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Travails of OFW who strayed into Serbia

22 March 2017

“Divina” on her first day off in Belgrade.
By Vir B. Lumicao

Divina (not her real name) was full of hope when she left her family in Manila in December 2014 for the battle-scarred city of Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, one of the republics that were formed from what used to be Yugoslavia.

Eerie ruins of buildings bombed by NATO warplanes in the civil war of 1998 were visible in parts of the city when she arrived in the city at the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers. Combined with the bleak winter atmosphere, the sight left her with foreboding on her first day in the faraway, strange land.

The 44-year-old wife of a hardware store truck helper went there as a therapist to realize her dream of lifting her family from poverty and being able to send her four children to college. She was a caregiver and therapist back home.

But the jobs she landed in the East European country and the kind of people she worked for turned Divina’s dream into a nightmare.

She sent a message to The SUN on Facebook, offering to tell her story as a warning to  others against rushing to take up jobs in places where they are afforded no protection.

“I wrote because I want people to know that in Serbia the only work they offer is being a chef in the hotel or restaurant and a masseuse at the spa. But some other people use it just to hire Filipinos and, when they arrive, the real job is as domestic helpers,” Divina said.

“There is no embassy to help or representatives to run to. I just hope other applicants will be vigilant not to go through this process anymore,” she added.

Now she said she was looking for employment in another place, including Hong Kong, where she hoped to get “more humane treatment and respect”.

Divina said she initially signed a contract at an employment agency in Manila, for a job as therapist in a Serbian household. Her salary was 500 euros (PhP27,000) converted into the Serbian denomination, the Serbian dinar.

“All my papers were legal. There were three of us who were deployed by the agency to Belgrade – two as cooks and me as masseuse,” Divina recounted in follow-up messages. She said all the costs for deployment were paid by the employer.

However, she said she left on a tourist visa and “even got snagged at the Immigration counter at NAIA but was allowed to go after the POEA officer at the airport signed my OEC”.
When she got to Belgrade, the therapist job approved for her by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration turned out to be purely domestic work. She was made to do all the chores in her employer’s big house much longer than the 8-hours daily, 5-days-a week deal.
She was utterly disappointed but was helpless to protest.

“I stayed in my first employer’s home for just three months because he was a maniac, he wanted me to massage him every night but arrived late. If he said 9pm or 10pm, he would come at 11pm or even later,” the worker said.

Divina thought all that the boss wanted was plain massage, but he also asked her to massage his genitals. She said she obeyed unwillingly out of fear for her job.

The ritual lasted three months with the employer telling other people that Divina was seducing him. Then one night, the boss wanted sex and offered her many things, but she refused. He fired her the next morning and put her up in a local hotel.

The Filipina contacted her agency, but the latter allegedly told her she won’t get any compensation because she spent not a cent on her placement. She could not find an OFW support group because there were too few Filipinos there and some were married to Serbians and minded their own business.
Divina said after that episode she found a new employer, a family with five children, two dogs, and a big house and wide lawn to tend.

“My employers were very kind at the start but I was short on food and worked very long hours. I was overworked so, after a few months, I looked for another employer,” she said. When she told her boss, he reportedly got mad and threatened to report her to the police if she changed employer because, accordingly, he had spent so much on her visa. Still, she managed to leave.

Divina found a third employer, a rich man. She said the employer got her a work visa as assistant manager in his company, but it was just a ruse so he could hire a foreign worker. She was still a domestic helper who had to put up with the boss’ abusive wife.

“I did have a visa but the lady of the house had a very different attitude. She took me in as nanny but she did not leave her child to me alone. And all the time she scolded and insulted me and belittled me for being a Filipina. After 10 months, she terminated me.”

Divina, now 46, has been helping her husband earn money as caregiver and therapist since returning home last September. Her eldest daughter, now married, stopped after her third year in civil engineering. Her son and two younger daughters are in high school.

The former OFW hopes to work abroad again to support her children’s education, but she is feeling the cost of her hard work in Serbia – damage to her seventh cervical vertebra which is causing her pain in the waist, wrists and limbs, especially when commuting.  

Her other wish is that the POEA would keep an eye on agencies that just deploy workers abroad and then turn their backs on illegal activities such as human trafficking (sending workers overseas on tourist visas), labor exploitation and contract substitution.

Lastly, Divina has an advice to other OFWs and others eager to work abroad: “Not all good countries are good hosts to foreign workers. If only there are good jobs in the Philippines where employers consider the quality of work and not the age of a worker, then perhaps no Filipino would work abroad. No Filipino would swallow his or her dignity just to give the family a better future. Working abroad, no matter whether in the US or Europe, demands a great sacrifice.”

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