Chapter 1 Noraida
FILIPINO, OVERSEAS DOMESTIC WORKER

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Noraida’s migration journey
has already had her migrate three times from the Philippines to the Persian Gulf to undertake domestic work as a way to alleviate poverty in her family. The first time she went, she was only 13 years old.

Her first migration led Noraida to her aunt's village. It was only two hours by bus, but for Noraida it was the start of a different life.

Noraida was born in 1982 in the overcrowded, poverty-stricken Al-Salam Mosque Compound in Quezon City, the Philippines, the fourth of eight children of an imam and a fishmonger. By the age of eight Noraida had already dropped out of school and spent her days playing in the streets. She was home, however, that afternoon, when her aunt came by:

I overheard my aunt, who was childless, ask my parents if she and her husband could adopt me. I just went in and said I'll go.

Noraida imagined that life would be better for her if she went, and that it would also ease the pressure on her parents who were struggling to feed so many mouths. Her uncle worked as a security officer: he had a good income and the couple treated her "like a daughter". Unlike her mother, who would be away all day selling fish, her aunt was always there for her. Noraida helped her with the housework and didn't miss her family all that much.

When Noraida was 13, her aunt suggested that she go as a domestic worker to the Gulf of Arabia. That meant she would have to travel on a fake passport because the minimum age for working abroad as stipulated by the government was 18. Noraida readily agreed; she knew of other girls in the village who were working abroad. The fact that she did not know anyone there and that she did not speak Arabic or much English, did not bother her.

I was so excited about going abroad and earning money and helping my family that I did not think very much about all this.

So the aunt got her a placement through an agent and Noraida was sent off without even getting a chance to say goodbye to her parents.

Upon arrival, Noraida was welcomed by her employers, who were appalled when she told them her real age. Noraida was lucky: she just had to be a companion for their five-year old daughter and one-year old son, and they treated her like one of the family. She was permitted to help herself to whatever was in the refrigerator and the family took her everywhere with them, to the malls, amusement parks and the beach. And they were consistent about wire transferring her monthly salary to her aunt. It was so different from her life in the Philippines. She quickly picked up Arabic and there was so much to do that Noraida cannot remember ever having felt homesick during the three and a half years she spent with them.

But when she returned to Philippines, it was back to her parents' house in the Al-Salam Mosque Compound. Relations had soured while she was away between her parents and the aunt, who had given them nothing from Noraida's earnings. Noraida was saddened by her aunt's betrayal, by her parents' continued struggle with poverty and sadder still that her life had brought her back where she had started. For a while, she worked as a salesgirl in a department store, but the money was far from adequate. So Noraida decided to migrate again. Her knowledge of Arabic and her "ex abroad" status - meaning one who had worked abroad - stood her in good stead. She was able to get a visa in just three weeks - a process that may take as long as a year - and was placed as a domestic worker in the home of a senior member of the Saudi judiciary, a widower with two daughters.

It was a large, opulent house and Noraida was one of ten domestic workers. She was assigned to the younger daughter, a 16-year-old medical student, and her responsibilities were limited to cleaning her rooms, washing her clothes and serving her meals. Noraida was happy. She worked regular hours, enjoyed the company of the other domestic staff and more importantly, was able to send her entire salary of $200 to her parents, making it possible for them to buy some land and build a house of their own.

Two and a half years later, she returned briefly to her home town before getting another placement through the same agency. She was also hoping to save for herself while continuing to help her family. Very few migrants save enough during the first contract to sustain families in coming years. Moreover, employment opportunities and alternate sources of livelihood in the Philippines are so few that most returnees are pushed back into overseas employment. Their children and grandchildren may follow their example.

But this time Noraida was greeted quite differently:

The husband was friendly, but the wife had a frown and the children refused to come to me. I didn't worry much and thought it would all settle down.


"Given the nature of their work in the private domain, and away from the public eye, domestic workers are especially vulnerable to exploitation."

It did not. The family lived in a two-storied house with two living rooms, four bedrooms and seven bathrooms: Noraida had to clean and dust the entire house every single day, wash and iron, cook all the meals and take care of the children including a baby only a month old when she joined the family and a 4-year-old daughter who had to be bathed, dressed and taken to and from school.

My day began at 5:30 every morning and rarely ended before midnight because my employer would shout, curse and rap me on the head if the chores were not done. I was being exploited and I hated the verbal insults and physical abuse. Sometimes the husband would intervene. He would say, "Don't mind her. She is like that," while trying to calm down his wife.

After a few weeks Noraida found herself shouting back at her employer, something she had never done before. By the third month she was desperate to escape.

I was working day and night yet nothing I did seemed to please my employer. I was lonely, weary and homesick. I had no access to the telephone and was not allowed to talk even to my parents. All I wanted to do was leave.

The opportunity came about a month later. The husband had asked for a cup of tea and when Noraida was handing it to him their hands touched in passing. The wife noticed; the next morning she stayed home from work and when the husband left she started to hurl abuses and curses at Noraida. She called her a "dirty woman" and began pushing her around. Fed up with the abuse, Noraida threatened to leave. The response she got was "The door is open, you can leave."

And that is what I did, I just walked out of the house. I was so angry and upset. I had nothing with me. No money, nothing, and I didn't even know where I was going.

Then just as she reached the gate the husband came home. He asked her why she was crying and tried to calm her down, but she insisted on going to the agency that had got her the placement, so he accompanied her. She complained to the person there of how she was doing all the housework though she had been hired as a nanny and that her last month's salary had been withheld. The husband said that he could do little because his wife claimed she would not pay unless Noraida improved her work.

Noraida had no option but to continue working for the family: if she broke the contract she would have to pay for her passage back. So she agreed to work for another three months and returned to the house with the husband.

For about a fortnight after that there was calm in the house. Then the shouting and abuses started again. The wife and I were constantly quarrelling and I was a virtual prisoner. From now on one of the parents would take and fetch the daughter from school so I was never allowed to leave the house. When they were not in the house, the telephone was disconnected and I was locked in from the outside.

A couple of times Noraida managed to connect the phone and complain to the agency. But this only made matters worse: the agency would tell the couple that she had called, and the wife would get furious. Noraida later learnt that two other girls had left this family before completing their contract.

So in just seven months Noraida was back again in her parents' home. She came back empty-handed: she had nothing to show but the bruises that she got when her employer had grabbed her and pushed her against a cabinet the day before she left.

Noraida decided she would never migrate again. A few months later, she married Alam, a 27-year old neighbour, with hopes of making a new life for herself in the Philippines. It has not been easy. Alam ekes out a living selling pirated CDs, while Noraida takes care of their 10-month old baby. They live in her parents' home, a dimly lit space partitioned into two miniscule rooms and a kitchen. The rest of the house has been rented and Noraida and Alam share this space with her parents, two unemployed brothers and six nieces and nephews, children of her sisters who work in the Gulf.

There is nothing in the house, no fittings, no furniture, and no sense of well-being, though four of Noraida's siblings work abroad. The children play outside the front door next to an open drain. Clothes hang on lines along the wall for want of cupboard space. The kitchen is piled high with dirty dishes and the stove needs to be repaired. No cooking is done and the family is surviving on rice made in the cooker and twice a day some curry bought at the market.

What is the difference between your life here and in the Gulf?

I would say the difference is between wealth and poverty. Our lives here are so full of hardship and want. My parents run the house and we try and chip in when we can. Sometimes the mothers of these children send small amounts but it is hardly sufficient. And none of the others can help because they have their own families to care for.

Noraida finds herself at a crossroads. She is dogged by uncertainties. Her last experience abroad has taken its toll and she is wary of seeking employment overseas. But if she wants to pull herself and her family out of the morass they are in, she might have no other option but to migrate again.