agency claimed they could do nothing. With the help of Kanlungan, an organization that assists OFWs, Sally's familiy contacted the Philippine embassy and Caritas Lebanon, a pro-migrant organization. While the embassy and Caritas initiated searches, Sally's entrapment worsened.
"At the time, I felt like I was going crazy. I kept on crying and crying. And I was afraid, because I didn't want to be hit. Every time I made mistakes, she (Sally's employer) would grab my hair, and she would drag me and beat me, and I didn't have the power to fight her."
Due to the grueling nature of her work, Sally was only able to sleep several hours a night. When cleaning bathrooms, she would turn on the faucets and nap briefly on the floor, so as not to be caught. She was not fed well, and was forced to hide scraps from the kitchen in the garbage, which she would later retrieve and eat.
"The last time that I was totally fed up, she humiliated me in front of many people -- they made fun of me. She told me I had to masturbate one of her friends. They were going to pay her."
It was more than she could take. Her adrenaline pumping, Sally seized a bottle of champagne and hurled it at her employer. A tussle ensued. Sally's Filipina neighbor witnessed the fight and immediately notified the Philippine embassy. Agents arrived in the nick of time. Sally was scratched, bruised, "haggard, distressed, totally disheveled."
The employer fabricated a case against Sally, claiming that she had stolen jewelry and attempted to sue the Philippine embassy for illegal trespassing.
"During the jurisdiction of the process on my case, that is the only time I saw the owner of the (employment) agency. He was called in court to ask why a problem like this arose. He wasn't monitoring me. I told them my agency in the Philippines (was supposed to) monitor us every 1-3 months, and if there was a problem we could contact them. So I stayed in immigration jail for almost one-and-a-half months."
Her sister-in-law traveled from her work in Switzerland to pay the fines levied by the court and buy Sally's return ticket. Her employer was not prosecuted. The Philippine embassy, along with the pro-migrant NGO Caritas Lebanon, also assisted her during this time.
"In the embassy and immigration you could see the strain," said Sally. "Those who were victims of rape -- some went crazy, the others were disabled because they jumped from their building to survive."
Sally's ordeal was finally coming to an end. Upon her return on Jan 12, 2007, Sally rallied with nearly 60 other distressed OFWs returning from the Middle East. They marched to the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA).
"The OWWA called our different agencies here in Manila -- and after these transactions, negotiations, I told them that I would sue my agency -- with the assistance of Kanlungan at that time. So in good faith, I won the fight, and they paid me back."
Sally used the money from the settlement to start her own sari-sari store, attend culinary school, and start a catering business. Assisted by Kanlungan, she also mobilized an OFW advocacy group called Balabal.
"We wanted them to know it is not a bad decision to work abroad, but they have to know more about the legal process, to apply to work abroad, for their own safety. We want them to prevent them becoming victims of humiliation, or rape -- those experiences that we had. We believe that prevention is better," Sally said.
Sally is currently in Manila as a delegate representing her own organization, Balabal, to the World Social Forum on Migration (WSFM).
The WSFM, hosted by Miriam College, is a yearly global event of, and by, social movements, mass organisations, civil society, activists and advocates. Held from November 26 to November 30, this year's WSFM focused on migrant labor in Asia. - Rappler.com