By Susan V. Ople, Special for CNN
(Note: This article appeared on CNN’s Freedom Project website last August. It garnered several comments, some scathing, others supportive. Given space limitations (I was only allowed a word count of 500), I wasn’t able to expound on key points especially on the inclusion of Singapore and Hong Kong in the first paragraph. So let me point out that while the law and situation in these two locations are indeed much higher in standards than in other countries, there are still some cases of abuse and exploitation of foreign maids including those whose pay fall way below those prescribed under their respective policies or laws.)
If you ask young people what they could get for U.S. $200 or less, their answers would probably include a tablet, a smart phone, or a designer bag. Not on the list, a foreign maid – unless you live in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, or any country in the Middle East.
In the United States, maids are for the rich and famous. Modern-day slavery in the western world commonly wears the face of a prostitute, a trafficked child, or an illegal migrant exploited by his or her employer. For third world countries, human slavery often has the face of a domestic worker isolated from society and kept invisible inside private homes of their employers.
As an advocate for migrant workers’ rights, I have seen slavery up close. It has many faces: a jealous female employer, sexual predators, pimps, illegal recruiters, and corrupt officials. Common among them is the belief that a foreign domestic worker is a commodity to be used or sold, or both.
Sarah (not her real name) was a Filipino domestic worker sold 11 times to different employers in Saudi Arabia. She ended up in a hospital after being beaten black and blue by the last of her employers. She was repatriated home without months of unpaid wages. Slavery has left its thumbprint in the way she speaks, at times incoherent, and in her distrust of people.
In Malaysia last year, the Singaporean owner of a manpower agency was tried for human trafficking. “Here in Malaysia, I am your god,” the employer told two Filipina maids whose faces he slapped repeatedly. In this case, close coordination among the victims, two governments (Philippines and Malaysia), and the non-profit organization that I head, the Blas F. Ople Policy Center, resulted in a conviction. The challenge lies in trying to replicate the same model for victims in other countries.
The Ople Center is named after my late father, former Philippine labor and foreign affairs secretary and senator Blas F. Ople. Born of humble beginnings, he developed the Philippine overseas employment program as labor secretary during the Marcos era. In those days, the Philippines deployed mostly nurses, engineers, construction workers, and other skilled workers primarily to the Middle East.
Today, our case files are filled with the stories of abused Filipino maids sold by foreign agencies to different employers for an average monthly wage of $200. Our mission, in partnership with the Philippine government, is to bring them home to safety. We offer training to equip these individuals with alternative skills that will allow them better, safer jobs and an enduring freedom.
Recently, the Philippines forged a landmark bilateral agreement with Saudi Arabia that prescribes a minimum wage of $400 for Filipino maids, days of rest, and quick response mechanisms for abused Filipino maids. Our government is negotiating similar agreements with other countries.
In June, I received the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Hero Award from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington DC. While receiving the award, I thought of all the abused women that we rescued around the world. They are the real heroes fighting to give a better life for their families.
Behind every foreign maid is a family trying hard to survive poverty. Some societies choose to look down on them for the work that they do. Yet, fighting slavery starts with being kinder and more respectful as a person, as a nation, and as an entire civilization. A person enslaved diminishes us all, regardless of what we do and who we are.
CNN producer, Simon Rushton