Content warning: This article contains mentions of abuse.
When I applied to be a domestic worker in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, I was really hopeful. I had been working in Taiwan as a Production Operator and later became Line Leader and Set-up Programmer in one of the biggest semiconductor companies there. It was a big blessing to me because I could give a better life to my family.
I am the eldest child, and the product of a broken family. I didn’t enjoy my childhood nor my teenage life in the Philippines. All I knew was that I needed to help my mother feed my siblings, put them through school and pay all the bills. I never enjoyed playing with dolls or spending time with my friends, because for me earning money was the most important thing, so we could provide food on the table for my siblings.
Eventually, I had to leave Taiwan and couldn’t go back, because there are limited years you can work there. I decided to apply to become a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia. I was hoping that I could give my family and my daughter a better life and build a better future for them. I was hoping that my employers would treat me well when I entered their house as their helper. But that hope became my nightmare. As the months and years went by with them, I became helpless.
I couldn’t do anything, and felt as if I was in the hands of my employers. I lost all my strength, my freedom, my power to control and protect myself because they took the law into their own hands and I was in their own country. There is nothing I could do inside or outside of their house. Even if I were to ask for help, it would have been hopeless in Saudi Arabia. But I still kept fighting for my hope.
I hoped that maybe one day, when I woke up, there would be a change, but it never happened. Instead it became worse. I was mentally and physically abused and harassed. I had no privacy for anything, and was deprived of sleep and food. I couldn’t even go to the toilet when I needed to, which caused me to become ill. But I didn’t have a choice — I needed to be strong for my family and my daughter.
Finally, after four years, I got my vacation to go back to the Philippines to see my family and my daughter in 2018. It was a mixture of emotions when I saw my parents, my siblings and my daughter. Four years is a long time to be apart from your loved ones. After a month of vacation, I returned to Saudi Arabia, but this time, there was another problem.
Without my knowledge, I had been sold to another employer for a huge amount. I tried to fight for my rights with my existing employer by begging them to just give back the money and send me home. I didn’t know what kind of family the new employer would be, and I was scared. I didn’t think that this new employer would be worse than my previous one. I still held out hope.
When I travelled with my previous employers, I only knew that we were going to the United Kingdom because of the flight path on the airplane monitor. From the airplane, we rode a baggage cart and they gave me my passport, but after passing through the immigration gate, immediately they took my passport again.
Even here in the United Kingdom, these new employers didn’t change how they treated me. I didn’t have a proper place and time to sleep, I was always monitored, and there was no time for myself to eat or shower.
I remember one incident in a hospital here in the UK. My employer was shouting at me, pushing me and holding my arms so tight while threatening me about what she would do when we go back to Saudi. She said to me that I would be working with no pay until I reached 20,000 Saudi riyals for my freedom.
I was crying and felt so nervous, but I didn’t know what to do. Some nurses and people who were passing by were telling my employer to stop hurting me. Then my male employer told her, “Stop it! They can report you doing this to her.”
Those words keep playing in my ears all night. Words of hope but still felt helpless, but now I knew there was hope outside of these abusive hands. I had nowhere to go, I had no identity, because I didn’t have my passport with me; only the clothes I was wearing that day. With this alone, I freed myself from these abusive employers. The only thing in my mind was to protect myself and be far away from them.
Now after five years, I’m in a community and campaign group called The Voice of Domestic Workers, who opened my eyes and my mind to know my rights as a victim of Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking. I have supported TVODW by campaigning, lobbying about domestic workers’ rights, to stop modern slavery, and to stop human trafficking. I will still continue to help raise awareness alongside my fellow domestic workers who suffer abuse, leaving our helplessness behind in exchange for hope. I am attending classes every Sunday and online classes provided for us including English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), IT training and MediaCom to gain more knowledge.
Now I’ve been referred to the Salvation Army and National Referral Mechanism (NRM) that assesses whether or not a person is a victim of modern slavery or trafficking. I’m still holding out hope for a positive result so that I can continue my life as a worker, as a domestic worker with a right to work legally here in the United Kingdom, so that I can save money and reunite with my family in the Philippines.
I don’t want to depend on support from the government and charities or any organisation, because I have the capabilities to work. Through this, I can contribute to pay all necessary fees like taxes. We are not additional burdens for the UK government; we can work, and our domestic workers’ job is very in-demand. We takeover responsibilities in the house when our employers are going to their workplaces to earn their own living. We clean, cook, iron, and look after everyone, from the babies and children to the elderly in the family, and even the family pets.
The Future Voices programme from Sounddelivery Media and VODW is a big help for us migrant domestic workers who have suffered different abuses. Through this programme, we are gaining our confidence back to speak out and share all our thoughts to help our fellow domestic workers who are afraid to speak out and share their stories. We are victims of Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking, and our lives have been in danger, but we are not criminals. I often wonder why these abusive employers can still freely come and go in the UK, while we are still here waiting for justice for our rights. How many more years are we going to wait so we can reunite with our loved ones back home?
About the author
Arlhyne is 46 years old and was born in the Philippines. She studied a Bachelor of Science in Information Technology at Southwoods Cavite. She left the Philippines and became an Overseas Foreign
Worker in Taiwan as a Production Operator. After she got married and had a daughter, she decided to work in Saudi Arabia as a Nanny. Her employers were exploitative, and when they brought her to the UK, she decided to leave them. Now she is a proud and active member of The Voice of Domestic Workers. She feels happy and blessed to have been given the opportunity to participate and be one of the Future Voices 2023, a leadership programme run in partnership between Sounddelivery Media and the Voice of Domestic Workers to develop a network of domestic workers as confident public spokespeople to advocate for themselves and their community.
Arlene and other members of the voice of domestic workers doing campaign rally @Labour Day..