The Philippines has one of the largest migratory populations with their national economy largely depending on Overseas Filipino Worker's (OFW) remittances. The OFWs have been deemed the 'new heroes' of the Philippines' economy. However, some OFWs are subjected to exploitation throughout the Asia-Pacific, Europe, North America and the Middle East. Sar was lured abroad with promises of well-paid work, which she wanted to help pay for her grandmother’s hospitalisation. Instead, she had her passport and cell phone confiscated and was pressured to engage in sex work. Her account describes potential corruption of the immigration office, and problems with trying to reintegrate into her former community.
All that I can remember of my early childhood is that I was happy because I was with my lola [grandmother]. Although I loved my lola, I missed my mother. I have regrets about my mother having left me because she chose a second family over me. She is a mother in name only.
I was left in the care of my lola and lived with my uncles and aunties. However, I was very loved by them and they were my only family. My lola was very loving, caring and patient. Even when she had no food for herself she prioritised me. I have more respect for my family than I do my mother and father. My lola paid for my education in elementary school and my aunties and uncles paid for my secondary schooling.
I have a fond memory of undertaking scout activities as a child. Once we had a family campaign and my lola and I bonded. It was so memorable because we had fun and joined in the games.
In high school I was influenced by the bad habits of my peers but I was happy because at the closing of each year I was included in the top students in the class – my lola would pin a ribbon on me. My lola would describe me as spoilt but not a brat. I am someone who likes to catch attention in a beautiful way, always showing love and affection, I am the one who always wants to be cuddled. But also I am so shy; little by little I am getting over the shyness.
When I was 24 I was trafficked to a country neighbouring the Philippines. I cannot find a reason as to why I was trafficked. It just happened. Even my family cannot understand why I was trafficked. Although we were not financially well off, we were content. What I want is only what I can get. I am not a social climber. Maybe I am just a random victim of trafficking. Maybe one big reason was that at that time my lola was hospitalised and we needed big money because our income did not suffice for the hospitalisation. So I grabbed the opportunity, the promise.
It all began when I was a working as a promo girl selling beauty products in a local mall. A friend asked me if I would like to go to a neighbouring country to work and get better pay. My friend told me I could earn money there as a band member. My pay at the mall in Cebu was very small, so I thought this would be an opportunity to earn money for my lola’s medication. So I arranged with this friend to attend band practice. I had a good singing voice and five of us had band practice for a month. Then it was time to depart. The manager of the band made all the arrangements, including our airfares and passports. We were told to meet at Cebu’s domestic airport. I was a little confused because I thought we should be departing from the international section. Our departure time was supposed to be 11pm but we had to be at the domestic terminal at 4pm so I started to think something was not good, as if we were hiding in the domestic departure area.
When we arrived in the neighbouring country we were passed quickly through immigration and then we were taken in a van to the house that we would be staying in. After we arrived at the house we had a sleep and within three days we were told to just do our band practice.
On the third day we were brought to a bar and they said we had to observe. I was shocked by what I saw there. The bar was very dark. I expected that I would be singing in a band inside a hotel in a decent place, but the bar we went into was very dirty, the room was very dark and the only lit area was where the wines were placed in the bar. When the customers came in the women who were there ahead of us would take drugs because these customers would just have sex in that area. People seemed to be high on drugs.
We started singing in that bar but there was no one listening. We just seemed to be singing to ourselves! I had in my mind also that there was an expectation that we would also be prostituted. We had only been there for a couple of days when we were told that we must dress up in sexy clothing. They took our cell phones and passports but we managed to hide one cell phone. I did not feel comfortable at all.
One time the brother of the owner of the bar came in and saw me and I thought he loved me but he said, “Take off your jacket, why are you ashamed?” I was not very comfortable at all because I was still a virgin and I had no experience.
One of the employers told us to take drugs so that we could make plenty of money and we would not be ashamed when we entertained customers. I didn’t want to do any of this and so that’s when we planned to escape.
There was a Dutch seaman, a customer at the bar, who I told my problem to. He gave me the key to his hotel so that I could escape there and he could help me. When the five of us arrived at his hotel he was angry because he did not expect me to bring companions and he was afraid that he would be caught or implicated. The Dutchman consulted his Filipina friend about us who advised that we should go directly to immigration. So we all arrived at the immigration office and told them our plight. However, they just teased us and said, “Why do you complain when you have been given food, shelter and clothes?”
The immigration people told us if we wanted to report a problem we should go to the police. Again, the police just laughed at us. They mocked us because we just carried our possessions in a plastic bag. They told us to return to the immigration department.
The immigration van transported us back to the immigration department where we discovered our employer was there. The head of immigration told us, “Your employer is very kind to you. You should go back to the bar and you should go back to your employer.” We pleaded with him not to force us to go back but they insisted they were closing and locked us out of the office. We were crying and pleading for their help but the other people in immigration just laughed at us. We cried and even laid down on the floor but the head of immigration ordered us out to face our employer. We linked arms together as we were scared that we would be pulled away one by one.
Our employer tried to coerce us to go with him. He said we should just have discussed our problems with him. He tried to get us to come with him but we all ran away. We pulled up a taxi and had him drive very far away from that place to another town where we stayed in a pension house and got back in touch with the Dutchman who linked us up with a Filipino woman in that town. She offered her house for us to stay in whilst we sorted out papers to get home to the Philippines.
After three weeks of staying with her she changed her attitude and demanded money. She offered to prostitute us so that we could pay her our living expenses. Some of my friends agreed to be prostituted but I did not.
We made contact with a different immigration service and they were far more supportive. They retrieved our passports from our managers but did not get any money from them. The manager told immigration that we were liars. It took six weeks of negotiations to arrive back safely in Cebu. The mayor of Cebu intervened on our behalf because some of us had contacted our families and told them of our situation. The mayor paid for our tickets home to Cebu. The Philippine embassy facilitated this process.
When I arrived home in Cebu, I just wanted to escape because people kept asking what happened. I didn’t want to explain it to people so I just stayed down south for about 12 months. I think I was in shock. Even today I am still asking myself why I did that and I am shocked because I cannot imagine me doing that and having that trouble. Even my aunty asks me why I travelled to a neighbouring country when we could have managed financially. I regret my decision to take up the offer to earn money overseas. I think the first offer from a friend was part of a chain of traffickers. I don’t think my friend really knew what would happen to me. She just received money for recruiting me. It’s her aunty who is in jail now for trafficking offences.
The first thing I learned about trafficking is if you are in a difficult situation you should be sensible, think, and not be influenced by fear, you should focus on what to do. And also I learned that for my part, I should not be so innocent, like I am dumb, or like you just don’t know what to do, because you will easily become prey to deception. But I am proud of being a fighter even if I have plenty of problems. I stand ready to face my trials and even when I had my problems I don’t cry.
It’s my dream now to graduate in hotel management. My studies are being supported by an international organisation. My only dream now is to have a stable income. I don’t care about high wages, just a stable income to support my son. I don’t even dream to get married.
As told to Our Community in their report 'I Have a Voice: Trafficked Women - in their own words' by Angela Reed & Marietta Latonio