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 two 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.

A 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.

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.”

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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