Saudi Arabia: Life of Undocumented OFW during Covid-19 Pandemic

Twitter: @edd1819, Instagram: @bluestar0910, Facebook: SDN — Science, Digital & Current Affairs

By EDD K. USMAN

(SDN) — ALL Myra S. Paaño, 41, wants is to be home and hug her only child.

But how would she do that. She’s over 7,700 kms (more than 4,800 miles) away from her daughter, Carmela, 13, now in Grade 8. That’s the distance approximately between Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Manila, the Philippine capital.

Myra (her passport name’s different) has been in Riyadh for six long years, not once been able to take a vacation.

Nearly a million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) call Saudi Arabia a home. More than 400,000 of them are in Riyadh, the capital, according to figures from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

For the undocumented, life is much more complicated. They have to play hide-and-seek with the police, and be always careful when venturing outside their residence. A penalty, or even detention, is a real risk.

Not only that, the undocumented, especially the women, have to be careful even with their fellow Filipinos as some of them take advantage and prey on their helpless “kabayan” (countrymen). Some anecdotes said some Filipino men give shelter to runaways but taking advantage sexually on the women, many of them domestic helpers.

“If (the government) would give me a chance to go home I will be able to see my daughter. In my years of stay here, I have not seen her in person. I do video call with my daughter. But it’s much better to be with her and be able to hug her,” she says in Pilipino through Messenger.

“It’s difficult being undocumented because even if you want to go home, you cannot. We have to wait for the government to help us with our papers for legalization so we can go home.

“I would also like to apply again legally but no longer as DH. I will apply as cleaner if I get the chance to work (in Saudi Arabia) again.”

Her first stint as household worker in Saudi Arabia was in 2012 until June 2014. She completed her two-year contract though her visa showed she was a dressmaker. At that time in 2012, Saudi Arabia banned the hiring of domestic workers from the Philippines.

A resident of Villa Carolina, Tunasan, Muntinlupa City, Metro Manila, Myra is in a line of — living in employers’ home — that makes one really vulnerable to the whims and caprices of human beings. There are many sad tales to tell; but surely much more happy stories to tell about Filipinos working abroad.

After three months of vacation and being with her family, she re-applied and returned to Saudi Arabia. Her contract in October 2014 indicated her being a domestic worker. No more hiding the job description, the Saudi government had resumed hiring Filipino household workers.

Myra chose to work in Saudi Arabia in 2012 because she had no job.”Going abroad was the only way.”

Her husband was a taxi driver. But in her second time, around 2015, her family got broken. She separated from her husband because he took another woman. That’s already almost five years of separation with her husband. She did not take a vacation because of it.

Her dream was to have her house repaired and, like any mother, provide for her daughter, who now studies in San Pedro, Laguna, under the care of Luzviminda Lopez, whose husband is uncle of Myra’s husband. She’s been caring for Carmela since she was five years old.

She pays her Php4,000 a month, and also sends Php3,000 for her daughter Carmela’s needs. But she’s not been able to send money regularly because of the lockdown.

Myra is very thankful to Lopez who considers Carmela her own child. “She does not neglect my daughter…that’s why I entrusted my daughter to her.”

Myra said her daughter has repeatedly asked her to stay home and not work abroad again. “But there is no work in the Philippines. We can’t rely on my husband anymore, he has another family now. I provide for all my daughter’s needs.”

Myra again finished her two years contract with her employer from 2014 to December 2016.

Good thing is that from her salary Myra was able to fulfill her dream of having her house repaired and even bought some appliances and other house needs.

“I left my employer in 2016 after my contract ended but he did not give my five months salary. That’s why I left.” Myra’s contract showed her salary was US$400 a month.

“Nagpunta po ako sa POLO, di naman inayos,” Myra claims. “Kaya dumiretso ako sa Saudi labor (office). My problem with my employer was resolved. I signed papers with the son of my boss because my employer died already.”

“POLO” is the Philippine Overseas Labor Office.

She said the son agreed to pay her five months unpaid salary with an exit ticket. The son reneged on tbeir signed agreement.

“But I remained for three years without a job (waiting) because he did not give my five months salary,” Myra laments.

It’s now the year 2020, and Myra is still waiting and hoping that a miracle would come with her $2,000 unpaid salary. Her passport is with the wife of her employer.

She’s been in hiding, what Filipinos call TNT or “tago ng tago” (in hiding).

She said she’s barely able to sustain herself, with her fellow TNT OFWs, working part-time where available, staying in a house they are renting for 2,000 riyal every six month in a Riyadh area. That’s aside from electric and water bills.

Though a gamble working without iqama (residence certificate), she said they are earning but still not enough. “We have to double our efforts.”

Sometimes Myra and her companions moonlight as waitresses in wedding events, other time cleaning houses which pays 30 riyal an hour. But these opportunities do not come often.

“When the schools open, me and my companions will work part-time,” she says, saying she works every now and then as cleaner where it’s available.

She said Saudi authorities have loosened up a bit on the undocumented and the Covid-19 lockdown has been lifted. “Ingat din lang kami (but we still have to be careful).”

Myra said she splits with a companion their earnings. But not every day there is available cleaning work, only once every week.

During the lockdown in Riyadh, she said she also worked as household worker for a month to earn money to pay off her debts.

But there are employers who take advantage once they learned they have no iqama. “They just terminated us without paying us for our work.”

Not everyone are like that. Myra worked for a year as school cleaner and another one year as cleaner for ladies’ gym. She was paid 1,800 riyal a month.

Some hospitals she and her companions learned are hiring cleaners, but they are hesitant because of the risk of being infected with the coronavirus.

“This is the life of an OFW, especially if you are undocumented. No permanent work. I just want (to save) and go home.”

Myra and her fellow TNT’s already filled up online applications with the POLO Riyadh hoping to be chosen for repatriation. Alas, she’s still has no luck. She has no exit visa, being undocumented.

Philippine Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Adnan Alonto explained to SDN — Science & Digital News a way for repatriation of undocumented OFWs.

“If the HSW (house service worker) has been declared ‘huroob’ (runaway) and does not have a legal case filed against her, she can be repatriated through the ‘Wafidin’ (Deportation Office.”

A retired Filipino diplomat sent this message to SDN — Science & Digital News commenting on Myra’s situation.

“Firstly, there is a need for the embassy either from ATN Section or from POLO to talk to the TNT and get as much details as possible as to how she became TNT when she knows it requires heavy penalty for those who had done it.

“Having the details on hand, the embassy (can) to talk to the employer if she is still employed, or her last employer before becoming TNT. Then the embassy has to report it to the immigration authorities or Interior ministry and requesting for exit visa — of course, there will be some penalty — then request for waiver of penalty.”

Myra said in Saudi Arabia “no one will help you,” adding that’s the most difficult thing for an undocumented OFW.

The long-time Saudi resident emphasized she wants her story told so others who plan to work abroad will know how difficult it is.

“It’s not a joke going into it if you are not ready because fear and homesickness  will overcome you. That’s why the resolve of other DH are weakening.”

She said she knows of some who have been TNT for 13 years. Some have given birth already.

“For me, I will not succumb to emotions. As long as my daughter is fine, and I am not neglecting her, sending money every now and then.” (SDN)

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