RIZAL, Philippines: Ms Marina Sarno, 43, looks after her 5-year-old grandson while enticing customers to look through her 1 sq m booth in one of the Philippines’ most famous bazaars.
Occasionally, Ms Sarno gives in to the lowballers. But even when sales peak, she only earns about US$20 a day - which she will use to pay her rental and for transport when she goes to Manila port to receive her clothes shipment from her supplier in Bangkok.
It is a meagre amount considering that her paralysed husband is in and out of the hospital.
Just days after the New Year, her husband suffered another heart attack. His hospital admission cost 12,500 Philippine pesos or US$250, an amount that she would have to work for another two weeks to raise.
Despite her personal woes, Ms Sarno finds time to assist distressed Filipino migrant workers and their loved ones out of her own pocket - from requesting the government for rescue, repatriation and reintegration benefits to helping file complaints against unscrupulous recruiters.
“I use my own cellphone credit to call up recruitment agencies, family members of the workers and even government offices to follow up on requests,” she told CNA.
Avid fashionistas are not the only market her small booth of discounted clothing attracts.
She has garnered a reputation in the city as a migrant workers’ advocate, so workers or their loved ones come to the store from time to time for help.
She leaves the store and travels to Manila to line up with migrant workers or their relatives for hours on end at a government agency to seek various forms of aid.
During one of these trips, Ms Sarno had to line up for four hours to request for repatriation of workers deployed by a recruitment firm which allegedly pocketed their pay instead of it being given directly to them on agreed-upon dates.
One of these workers had been recently located after having been missing for a year. She had reported maltreatment by her employer during her last communication with loved ones.
On another visit, the live-in partner of a domestic worker asked Marina to assist him in reporting to government that his partner was being physically abused and overworked by her employer, causing the worker trauma. Salary payments were also delayed.
This volunteer work matters to Ms Sarno, because at one point, she was on the other side.
NIGHTMARE OF A JOB
Marina was herself an overseas Filipino worker, a term used in the Philippines for their nationals who go abroad to work, typically in blue collar jobs.
Her stint overseas was short-lived, having lasted for nine months between 2013 and 2014.
At first, she was told that the hospital midwife job she had secured and travelled miles for to the Gulf region was not really available for her. Instead, she was placed in an official’s five-storey mansion as a domestic worker.
Her passport and cellphone were confiscated. She was told she would receive them back after a month of good performance, but she never did.
Towards the end of the ninth month when she grew faint and asked for medicine but suspected she was being poisoned, her employer locked her in a prayer room with no food for days.
“They locked me from outside, cut power, water. There was no air-con, lights and water,” she told CNA.
“I drank my urine for three days. I cried. I couldn't even urinate anymore. I was dehydrated,” she narrated with a straight face, as if numbed by the repeated storytelling required of her as she fought for her labour case.
With her cellphone confiscated, Marina had no way of reporting the abuse. She resorted to throwing a letter in the neighbour’s house, detailing the mistreatment.
Philippine authorities believe technology can help in cases of overseas Filipino workers in distress.
Social networking platforms are already widely utilised both as a personal communication and information distribution channel for the Filipino diaspora of at least 10 million.
Mr Hans Leo Cacdac, head of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, told CNA that its in-house IT specialists are currently developing a locator app for Filipino migrant workers calling for help.
He said the app would mostly be for the use of Philippine-based recruitment agencies, as these firms are required to monitor the conditions of migrant workers they deploy overseas.
“This app will properly identify overseas Filipino workers who want to be located, who want their locations to be known and want to be rescued or want to be helped,” explained Mr Cacdac.
The app is for overseas Filipino workers who “are in an abusive or in a situation that would make them want to come home or go to the Philippine embassy or to the shelter,” he added.
But the said mobile-based technology is still in the pipeline. There is still no official timeline for its release.
Philippine government offices in charge of supervising recruitment companies and protecting migrant workers’ welfare already have mobile apps that help identify whether a recruitment agency is licensed and provides usable information such as a list of benefits workers can claim.
Mr Cacdac said securing data and protecting workers’ privacy are challenges in developing newer technology, but added that “they’re not by any means insurmountable.”
“They can be properly engaged and addressed,” said Mr Cacdac.
Still, concerns over privacy, connectivity and cost are shared by both private and public players.
Tech-based services can also play a significant role in the recruitment process by better ensuring transparency and narrowing down the room for human error, deliberate or otherwise.
Unscrupulous recruiters misrepresent job offers, resulting in contract substitution wherein the job applied for was not the job given as in the case of Ms Sarno.
Others impose rates that are already supposed to be waived.
In worse cases, some are duping applicants with fake jobs and providing them only a plane ticket - common among the “fly now, pay later” schemes.
The desire to work abroad for better pay and a chance at a better life is also exploited by human traffickers.
Overseas employment has been the bait by which some syndicates prey on unsuspecting Filipinos.
The government has warned that illegally recruited migrant workers often end up stranded in foreign lands and are forced to work against their will in low-paying jobs, at times in establishments in remote areas that are used as fronts by prostitution rings.
The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration has an online database of recruiters with corresponding statuses, whether they are in good standing or not.
NEED FOR ETHICAL RECRUITMENT
One Philippine recruitment company is pioneering the use of digital technology to bolster ethical recruitment. The owner is a former overseas Filipino worker.
The LBS Recruitment Solutions Corporation uses what is called an advanced recruitment management system or ARMS, a communication and storage platform for applicants of overseas jobs and deployed migrant workers.
Applicants create their own log-in accounts in ARMS, which has an online record of the history of transactions and messages between the applicant or worker and the recruitment firm.
It provides a digitised recruitment process by having downloadable forms, a storage where you can upload scanned documents, a clickable list of pending applications, recommended jobs based on an algorithm and jobs the applicant is qualified for based on the evaluation of the recruitment team.
The system also has a personalised auto-messaging feature asking about the worker’s condition on crucial dates of his or her deployment to encourage staying in touch with the firm.
This includes, among others, a message when the worker arrives in the host nation, during his or her birthday, as well as when one’s contract is about to expire and he or she might be interested to apply for a new post.
Workers can air their grievances about contract violations through the system. The staff member replying to these messages is indicated in each reply, as they are also logged in on a separate system meant for the firm’s employees.
Mr Lito Soriano, president of the firm, told CNA he envisioned this system because of his previous experience working abroad.
"I was in Saudi in 1980 and I received letters from my wife every three months. That’s how long to receive," explained Mr Soriano.
"Now that I’m in the business of deploying workers, I would like to be a model at the same time a facilitator where transparency is driven by digital technology and it’s easy."
LBS is now looking into a newer version of ARMS that also provides workers information to aid them in reintegrating back to their provinces should they choose to return home.
However, the company only deploys professional, skilled and semi-skilled workers abroad and not the more vulnerable household service workers.
According to the International Labour Organization, workers in private households are often without clear terms of employment, often face excessively long hours with low wages, and are often excluded from the scope of labour legislation, making them vulnerable to abuse.
Their exploitation often reflects sex-, race-, and caste-based discrimination, it added.
MORE CAN STILL BE DONE
For a major labour-exporting country like the Philippines, people carrying out digital solutions to problems posed by employment-related migration are few and far between.
Many still fall through the cracks, often with dire consequences.
After more days locked inside the prayer room, Ms Sarno was eventually rescued by the police.
Her husband back in the Philippines had been knocking on government offices searching for her for months after all communication with her ceased.
She said her will to survive while inside that room stemmed from a desire not to go home in a casket — the unfortunate fate of other abused overseas Filipino workers.
The household work she had done for nine months, which left her frail, was also not paid by her employer.
“When I arrived at the airport, I saw my husband. I was in a wheelchair. I cried and hugged him. I told him, ‘Dad, all I have for you are tears, kisses and hugs. I have no money, not even to buy chocolates.’ We hugged and cried,” Ms Sarno told CNA, this time holding back her tears.