In the face of complaints of abuse and fraud abroad, Philippine government officials are seeking to stem the wave of more than a million Filipinas who have headed overseas to work as maids.
The outpouring of workers to other countries has paid off for the Philippines financially, sending more than $20 billion into the country last year. But horror stories of Filipinas beaten, molested and left unpaid elsewhere in Asia and the Middle East have dogged the "maid trade."
Their plight so alarmed Philippine lawmakers that a government mission traveled to Saudi Arabia last year to interview hundreds of housekeepers. One legislator likened the worst cases abroad to "modern-day slavery." Reeling, the Philippines has pushed for stricter rules, demanding a minimum wage and a weekly day off. It ratified an international treaty promising to protect the workers' rights.
But the tales of abuse have continued, pushing the government to go further. Philippine media have aired a litany of grim stories over the last year: a 22-year-old worker leaping from a third-floor window to escape her employer in Jordan, another burned with a hot iron and stabbed with a kitchen knife in Syria, yet another whose body allegedly came back from Saudi Arabia without eyes or a tongue.
"Our overriding concern is the protection of domestic workers," Hans Leo Cacdac, head of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, said in an interview late last month. "That’s why we are undertaking this plan to reduce the numbers."
How exactly the Philippines will reduce the flow of overseas domestic workers is unclear, with plans still being shaped by government officials. Cacdac says the goal is not to bar Filipinas from going abroad, but to nudge them toward better jobs by assessing their skills and education.
"I couldn’t earn much in the Philippines even though I had finished college," said Pundar Monge, now 51.
Talk of cutting back on foreign workers has been closely watched in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and other countries that bring in tens of thousands of Filipinas annually to cook and clean. In the past, the Philippines has blacklisted entire countries; it assured an Emirati newspaper it wouldn't do so this time, focusing on abusive employers and recruiters instead.
Migrant activists say focusing on better jobs is a better tactic than simply cutting women off from working overseas, as media reports about the plan first suggested. Banning workers from jobs abroad can backfire and end up worsening abuse, said Human Rights Watch senior researcher Nisha Varia.
"Women still want these jobs. Employers still want these workers. If the formal channels are closed, people will go around them –- and they’ll go around them without protection," Varia warned.
The desire to seek a better living abroad is so strong, said Ellene Sana, executive director of the Center for Migrant Advocacy in Manila, that thousands of Philippine domestic workers are still in war-ravaged Syria. Though hundreds returned to Manila this week, Sana says new workers have been illegally recruited even as the fighting escalated, and thousands have stayed in the country despite the government insisting it will cover the costs of their repatriation.
Turning its gaze inward, to address what drives people away from the Philippines, makes sense, Sana said. "We have been prodding the government to do precisely that, rather than looking beyond the borders where we have very little influence," she said.
The burgeoning Philippine economy may change the dynamic, a Singaporean financial group argued in a recent research note. On the flip side, wilting economies abroad could make staying home more attractive.
Pundar Monge said she decided to return to her country years ago for her dignity and her family. Leaving home cost her too much, she said. While she was working abroad, her oldest daughter died. Fellow workers told her about beatings and starvation at the hands of their employers.
"I would persuade young women to stay and find greener pastures here," Pundar Monge said.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Philippine workers who fled the conflict in Syria wait for their luggage upon arriving at Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Credit: Bullit Marquez / Associated Press