Response: April 2017 Issue

Leaving Home to Survive

A Filipina pastor helps empower overseas workers to stand up for their rights.

Leaving Home to Survive
The Rev. Marie Sol Villalon, right, chats with Zeny Santos, a woman she helped escape from captivity at a job in Malaysia.

Zeny Santos finally ran out of options. The small plot of weary farmland her husband worked in the hills of the island of Luzon simply wasn’t producing enough to feed their family, and Santos grew tired of not having enough food for her three children. So when a woman approached her about leaving the Philippines to work abroad, Santos decided she would go.

“No one in my family had ever been an OFW before,” she said, using the common acronym for overseas Filipino worker. More than 10 million Filipinos have left their homeland to seek temporary work abroad. “But I was desperate, and she promised me good work as a massage therapist in Malaysia.”

Santos’ recruiter got all the paperwork taken care of, though Santos wondered why she was listed as a “singer” on the work visa she received. “I didn’t ask enough questions, because I really needed a job,” she said. “I just thought of the money I would send home to my family.”

Unlike many OFWs, who have to pay thousands of dollars in upfront fees to their recruiters, Santos was told that her fees would be deducted from her salary over time. So in 2014 she got on a plane to Malaysia. She spent one month in Sarawak working in a massage parlor, where she says she was treated well.

But then she was transferred to a massage parlor in Kuching City, and things changed when Santos refused to provide extra services to her clients.

“The manager was a Filipina, and she was always angry with me because I refused to go out with the men. I wouldn’t do it. The manager was always mad at me for this, and so I got no salary. I didn’t have much food to eat. When I complained about being hungry, the manager would tell me to talk to the Malaysian owner. But he never came around. My husband back in the Philippines had to send me money to buy food,” she said.

Santos was essentially a prisoner in the massage parlor. The door was kept locked, and the owner of the business had taken her passport. She and a coworker could occasionally get permission to go to the market for food, but the manager warned them against saying anything.

“She told us that no one in the city would help us, because everyone knew the owner,” Santos said.

One day Santos and another Filipina worker were detained by the police while walking to the market. “The police told us that foreigners weren’t allowed to walk around there. They called our boss who arranged to have us released,” she said.

When Santos got a serious skin infection and needed to be hospitalized, the manager refused to pay the costs, and Santos had to call her husband in the Philippines and have him wire the money to pay the bill before she could be released.

Eventually the manager took Santos’ cell phone away from her, but she had a second phone that she had kept hidden. She and another Filipina working in the massage parlor used it to keep in touch with their families back home.

Plotting escape

The Rev. Marie Sol Villalon is a United Methodist pastor in the Philippines appointed by the church to work with those affected by human trafficking. Villalon’s ministry is supported by United Methodist Women.

Part of her job is education, and Villalon had given a presentation on trafficking to a United Methodist Women’s group in the north of Luzon. Soon after, one of the women in the group contacted Villalon with an appeal for help. Her niece was an OFW working in a massage parlor in Malaysia against her will. The young woman was one of Santos’ coworkers, and her aunt appealed to Villalon for help.

The pastor contacted the young woman using Facebook Messenger and soon established that three of the women working there were being held against their will and needed help in escaping. Villalon counseled them over social media as she looked for someone to help in Malaysia.

“I sent an e-mail to the president of the Methodist Women in Malaysia about this, asking for help, but she responded that she could not imagine that such conditions existed in her country. So they couldn’t help me,” Villalon said.

Instead, the pastor found a Philippines-based fundamentalist church that had a branch in the Malaysian city. They were willing to help.

Villalon got Santos in touch with the church people, and they slowly, surreptitiously plotted the escape. Santos and her two colleagues packed their belongings in bags that they hid outside the house in a hole they dug under the garbage cans. They covered the hole with carpeting and put the garbage cans back in place. They then waited until they got permission to leave the house for a couple of hours, at which point the they grabbed their bags and made their escape.

They took a cab to the bus station, where women from the church were waiting to drive them through the city to the church. They hid inside for two weeks, the curtains drawn tight. When church members came to worship, the three women huddled in a small room so they wouldn’t be seen. They then spent another two weeks hiding in a hotel whose Filipino owner was sympathetic to their plight. By then Villalon, working with the Philippines Department of Justice, got her government to contact the Malaysian Foreign Ministry. They alerted Malaysian immigration police, who contacted the three women, recovered their passports from the massage parlor owner, and then escorted them to the airport and put them on a plane back home. Villalon met the three women at the airport, along with officials from the government’s Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking, who provided them with safe transport to a transition shelter run by Catholic nuns.

While Santos’ return to the Philippines was a relief, her homecoming was marred by her husband’s announcement that in her absence he had left her for another woman. So she took her three kids and moved back in with her mother.

What’s your address?

Needing to find new work, Santos enrolled in a short course in cell phone repair. There she met a man whose wife was an OFW having problems with her employer. Santos gave him Villalon’s contact information, which he passed on to his wife, Lorena Glori, who contacted Villalon on Facebook.

Glori, like Santos, had three children and couldn’t survive at home, so she became a housekeeper for a family in Saudi Arabia. For several months, things went well, and Glori sent home about $1,200 every three months. But then she became sick with a chronic lung infection, a development that didn’t please her employers. When medical treatment didn’t improve her condition, they quit paying her. She asked to return to the Philippines, but her employers told her she had to work the remaining two years of her contract.

When Glori and Villalon started chatting on Facebook, the pastor asked Glori for the address where she lived. Yet Glori didn’t know it, and she wasn’t allowed to leave the apartment building where the family lived. Villalon helped her finally discern her location, and then the pastor contacted a human rights advocate in Saudi Arabia who got in touch with the Philippines consulate there. Representatives from the consulate came to check on Glori, who said the officials shouted at her, accusing her of shirking her responsibilities.

Her condition worsened, and she finally fainted and fell down some stairs. After taking her to the hospital, her employers informed the employment agency that they no longer wanted her, so after she was released from the hospital Glori spent a week at the agency, during which time she put other distressed workers in touch with Villalon over Facebook. She finally boarded a plane back to Manila.

“When I got on the airplane, as soon as I sat down I started to shout,” she said. “All the people were looking at me, but I yelled out with joy, ‘I’m on my way back to the Philippines!’”

“How can people be poor in a rich country?”

Villalon has been working with trafficking victims for a decade and sees little progress in addressing the structural factors that drive forced migration.

“When I started my work there were about 2,500 Filipinos who left the country every day, but now about 7,000 Filipinos are forced to leave every day,” she said. “The government really needs to address this issue, but too many powerful people make money off of migrant Filipinos. Jobs should be created inside the country, and the land should be distributed to those who can cultivate it. Otherwise Filipinos will continue to leave the countryside for the cities and the cities for Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia.”

Poverty drives forced migration, Villalon says. “If you have a job here you cannot get a living wage, especially in the provinces. It is poverty that causes people to leave their country,” she said. “When you ask children about their ambitions, some of them will tell you that they want to become OFWs. This is disheartening, because the Philippines is a rich country. Yet Filipinos are poor. How can people be poor in a rich country?”

Many of the social costs of forced migration are hidden, she says. “Some Filipinos do get good jobs abroad, but they too often return home to broken families. Children don’t know their parents anymore. Parents can’t control their children. All because the parents are gone for two or three years. Some can build the houses they long dreamed of because of the dollars they send home, but when the OFW returns home, the family that they left behind has found another partner or parent to take their place,” Villalon said.

Remittances from OFWs reached almost $30 billion in 2015, giving the country a higher proportion of remittances in relation to GDP than any other country in the world. Although huge numbers of men also leave to work as seafarers and on construction sites, suffering many of the same abuses, women OFWs tend to send home more money than their male counterparts, so the government encourages women in particular to join the foreign labor force. Some observers note that this changes gender relations at home—in sending countries like Indonesia and the Philippines women may have greater economic autonomy in household decision-making—but it comes at a high cost for the individual workers.

“Workers leave here with contracts that spell out working conditions and salaries, but then those terms of employment are arbitrarily changed once they’re in Saudi Arabia or somewhere else. The agencies that contracted them here in the Philippines don’t give them protection. They merely make lots of money from the workers,” Villalon said.

“One of our demands is that our government, which gets a lot of money from just processing the visa and permit fees, needs to give better protection to its citizens who go abroad to work. Even better would be to create decent jobs here and stop this policy of exporting labor. We should export our products, not our people.”

Villalon spends a lot of her time speaking to church and community groups, telling stories of migrants, educating people about the risks involved. She doesn’t tell anyone not to go abroad. She just wants them to be informed of the risks and know where to turn for help when things go bad.

To keep in touch with the migrants, as she did with Santos and Glori, Villalon has had to up her game with social media.

“I don’t have funds to travel all over the world, so technology has helped me be in touch with people everywhere. Who knew that Facebook could be a tool in liberating people from oppression?” she said.

Few options

With help from Villalon, Santos filed a complaint against her recruiter with a government agency that oversees OFWs. Since they failed to pay her a salary for one and a half years, they chose to pay her 325,000 pesos (about $6,500) in back wages rather than face a criminal trafficking charge. That helped pay off some bills, but when the cell phone repair training proved insufficient to launch a business, Santos resumed work as a massage therapist in the capital. That simply wasn’t enough to support her children, so in January she flew to Saudi Arabia to work as a housekeeper. Her children remain with her mother in the Philippines.

Lorena Glori doesn’t want to go abroad again, but she’s unsure what to do. Her foreign earnings, besides paying for food and school expenses, helped capitalize a small store—the ubiquitous sari-sari store—that she and her husband run out of the front room of their house in a crowded Manila neighborhood. The store doesn’t make much profit, however, and her husband’s venture into cell phone repair, like that of Santos, proved as unsuccessful. So Glori is starting to wonder about returning abroad, citing the positive experiences of friends who went somewhere other than Gulf states or the Middle East.

“I may have no other choices if I want to give my children a decent start in life,” she said. “I want them to study so they don’t have to experience what I went through.”

Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for response. He blogs at

Posted or updated: 4/3/2017 12:00:00 AM