[OPINION | Dash of SAS] President Duterte molested his maid. He’s not the only Filipino man to do so

Another girl, around the same age, became pregnant by her employer. There was little that she could do except leave – her employer was also her uncle. (READ: Rape within the family)

While stories of household service workers being raped, assaulted, and molested abroad dominate our headlines and social media feed, Palisoc who is president of the United Domestic Workers of the Philippines says these cases also happen here but are often dealt with quiet shame and secrecy. With social condemnation like “ang landi-landi mo kasi (you’re such a tease/slut) "or “nagpakita ka ng motibo (you must have wanted it, too)" is guaranteed more than any form of redress, many young women are cornered into helpless silence.  

“They are afraid that no one will believe them. Some are very young and are not aware of what their rights are,” said Palisoc. 

According to Palisoc, most of the requests for “rescue” they get are for labor or contract violations, but there are a number of requests for rescue from an employer who is sexually abusive.  

When President Rodrigo Duterte admitted in lurid disgusting detail how he had molested  his sleeping household helper as a horny teenager, he pulled back the curtain on how many household workers experience some form of sexual assault at the hands of their Filipino employers.

The danger of domestic work  

The very nature of domestic work, regardless of where it takes place, is high risk. As a domestic worker, you work within the confines of a private home and your employer has an incredible latitude of control over you: the roof over your head, the food you eat, how long you will work, and your salary are all dependent on your employer.  

But in some areas, household workers employed locally are exposed to higher risks. 

Under the Kasambahay Law, a person can start domestic work (cook, gardener, nanny) at age 15. The law defines them as a “working child” who is entitled to minimum wage and benefits of a regular employee covered by the law. In addition, they are covered by child protection laws. 

To work abroad as a domestic worker, a woman needs to be at least 23 years old. Like other migrant workers, she must attend a pre-departure orientation seminar (PDOS) where she will be informed of her rights as a worker, cultural nuances that she needs to be mindful of, as well as the locations of Philippine welfare offices such as the embassy or the Overseas Worker Welfare Association (OWWA) where she can go for assistance. 

In some countries, especially those with a large Filipino worker population, there are migrant worker organizations which serve as a crucial social support system. They offer friendship and advice on navigating acceptable working conditions in a foreign country. These organizations often work with Philippine authorities in the destination countries and together, they are a source of empowerment in the form of companionship and organized solidarity that are often absent among household workers employed locally.

Duterte’s mixed messages

With the international media attention caught by Duterte’s confession, labor advocacy groups like Migrante International are looking into how his statements may worsen already precarious working conditions for domestic workers, particularly in countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait where reports of domestic worker maltreatment are far too common. 

Laorence Castillo of Migrante International says they are verifying a thread where a domestic worker reportedly claimed that her employer groped her after hearing that her President had once done the same to his maid. 

Instead of apologizing for statements that may endanger domestic workers – whose support he has enjoyed – Duterte seemed to attempt justifying them by saying that rape “comes with the territory of working abroad.” 

"Instead of ensuring justice for all the rape victims and providing full protection to all our women OFWs, you gave us a remark that virtually justifies the commission of heinous crimes against them. Kailanman, hindi namin matatanggap ang sinasabi mong kapalaran namin na halayin at alipinin sa ibang bayan (We will never accept your statement that it is our fate to be raped as slaves in another country)," Joanna Concepcion, Migrante International chairperson, says in a statement.

“It is not acceptable for an ordinary citizen – or anyone – to abuse a domestic worker. Moreso, if you are the president,” says Ellene Sana, executive director of Center for Migrant Advocacy. “What he used as a ‘joke’ are the dangers faced every day by our domestic workers both here and abroad.”

We’ve all heard the “'Wag, Koya/Ser (Please don’t, brother/sir)" jokes and have seen how some of our male relatives give the young helper a look that lasts too long or a smile unbecoming from someone trying to be a benevolent employer. Some of us whisper about uncles, cousins, or brothers who got the help pregnant and gave her money to keep her quiet because “that’s all she wanted anyway.” Tracing back the family tree of celebrities and politicians' half-siblings will lead to "anak sa labas (children borne out of wedlock)" with the laundry woman.

But many of us have looked away. Many of us tune out to such stories or like those in attendance when Duterte detailed with glee how he had molested his maid, we laughed. 

During my conversation with Sana, we both lamented how Duterte is sending mixed messages. On one hand, he wants to protect migrant workers and lambasts countries like Kuwait for maltreatment, but on the other hand, he makes a joke out of mistreating a worker under his family’s employ. “The one thing that is consistent is the way that he looks down on women,” says Sana. 

We rage with righteous indignation when migrant workers are abused by their employer abroad, but keep silent when it happens here at home. Duterte held up a mirror to our own behavior. In many ways, Duterte’s hypocrisy is also our own. – Rappler.com

If you are domestic worker or know one who needs legal assistance or protection, contact the United Domestic Workers of the Philippines through their Facebook page here. 

Ana P. Santos writes about sexuality and gender for Rappler. As the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting's Persephone Miel Fellow, she wrote about Filipino migrant mothers in Dubai and Paris in her reporting project, "Who Takes Care of Nanny's Children?"