For women migrant workers, help is on the other end of the line


Author: Faye Cura

Photo of Pacita “Bing” Fortin. Photo credit to Miriam College Women and Gender Institute
Pacita “Bing” Fortin, a young female social worker in the Philippines working to assist women migrant workers to exit situations of abuse and violence during COVID-19 with support of Spotlight Initiative's Safe and Fair Programme, implemented by the ILO and UN Women. Photo: Miriam College Women and Gender Institute

QUEZON CITY, The Philippines — Twenty-one years ago Pacita “Bing” Fortin pursued a career in social work despite her father’s reservations. “Social work is a profession,” she explains. “People think that a social worker merely hands out relief goods, but that is a misconception. Social work is a discipline where one must complete an academic degree, pass the board exam, and obtain a government license.” Fortin defines social work as “the art and science of helping individuals, families, groups and communities, especially those most vulnerable and marginalized.” Fortin focuses on bringing about personal, collective, and social change, guided by the principles of recognition of human worth and dignity, human rights, and social justice.

As care professionals, social workers are front liners during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Yes, we do manage the distribution of relief goods. But we also assist women to exit situations of abuse, and help them access the services they need.” The lockdown has made women, including returnee women migrant workers to the Philippines, more vulnerable to domestic violence because they are trapped at home with their abusers. Limited mobility and the absence of public transportation have also made it difficult for women to report instances of violence and seek protection. A report by Rappler points out that this could only “[aggravate] the already low help-seeking behavior of Filipino women even before the COVID-19 pandemic.”[1]

Disconnected from their support systems, women migrant workers are among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 crisis. With lockdowns around the world, women migrants who are employed as domestic workers abroad have increased exposure to abuse by their employers. Many are forced to work for additional hours, or are terminated without pay. Migrant workers in transit, either from the Philippines or back to the country, are stuck in shelters or quarantine centers without proper facilities, protective equipment, or hygiene kits. Women migrant workers suffer anxiety and depression over accumulating loans and interest payments, loss of livelihoods, or the prospect of having to return to – or stay locked down in – abusive or violent environments. The recent suicides of the unnamed Filipina migrant domestic worker in Lebanon[2] , and of Algen Cadungog[3], an overseas Filipina worker (OFW) in Kuwait who hanged herself in a hotel in Pasay City while undergoing mandatory quarantine, represents how the pandemic has taken its toll on the mental health and well-being of women migrant workers.

To help counter this, Spotlight Initiative, through its Safe and Fair's Babaeng BiyaHero campaign, which advocates for a safe and empowered migration experience for women workers, has set up a Psychosocial Support Team to extend assistance to women migrant workers and front liners during the COVID-19 crisis. The Babaeng BiyaHero Psychosocial Support Team (BB-PST) is composed of three social workers: Fortin, Lizette Therese Cinco, and Bernice Santos. Together, they coordinate with the Task Force Psychosocial Support for Babaeng BiyaHero (TFPSS), composed of civil society organizations and government agencies, in receiving referrals for case management or psychosocial support services, and in ensuring access to essential services for survivors of gender-based violence. Psychosocial support services may take the form of psychological first aid, emotional and practical support, and online counselling. Essential services include social services, police and legal assistance, and provision of economic support. The Case Management Team may also help returning migrants explore their options in reintegration back home.

Since it began operating in July, the BB-PST has handled 16 cases involving Filipina migrant workers in United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Lebanon, and provided emergency aid to three front liners. The cases abroad entailed employment issues, non-payment of wages, sexual harassment, and request for assistance to families on behalf of overseas Filipina workers staying in a temporary shelter. The team is currently assisting a 25-year-old domestic worker from Dubai who had contacted Babaeng BiyaHero after her male employer sexually harassed her. Eventually, her employers terminated her employment and bought her a ticket to Manila. Her personal possessions, including her mobile phone, were confiscated by her employers. Upon arrival at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, she contacted the Babaeng BiyaHero helpline using a borrowed phone. The BB-PST helped arrange for transportation to her home province in northern Philippines after the mandatory 14-day quarantine.

The Babaeng BiyaHero Psychosocial Support Team accepts volunteer psychologists or psychiatrists, as well as donations of shelter, food, or hygiene kits for OFWs. Fortin also hopes to eventually train service providers assisting women migrant workers to sustain the programme even after the COVID-19 crisis has passed. But the easiest way for anyone to help at this point is to share information about their free, safe, and confidential helplines, and to encourage women migrant workers and front liners to save those numbers on their mobile phones or messaging applications.

“Front liners need to be told to rest too,” Fortin reminds us. Talking to them, and to women migrant workers who may be experiencing any form of abuse, or who simply need someone to talk to, Fortin says: “You are not alone. Do call our helplines. A social worker will be on the other end to listen and help.”

Babaeng BiyaHero Helplines

For free online psychological first aid, psychosocial emotional support, counselling and referrals for women migrant workers subject to violence during the COVID-19 pandemic:

Smart - 09615090135 (also available in Viber/WhatsApp)
Globe - 09777271971 (also available in Viber/WhatsApp)

For free online psychological first aid, psychosocial emotional support, counselling and referrals for front liners during the COVID-19 pandemic:

Smart - 09668752396 (also available in Viber/WhatsApp)
Globe - 09284461934 (also available in Viber/WhatsApp)

Or message the Babaeng BiyaHero Facebook page:

For more information

You may also follow Spotlight Initiative’s Safe and Fair Babaeng BiyaHero campaign on social media:

Instagram: @babaengbiyahero
Twitter: @biya_hero

Or visit its official website:

#spotlightendviolence #safeandfair #babaengbiyahero #safesaanman #withher