As they sat across us, telling me and Secretary of Labor Rosalinda Baldoz their stories, I thought to myself, how terrified these women were, but at the same time, how generous and how brave.
April, May, and June could just have done like the others, forget the bangungot or terrible dream that was Saudi Arabia and attempt to resume their old lives in the Philippines. “Pero alam po namin na hindi namin mabubunot yung tinik sa dibdib namin kung hindi namin ibinahagi ang nangyari sa amin at nangyayari sa maraming OFW sa Al-Khobar (But we knew that we would not be able to remove the thorns in our breasts if we did not share what happened to us and what is happening to many OFWs in Al Khobar).”
What they shared was a grim, detailed description of a system of sex slavery and forced prostitution involving Filipino welfare officers and contractual employees preying on distressed workers in the Al Khobar/Dammam area in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern region.
Owing to severe maltreatment and sexual abuse in Saudi households, runaways have become epidemic in the area. In their effort to get assistance from the government, they come across the cell phone numbers of people that are supposed to get them in touch with Philippine labor officials. Those numbers invariably belong to a certain Albert Guanzon, a certain Biazon, and a certain Rauf.
Little do the runaways know that meeting Guanzon is the first step in a descent to hell. Guanzon picks the most good-looking of a batch of OFWs and makes them sex slaves (“inaasawa”) for a few days or weeks. The chosen ones can’t refuse since Guanzon threatens to turn them over to the Saudi police or shulta, which means they are likely to be raped before they get turned over to the Saudi Social Welfare Administration (SWA). May admits she had no choice but to allow herself to be used as a sex slave by Guanzon. Once Guanzon tires of a woman, May says, she is passed on to Guanzon’s friends, while he has the pick of another batch of runaways that have contacted him.
Guanzon and Biazon and Rauf promise to arrange distressed workers’ exit papers in return for cash, but they seldom deliver. They are, however, very close to officials of the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) and may, in fact, be local hires. Guanzon, in fact, is said to provide women—called “regalos” by our informants–-to a very important POLO official who shuttles between Riyadh and Al Khobar. When I asked how reliable this information was, the three women swore it was the truth since they personally knew many attractive runaways that Guanzon had sent as “gifts” to the POLO official.
The fate of distressed OFWs in Al Khobar is greatly dependent on the Philippine labor officials based there, whom the three women identify as “Sir Adam,” “Sir Benjie,” “Sir Dave,” and “Ma’m Edith.” When they tried to contact these people though, they received a rude shock. Sir Adam, for instance, told April that “you’re so ready to come and work here, and when you can’t take it, you ask to go home. You’re a burden to the government.”
Another time, Sir Benjie told April that if she really wanted to go home, she should give herself up to the Saudi police, so she could be sent to the SWA for deportation. When she said she would be raped by the police, he said, “But then, look at it this way, you might be raped, but you’ll be able to go home.”
The common advice that comes from these labor and welfare officers is that the distressed OFWs do “part-time work” to earn their fare to go home. “Part-time” work is a euphemism for prostitution. I interrupted the OFWs’ account at this point: Did the POLO people not mean cleaning a house or performing some other legitimate service? The three women insist that in Al Khobar, the only meaning of doing part-time work is selling your body.
“Sir Adam, in fact, told me that if wanted to work part-time, I could have a choice of a white man, an Arab, or an Indian,” said April. “I rejected his offer.”
In effect, Philippine labor officials in Al Khobar are peddling prostitution. Not surprisingly, the Bahay Kalinga or OFW shelter in Al-Khobar has become widely known as one of the centers of the city’s sex trade, and members of the Filipino community often warn distressed OFWs to avoid going there if they can help it.
OFWs doing part-time work out of the shelter are picked up by their johns at a corner near the Philippine International School. Other pick-up points are the Cabalen Restaurant, Al-Ramaniya Mall, and the Seiko Building.
Many of the clients are foreigners working with Aramco, a Saudi state corporation with facilities in the area. Those plying the trade can make from 200 to 500 Saudi riyals (2,300 to 5,750 pesos), with newcomers being able to command the higher price.
Free tickets for 3000 riyals
April, May, and June eventually turned themselves over to the Saudi authorities, who placed them in a facility of the Social Welfare Administration for processing for deportation. They could not, however, leave unless they paid for the plane fare back to the Philippines. They were surprised since they had assumed that the government would pay for their trip. When they complained to Sir Adam, he said that the policy of providing free tickets for all OFWs who wanted to go home had not yet come into effect, which was a blatant lie since this has been the policy for several years now. The three eventually had to cough up from 2,000 to 3,000 riyals (23,000 to 34,500 pesos), but their exit documents were stamped “gratis” or free under “cost of travel.” So where did the money go?
According to the three informants, it was likely to have been split between lower-level Saudi officials at the SWA (called “babas”) and Philippine labor officials. Not surprisingly, one of the consequences of this practice of selling free tickets is bad blood between those with the capacity to pay, who are prioritized for departure, and those with no means, who are relegated to the back of the queue, with some of the latter already having spent three to four months at SWA awaiting departure.
Coming to terms
Towards the end of the meeting, the three OFWs say that while their material conditions are difficult, what they really want is psychological counseling. They admit to having their self-image damaged by their experience, by the bangungot that was their experience in Saudi Arabia.
“We want to come to terms with what happened, for our sake and that of our families. We want to become whole once more.” I have nothing but admiration for these courageous women.
Purging the POLOs
As I leave the interview, I wonder if the “Benjie”,“Dave”, “Adam”, and “Edith” were the same POLO personnel I met when I visited the Al Khobar shelter when I first assumed the chairmanship of the Committee on Overseas Workers’ Affairs in January 2011. At that time, I was focused on documenting the rampant rape and sexual exploitation of our OFWs by Saudi men, a terrible tragedy which the Committee brought to the light of day in the report ‘‘The Dark Kingdom: The Condition of Overseas Filipino Workers in Saudi Arabia’’. Little did I know at that time that the sexual exploitation of our women was not just being perpetrated by Saudi men but by their own kind, and worse, by Embassy and POLO officials that were supposed to protect and give them refuge.
With the conditions of sexual exploitation, pimping, and trafficking by Embassy personnel that my Committee has assisted in exposing in Kuwait, Amman, Damascus, Riyadh, and Al Khobar, nothing less than a thorough housecleaning of our diplomatic and labor posts throughout the Middle East must be undertaken. Not only must administrative penalties be meted to the predators that have victimized our OFWs. Criminal charges must be filed. Convictions must be secured. Of course, due process must be respected, but we must not allow due process to be perverted to protect the perverts and the predators.
*Walden Bello was chairman of the Committee of Overseas Workers’ Affairs of the House of Representatives during the 15th Congress.