Trapped, abandoned: Filipino workers lured to Poland by shadowy agents

Filipinos pay thousands of dollars to unofficial recruitment companies, only to find themselves at the sharp end of Polish law.

People seeking jobs overseas read ads outside a recruitment agency in Manila June 26, 2009. The Philippines' jobless rate slipped to 7.5 percent in April from 7.7 percent in January despite the economy shrinking at fastest pace in two decades in the first three months of the year, data showed. REUTERS/Erik de Castro (PHILIPPINES EMPLOYMENT BUSINESS)
Tens of thousands of Filipinos are employed in Poland and many are subject to inhumane working environments [File: Erik de Castro/Reuters]

Names marked with an asterisk* have been changed to protect identities.

On a bitterly cold night in February, Robby* was finishing up his shift on a production line at a chicken factory in Mlawa, Poland.

He was looking forward to going home to eat dinner and sleep.

But there was a knock at the door, and tensions rose as a group of policemen entered the factory. They had received a tip that the company was employing undocumented workers.

The foreign workers were marched into an office to have their identity papers checked.

Robby, a Filipino who had been working there for two months, did not realise he was in trouble.

“I was not aware I was illegal. I thought my agency had obtained a work permit for me,” he told Al Jazeera. “When they apprehended me, I felt like a criminal. I felt so degraded. The police put us in a car with bars.”

Robby was detained for a day and interrogated before Polish immigration authorities informed him that he would be deported.

He is one of six Filipinos interviewed by Al Jazeera who travelled to Poland after being lured to the central European nation by recruitment scams.

The journey usually starts with a click. Hopeful candidates respond to some of the hundreds of adverts posted online and on social media that falsely offer Filipino workers stable, well-paid jobs in Poland, a country of about 40 million.

The recruiters also promise easy access to permanent residency and European citizenship.

For the chance of a new life in Europe, Filipino workers pay these agents thousands of dollars in fees. In some cases, the jobs never even materialise.

Several of those interviewed who did end up travelling are parents who had dreamed of bringing their children to live with them.

“It’s not OK here; I need my fellow Filipinos to know that,” said Cora*, 44, who arrived in Poland about a year ago with her husband Ronald*.

“Some Filipinos want to come here because of the promise of European residency, but it’s not true. We thought we were going to be European residents. We’re so upset.”

Cora and Ronald paid more than $11,000 to a Philippine recruitment agency for their factory jobs on the outskirts of Warsaw.

They said they did not know at the time they would need to live in Poland for at least five years and pass a Polish language test to be eligible for permanent residency status.

Their agency also said they would be entering full-time jobs and be direct employees of the company they worked for. When they arrived, they found out they’d be working uncertain hours for a subcontractor.

“We are doing seasonal work. Sometimes there is no work,” says Cora, who gets paid about 20 zloty ($5) per hour.

Like Robby, they are undocumented workers without a temporary residency permit and are scared that authorities will find out and deport them.

“Every week, I call my agency to ask about the visas,” says Ronald.

Cora said the cost of living is so high that the couple will not be able to recoup the fees they paid to agents. Yet, they still feel they need to save some money before they can leave.

“Some months, we have just a few hours of work. Sometimes, you work for one month, the manager fires you, and the agency must find another job. But then there’s a wait of two or three weeks,” she said.

They were also shocked when they saw the accommodation the agency had provided them with. They were originally told they would have their own home, but they were placed in a five-bedroom apartment with eight others. There is only one bathroom and a small kitchen that everybody shares.

“We have to line up for the bathroom and toilet every day,” said Cora. “It’s very difficult.”

The UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) said there was a rising number of Filipino workers in Poland, currently about 30,000, “but they do face the possibility of abuse or violation of their rights, such as low or withheld wages and poor accommodations offered by employers” that is unsanitary and lacks clean water.

The workers Al Jazeera interviewed all felt a sense of regret.

“The fees are too high, but we take the risk just to come to Poland for new challenges and opportunities,” said Evangeline, 43.

After paying $5,700 to a recruitment agency, she has a seasonal job in a factory that produces flooring.

“But some of us are disappointed,” she said.

Ana, 30, paid $4,080 to get her job in Poland and was told by her recruiter she would earn more than $700 monthly. She was placed in a fish factory in Grzybowo with an hourly rate of $3.

She says 18 fellow Filipino recruits have fled their jobs in the same factory to look for informal work elsewhere in Europe.

“Some of the girls left early in the morning when the landlady was sleeping,” she said. “The recruitment agents asked us why they left. We told them it was because of our situations and the salary.”

Noticing a growing problem, the Philippines government has issued several warnings about “unscrupulous recruiters” for jobs in Poland, who are targeting Filipinos working in other countries, such as the United Arab Emirates.

This recruitment process is referred to as “third-country” and “cross-country” hiring, which flouts a Philippine government requirement that people should be hired only through government-registered employment agencies.

Filipino cross-country recruits are not issued with an overseas employment certificate by their government, which would them to access consular assistance should they encounter an issue abroad.

Robby had left a job in Saudi Arabia to work in Poland.

After he was detained, he was issued with documentation by the Polish government attesting he was a human trafficking victim.

However, since he lacked an overseas employment certificate, the Philippine embassy would not pay for his repatriation flight.

The Polish government also refused to fund his trip back.

An immigration official gave him a booklet on how to contact the IOM to request a flight home.

“I regret leaving the Middle East for this,” said Robby, who arrived home on February 17, traumatised from his detainment. He said he is still struggling to adjust to life in the Philippines.

“IOM is not involved in deportations,” a spokesperson told Al Jazeera. “We operate an assisted voluntary return and reintegration programme, where migrants who choose to return to their country of origin are able to avail themselves of our programme on a regular flight, all costs covered by the programme. This is also open to victims of human trafficking.”

At the time of writing, the Philippine Embassy in Warsaw and the Philippines’ Department of Migrant Workers had not responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

Source: Al Jazeera