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Sex-For-Fly: Filipina Workers In Middle East Accuse Own Embassy Of Abuse

Domestic workers from the Philippines have faced sexual abuse by their employers in places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan. Now they also accuse Manila's own embassy employees.

Returning home
Returning home
Arne Perras

MANILA - Swathed in dark cloth that seemed like burkas, three women were pictured recently on the front page of a leading newspaper in the Philippines. Their faces, also their real names, were kept secret. They called themselves Michelle, Angel and Annalisa.

The three hooded Filipinas said they didn’t intend to tolerate the intolerable – the distress, the abuse – anymore. And they named names. The act was emotionally courageous, and indeed dangerous.

Setting up a meeting with the three has taken some time, but finally they choose a sushi bar near the port in Manila. They show up for the afternoon appointment wearing oversize sunglasses but no veils. Easier to talk this way, they say. But taking pictures is out of the question.

Michelle, Angel, Annalisa: the names have come to stand for the ongoing scandal of the exploitative working conditions -- akin, some say, to slavery -- that Filipino migrant workers suffer at the hands of Middle Eastern employers. Poor Filipinos heading to the Middle East hoping to earn money, with nearly a million of them in Saudi Arabia alone.

But the recent revelations also include accusations that Filipino government employees posted in embassies in Middle Eastern capitals like Riyadh are making the suffering endured by their compatriots even worse.

Sex rings?

Everywhere in the world, it is the job of embassies to stand by their country’s citizens abroad. But what happens when embassy employees exploit their own countrymen? When they push those seeking help into even deeper misery? It is now up to the government in Manila to investigate the accusations made against some of its foreign service employees.

The accusations are so severe that Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario recently announced that his ministry was looking into whether embassy circles were actually running sex rings involving Philippine women.

Michelle was the first to find the courage to speak out. She ran away from her Saudi employer several months ago in a dispute about her contract. Disputes of this kind are not uncommon, and most women then seek advice at one of the help centers that Manila has set in place for just such cases. But the man who was supposed to help her asked her for a service in return, Michelle says – to provide sexual services to an Egyptian man to finance her trip home. The help center officer also tried to get her to have sex with him, there in the office. Michelle, who is in her late 30s, shudders as she recalls. "I want justice," she says.

"Sex-for-Fly" is what the scandal is called in the Philippines: sex in return for a plane ticket home. That these are not isolated incidents is borne out by the fact that Manila has ordered 12 ambassadors and a consul – not themselves suspected of any wrongdoing -- posted in Arab countries back home for consultations.

Nation of emigrants

The accusations don’t only concern Saudi Arabia, but also Jordan, Kuwait and Syria. The case first came to light on June 18 when a member of Parliament reported that a Philippine embassy officer had been pimping Philippine women for $1,000 a night.

The scandal has shaken the Philippines, where nearly every family has members working abroad. Indeed, every eighth citizen goes abroad to work as sailors, construction workers, domestic help and other jobs. That adds up to 12 million people worldwide, and until recently Michelle, Annalisa and Angel were among them. Filipino politicians call their migrant workers "modern heroes" – the money each one sends back supports up to five relatives at home. Society couldn’t manage without them.

Filipinos have gotten used to the system, and if some say it proves the incapacity of the government, so far nothing has changed. Whether President Benigno Aquino, who is considered a reformer, can improve the situation is far from certain.

At the Manila sushi bar, Angel and Annalisa recount some of the horrors that happened to them abroad. Both worked as domestics in Saudi Arabia. Angel remembers how excited she was on the flight out, hoping to earn enough money to pay for a good education for her sons.

But when she got to destination it took her only a couple of hours to figure out what was going on. Her Saudi employer couldn’t have cared less that she had a signed contract with an agency. "I slaved from six in the morning to one in the morning, seven days a week," she says. The contract stipulated that she was to work for a family of three eight hours a day, and get one day off per week. "But I was expected to clean three huge villas occupied by big families." She wasn't even given any time off when she was ill.

The Philippines embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Google Maps

Confiscated passport

On her very first day, her boss took her passport away -- as is typical in such arrangements -- and so Angel was basically a prisoner. But worse was to come. She relates how her employer raped her twice, once while holding a knife to her throat. All she could do in the end was run away. She was so relieved when she finally made it to the Philippine Embassy help center.

Help? Justice? Angel offers a bitter laugh. While the agency that had hired her booked her a return flight, the Philippine officer at the center didn’t give the ticket to her. Instead, Angel spent four months at the center where she was repeatedly asked if she didn’t want “to work part-time” to finance her flight home. She refused. Finally she was put on a flight back to Manila. Angel also can’t forget one officer’s questions. He asked her about the rapes, and she told him everything believing he was trying to help her. But all he said was: "Well? Was the sex good?"

The woman going by the name Annalisa also went to the help center at her embassy. After that she got a call and the caller asked if she wanted to earn her trip home in return for a one-night stand. She didn’t know the caller, but she did know that she had only given her number out to the Philippine embassy officer at the center.

Now she’s back home, trying to make a go of it with a small store she’s opened in Manila. Angel says she never wants to leave the Philippines again. And though her mother may not have much, says Angel, “at least I can count on her.”

​1. How many Filipino workers are there in the Middle East?

There are around 2.2 million Filipino workers in the Middle East, with over 900,000 in Saudi Arabia. Kuwait is home to approximately 268,000 Filipinas living and working in the state, often employed as housekeepers.

​2. How common is sexual abuse of Filipina workers in the Middle East?

According to an investigation done by the Committee on Workers Overseas Welfare in 2012, 70% of Filipina domestic workers in Saudi Arabia face psychological and/or physical abuse, many face sexual assault. Those numbers today are harder to distinguish, as many workers have been brought to the Middle East illegally and are not registered.

In February 2023, the Philippines started to limit the recruitment of workers to Kuwait, following many reports of assault as well as the murder of a domestic worker, according to Middle East Eye. Manila has since suspended the authorization of new recruitment agencies, and is now stopping workers from seeking employment in Kuwait.

​3. What is the Kafala system?

The kafala system is a legal framework that defines the relationship between migrant workers and their employers in Jordan, Lebanon, and all Arab Gulf states except Iraq. It was created to supply cheap, plentiful labor in a time of economic growth, its defenders argue that it benefits local businesses and helps drive development. Under the kafala system, states give employers sponsorship permits, which allow them to bring in foreign workers. These permits thus bind workers to their employers, which makes them more vulnerable to exploitation.

But the system has become increasingly controversial, with proof emerging that it is rife with exploitation. The lack of regulations and protections for migrant workers’ rights often results in low wages, poor working conditions, and employee abuse. Racial discrimination and gender-based violence are increasingly common for migrant workers in the Gulf.

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