By Jofelle P. Tesorio
HAARLEM, THE NETHERLANDS – Two Filipina migrants here lived through the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown by helping their undocumented and vulnerable compatriots who do not enjoy the safety nets given by the Dutch government.
“Ayaw ko nang i-blur ang mukha ko or walang pangalan” (I don’t want my face blurred or unnamed). This was Bing Molabin’s request when I asked about her experience as an undocumented migrant worker in The Netherlands. She is one of the estimated 30,000 Filipinos “without papers,” according to Migrante-Netherlands.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced many countries into lockdown, Bing is among the most affected. “It is difficult. Having an irregular status means you have no protection against the crisis. While all groups of workers have social security under the Dutch labor law, undocumented workers like me are not included. In fact, we are the most vulnerable workers in the country. It is a sad fact that we are left behind in terms of social protection because of our migration status. We have no job security, pension, holidays, written contract, health insurance, and even a bank account,” she said.
For the last 17 years, Bing has been working for different families as domestic help. The children that she took care of when she first arrived as a tourist have all grown up. She is treated like a member of these families. But when the COVID-19 lockdown took effect, she stopped going to her employers’ home.
The lockdown brought anxiety to undocumented workers. It meant a loss of employment for cleaners, baby sitters, or dishwashers in restaurants. If they worked at all, it is on a “no work, no pay” basis. Many of the undocumented migrants feared being kicked out of their rented houses for non-payment of rent.
“We are worried about the situation of our families in the Philippines. Of course, it is unavoidable not to think about our families who depend on us for survival,” Bing said. Luckily for her, some of her employers agreed to pay her, even if she does not work during the lockdown. But others have been told to wait it out until the crisis is over.
Long before the COVID-19 lockdown, Bing spends most of her free time, even on weekends and holidays, doing volunteer work among Filipinos and other migrants.
She co-founded the organization Filipino Migrants for Solidarity (FilMis) that helps the most vulnerable migrants in the Netherlands. She regularly attends meetings and activities with foundations, government offices and individuals who share their causes for better migrants’ rights and equal treatment of household workers. These groups are pushing for the rights of undocumented migrants to have permanent stay permits, equal healthcare, and social security.
Plea for support
The Netherlands Trade Union Confederation (FNV) is a million-strong association of workers, people on benefits, pensioners and the self-employed. When the FNV, along with other migrant organizations, launched a crowdfunding to help undocumented migrant workers, Bing was one of the faces in the video that appealed for support to the cause.
“I wanted my face there because undocumented migrant workers exist, they have a face, a name,” she said. She was tireless in meeting people and promoting the causes of undocumented migrants not just because she is one of them but because, she said, it is the right thing to do.
Jolly and charismatic, Bing is the go-to person when it comes to undocumented migrants’ concerns. She has built an extensive network of friends and colleagues who pull things together whenever help is needed.
“May karapatan din naman kami na walang papel na makakain at makatulog nang maayos sa panahon ng krisis (We all have rights to sleep and eat properly during the crisis even if we are undocumented),” she said.
It is a sad fact that we are left behind in terms of social protection because of our migration status. We have no job security, pension, holidays, written contract, health insurance,
and even a bank account”
Since the start of the lockdown in the middle of March, Bing and fellow FilMis members have been coordinating, sourcing and distributing grocery packs, vouchers, and cash assistance to some Filipino migrants. With the help of Stichting Ros, a foundation supporting migrants without residence permits, rejected assylum seekers and stateless persons, they reached out to vulnerable migrants especially the undocumented ones to help them get through the pandemic.
Post-lockdown, some of them can get back to work. But for Bing, her advocacy continues. She wants other worker groups from different sectors, to voice out their clear and unconditional support to domestic workers’ rights. Her network is now calling for an amendment of an EU law that will recognize equal rights among workers, including domestic workers.
Face of modern-day slavery
Another Filipina, Corazon ‘Cora’ Espanto, also spends her days helping women migrant workers from the Philippines.
I caught her during our online chat making face masks that she sells for charity. She used to be a seamstress in the Philippines.
In between sewing, she told me about a Filipina who was prevented by her husband from entering their house because she just came back from the Philippines and the husband thought she might have caught COVID-19 from her travel. Cora referred the Filipina’s case to a Dutch lawyer who does pro-bono cases.
“There are cases like this now because of the crisis. We also helped a Filipina who asked for paternity support from the Dutch father of her child. We traced the father and now he has to undergo a DNA test,” she said in Filipino.
As chairperson of Migrante in The Hague, Cora has been active in the protection of Filipino migrants, particularly the undocumented and house helpers.
She was a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia in 1998 when her employer got a diplomatic post in the Netherlands in 2003. She was brought along with three other Filipino household staff. In Saudi, she was only paid US$250 a month instead of $350 that was in the contract. She used to work, without days off, for almost 12 hours daily for her employer with four small children.
She thought that working in the Netherlands meant better protection and salary but the situation even got worse.
“Bawal kaming magluto ng sarili naming pagkain. Iyong pagkain na niluto para sa kanila, kung ano lang ang matitira, iyon lang ang kakainin namin… Kung walang matira, sorry kami (We were not allowed to cook our own food. The food we cooked was just for them. We ate what’s left. If there’s none, we won’t eat),” she said during a previous interview, adding that they had to pick some bread with molds from the trash bin to eat.
They followed the so-called Kafala system, a form of sponsorship vulnerable to exploitation. Their bosses kept their passports, they were not allowed to go out, and they worked almost 12 hours daily for $350 a month. She had no idea that the minimum wage in the Netherlands was already more than 1,000 euro then.
To augment the family income, she even convinced her employers to hire her two children when vacancies for household staff opened. The two were paid $300 each month. Her children saw the maltreatment that gave her the courage to leave the diplomat’s house. With the help of some Filipinos, they planned their escape one day. A taxi, parked in a nearby bus stop at 5 am, took them to The Hague station where a kababayan (fellow Filipino) was waiting.
Fear of being caught
For fear of being caught without papers, Cora and her children remained in hiding for three years. But in 2011, she decided to talk to the Dutch media under a pseudonym to expose the abuses against domestic helpers by some diplomats and expatriates. In 2014, with the help of Fairwork, an international organization that promotes migrants’ rights, she submitted a petition to the Dutch Parliament to investigate the issue. She also gave an interview with the Dutch media using her real name.
Since then, Cora has become the face of modern-day slavery in the Netherlands. She has been volunteering at Fairwork as a cultural mediation officer and was given various awards for her work.
Cora’s painful experience as a Filipina migrant fired her up. She wants to see other migrants to get help and protection. This year, Migrante-Netherlands and other migrant and labor organizations in the Netherlands submitted a petition to the Dutch parliament to recognize undocumented workers by giving them permanent rights to stay, especially amid the COVID-19 crisis. Cora said that undocumented migrants are vulnerable because of lack of protection.
She passed her Dutch exam last year and is now qualified to become a naturalized citizen or get a permanent stay permit. She said while her status has changed, many others are still there hiding and uncertain but she will do her best to reach out to them. WWW
About the author:
Jofelle P. Tesorio is a journalist and academic researcher based in the Netherlands. She contributes to various Asian publications. When not writing about OFWs’ concerns, she is busy growing herbs and sprouts, and talking endlessly about the differences between the Dutch and Filipinos with her 6-year old son. Her works can be found in www.jofelletesorio.com