The BBC ran a story on Thursday examining structural racism in Cyprus against foreign workers in light of the killings of migrant women by a 35 year old suspected serial killer.
“The case has exposed an exploitative system that allows tens of thousands of migrant women to work as housemaids in conditions that critics have described as akin to modern slavery,” the BBC writes.
“The killings are a wake-up call,” Lissa Jatass, a domestic worker who campaigns for the rights of migrant women in Cyprus tells the BBC. “Housemaids here suffer with this bad system. Women here are the least represented in society,” she said.
Ester Beatty of the Philippines Organisation in Cyprus told the BBC that she regularly deals with complaints from women whose monthly salaries are well below the minimum €400. Despite signing contracts that stipulate a 42-hour working week with one day off, Beatty said women frequently worked 12-14 hours a day with little or no holiday and often suffered sexual harassment.
“We come here and sacrifice our lives. We have families to give food, children to send our salary to. We do this to support our children,” she said. “But they are treating us like slaves,” Santie, a worker from the Philippines tells the BBC.
Within three months, Santie alleges, she was being sexually harassed. She complained to her agent, who told her she would need to spend six months with the couple before the agent could “release” her and let her work for someone else.
The agent tried to convince her that the sexual harassment “was only a friendly touch”, but eventually she ran away because she was so afraid, the BBC writes.
Another woman, Liza, worked for an elderly couple. She said the husband would repeatedly ask her to join him in bed, to touch him and hug him. She alleges she was also assaulted by a man for whom she was working part-time.
Asked if she had reported any of the incidents to the police, she laughed. “They won’t do anything.”
Long hours, no weekends
Santie says that was made to work 14 hours a day, six days a week, contravening the European Union laws. She was not paid for annual leave.
“They asked me to work in the restaurant, the house, outside the house,” she said.
Four months in, her salary was slashed by half as the employers said they couldn’t afford to pay the rest. She was told to go and look for part-time work to compensate, even though Cyprus limits domestic workers to one employer.
Ester Beatty says it is common for domestic workers to be shared between three families so they can share the cost, even though it is against the law.
“They often don’t get a proper day off,” she said. “As well as working as cleaners, they are obliged to go back before dark to look after the grandmother.”
Ester Beatty describes helping several older migrant women fight for their pension, even though they have paid contributions for years. “They will pass you from one place to another until eventually you give up,” she said.
“The discrimination here is huge. Racism is rampant.”
Women who want to come and work in Cyprus find jobs through agents in their home countries for an initial fee between $2,000 and $7,000.
Although the government says such fees are illegal, Santie told the BBC that she took a bank loan to pay hers and spent her first year in Cyprus just paying off the interest.
When they experienced the abysmal working conditions in Cyprus, they could not just leave their employers.
Both Santie and Liza’s agents eventually agreed to release them, but this presented another set of difficulties. Workers who are “released” need to find new employers within a month, otherwise their work permit becomes invalid and they risk being deported.
“I was afraid to go back to the Philippines because I hadn’t paid my fee,” Santie said.
Doros Polykarpou, executive director of Kisa, an NGO supporting migrants in Cyprus, told the BBC that this is common.
“You can imagine how much pressure not to lose your employer or your residency because you cannot return without returning this money that you borrowed,” he said.
Polykarpou said that many of the agents actively encouraged employers to terminate contracts. “The more people they circulate the more profit they make,” he said.
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