Trapped In Belgium

By Louis Marièn

Father Apolo de Guzman of the Diocese of Cabanatuan, chaplain to the Filipinos in the Archdiocese of Mechlin-Brussels, Belgium, sent this article. He is the brother of Father Efren de Guzman SVD and Sister Emma de Guzman ICM, both frequent contributors to Misyon.

She’s reduced to tears. She hasn’t seen her children for three years. Carina is a Filipino who worked as a housekeeper for the ambassador of an Asian country who locked her up in his house like a slave for six months. Washing, cleaning, cooking, ironing, from six in the morning to eleven at night. She was paid only €200 (a euro is worth about P70) per month while others were receiving around €500.

‘There are 5,000 Filipino migrant workers in Brussels. Seventy percent of them are women. And mistreatment is routine,’ says Father Apolo de Guzman, chaplain of the Filipino community. ‘The women in particular, and they are the majority, are sometimes the victims of exploitation. It’s not difficult for an employer to keep someone under their thumb. He can take away their identity card and work permit, and detain them. Housemaids have no way out. If they run away without papers, then they are here illegally.’

It’s not only domestic staff who can lead a dog's life. In some hotels and restaurants there are those who work long hours and days - overworked and underpaid and usually without the protection of social security. One of the scams is to register them as part-time workers while their work is full-time. ‘Some diplomats have their dogs and cats registered,’ says an angry Father de Guzman, ‘but apparently a human being costs them too much. If a Filipino chauffeur tells them he’s reached the age of sixty, he runs the risk of being fired ruthlessly, thrown out with the garbage. They ought to be paying him a pension, but if he has never had an employment contract, he is powerless to do anything about it!’

Many ‘illegals,’ not only Filipinos, have no social security protection at all. Sometimes they’re exploited, and sometimes not, according to our sources at the Labor Inspectorate. Some earn €5 per hour, but may have to pay €2.50 for expenses, such as room, food and coffee.

Others can open their own bank account into which part of their ‘salary’ is paid. As a guarantee that they won’t run away to other employers, they sign power of attorney in favor of their employer. Filipinos who work for consuls and ambassadors cannot rely on the protection of the Labor Inspectorate. Diplomats enjoy immunity! Fairness requires us to point out that employers such as the three US embassies have their personnel registered with the Belgian government. (As well as an ambassador to Belgium, the USA has one to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, headquarters and to the headquarters of the European Union, EU, both in Brussels.)

Some Filipino migrant workers are here illegally. ‘There was an opportunity for them to become legalized workers with government legalization in 2000 but everything went fast,’ says Father de Guzman. ‘Those who worked six days a week, and had only Sunday off, didn’t have the chance to have their papers processed by the government If we hadn’t run a campaign on regularization after Sunday Masses here, only a few of them would have been able to put their papers in order.’

‘Filipinos are honest. You only need to ask the police and they will tell you they have no complaints about them. They are sought after as employees because they work hard. They help the economy progress. It’s really an outrage,’ says Father Apolo, ‘that people have to give up so much in order to give their children food to eat and an education, because that is why they are here in Belgium. It’s time that the Belgian government gave them protection against exploitation and gave them another opportunity to be regularized workers. It’s a matter of elementary human rights.’