Jun 8, 2023
They don’t know how long their current job will last, when they’ll hear an update on the case, get to visit their families, take a holiday, speak to a lawyer, or when the Philippine and Belgian governments will take a greater interest in their cases
Additional reporting from Muhammad Owasim Uddin Bhuyan and Goele Vandenberghe
This investigation was supported by Journalismfund Europe’s Modern Slavery Unveiled grant programme.
*Names of the workers have been changed to protect their identities
ANTWERP, Belgium – The discovery of trafficked laborers, including 65 Filipinos, at the Borealis plant in Antwerp led the Belgian government to grant them temporary residence. The next challenge for them was finding a job, making the most of their stay while the state prosecutor considers their case.
Among the 65 workers, Henry, the Batangueño pipe fitter, couldn’t stand working for Flemish manpower agency Job Talent. He endured four months of unemployment in the latter half of 2022, and then he and many others found Job Talent, which they thought would be their refuge.
The agency sent him to live in the city of Zaventem while going to Antwerp as a pipe fitter, around an hour away. Every morning he’d wake up at four just to arrive on time at 6 am. He tired during the long train rides home late in the evening after his integration classes.
Henry joined four other Batangueños at the house in Zaventem, leased by the landlord to Job Talent with regulations that seemed unnecessarily expensive and punitive. During a birthday celebration, the workers were scolded by the agency for singing karaoke past 9 pm on a weekend.
“Even our neighbors were invited, but they told us to stop,” moaned Henry.
The interim agency never provided the tenants a copy of the contract, only a list of fines if certain rules were violated:
- Damage to the building – minimum €300 (P18,266)
- Locking the apartment before a planned inspection – €150 (P9,133)
- Not cleaning the apartment – minimum €300 (P18,266)
- Clogging of pipes – minimum €150 (P9,133)
- Damage to the premises – minimum €150 (P9,133)
Job Talent workers are docked around €85 (P5,175) to €105 (P6,393) a week for housing costs. Henry and his four other housemates had to give up €95 (P5,784) a week, bringing down his take-home pay.
“Biktima na nga, nabiktima pa ulit. Ang pangako nga sa amin, €500 ang take-home ko, hindi €300 (P18,266),” he grumbled. (Victims already, then victimized again. We were promised €500 take home pay, not €300.)
It means they were paying close to €2000 (P121,778) a month for a two-bedroom townhouse. They wondered why the house next door, which was the same as theirs with the same owner, only cost their neighbor €700 (P42,622) a month.
The long hours, low pay, arbitrary and unfair housing arrangements were exactly the things he hoped to avoid after what he’d gone through at the Antwerp port.
Henry left Job Talent two months after. The agency still employs about two dozen other Filipinos from the Borealis plant while continuing to recruit more Filipinos even domestically.
Job Talent refused to be interviewed. They only emailed a response saying, “We are indeed the leading organization in the employment of Filipino technical workers. We work 100% in compliance with Belgian labor laws and are accredited in the Philippines.”
Manpower Resources of Asia (MRA) Inc., accredited by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, is listed as Job Talent’s Philippine partner in numerous job listings.
Job Talent’s terms are legal. However, the rental situation is “ridiculous,” because the agency “treats the workers like small children,” said Mieke Van Laer, lawyer to the Bangladeshi and Turkish workers.
She surmised there’s a big chance Job Talent is profiting from the rental arrangements and taking advantage of Filipinos who are unaware they can rent their own homes without manpower agencies as an intermediary.
Job Talent was among the companies to participate in a job fair in late 2022 organized by Payoke, an NGO tasked by the state to shelter trafficked workers in Flanders, and the Belgian labor department, with help from the Philippine embassy and the honorary consul.
Van Dyck said that employer-arranged housing is becoming more common to accommodate the stream of migrant labor.
Despite an overworked staff, Payoke does its best to screen labor and housing contracts for everyone under its care but attested that it has yet to find any red flags.
Payoke handles the monthly stipend of from €806.42 (P48,518.60) to €1214.13 (P73,048.65) given by the Public Centre for Social Welfare (OCMW) to each Filipino worker.
It seeks out donors who can provide free accommodations, but most of the time it needs to rent out apartments.
From the monthly stipend, Payoke subtracts €750 (P45,666) for shelter (unless a donor provides one for free) and €50 (P3,044) for transportation. Workers are then handed €10 (P601) a day for general expenses, including food.
Van Dyck said that whatever is left from each month, a little over €100 (P6,088) is added to the allowances paid out in one go at the end of a worker’s stay with the shelter.
Support from the OCMW to a worker stops when he gets a new job. When Rappler spoke to the workers in March 2023, none of them received anything more beyond the €10 pocket money.
“We make it work. We’d pool our €10 (P608) together for buying groceries, simple food. The cut for shelter at Payoke was really big. But now my rent in the apartment is just €450 (P27,400),” said Ricky.
Patrick* is approaching his senior years and is one of the oldest Filipinos from the Borealis plant. His peers are in their 30s and 40s. He’s worked around Africa and the Middle East since 1991, having never managed to find a job in his home country.
Right now, he has yet to find a new job, still surviving on €10 (P608) a day.
Before Belgium, he worked in Hungary for €3.3 (P200) an hour during 10-hour shifts. In Antwerp, his pay wasn’t much higher, just €5.9 (P359) an hour for the same amount of work.
Patrick never wanted to be rescued. In his eyes, he was better off at the port of Antwerp – despite the anomalous arrangement – than having no job at all. His three children now have families of their own, and they still look to Patrick for support.
Undocumented Filipinos are usually reluctant to be rescued. “They don’t want to complain even if there are anomalies. They’re afraid of deportation or a bad record,” said UPB’s Aguila.
“I’m still looking for a job now. It’s hard because of my age,” said Patrick.
The last few months have left him deflated. He sank to the bottom of his chair as he recounted his predicament to Rappler. He isn’t getting any younger, and operating cranes isn’t getting any easier with his waning dexterity. He mused about one day operating a forklift, but he’s had no luck yet.
When asked how much he wants to stay in Belgium, he motioned to his empty pockets wishing there was more in it. He shrugged, “all of the ayuda (assistance) I got, I’ve sent back to the Philippines.”
Among all the nationalities involved in the Borealis case, Filipinos are the only ones currently without a lawyer.
Migrante said the lack of legal representation is cause for concern. Navigating the legal wilderness of a foreign country is challenging on its own. Moreover, prospective employers think twice about giving jobs to those whose stay in the country hinges on the outcome of an investigation.
“The problem is we don’t know the status of our case or what the chances are,” said Ricky.
Van Laer and lawyer Jan Buelens of the Progress Lawyers Network, a coalition of law firms committed to social justice causes, initially volunteered to represent the Filipinos. But the embassy had already arranged for different representation.
When the Borealis scandal broke, lawyers flocked to the embassy to volunteer their services. They took all the initial statements and filed the necessary accounts with the public prosecutor.
The Filipinos have received no news about their case since then.
According to Payoke and the embassy, the Filipino workers still do not have any current representation as of May 2023.
“What’s important is that they have gainful employment here,” said Consul General Mendoza.
Olavare hit back saying, “Our government must address the legal concerns of the Filipinos. It’s nearly been a year, and still our compatriots don’t know who to consult for their case.”
Van Laer reckoned it could take a couple of years before the prosecutor reaches a decision as it determines “if there are enough signs of human trafficking.”
The prosecutor denied the Turkish workers recognition without providing any reason. No two nationalities at the Borealis plant traveled the same route and experienced the same conditions – a source of hope but also of uncertainty.
Van Laer believes the prosecutor didn’t find any irregularities done to the Turkish workers.
Because Belgian definitions of human trafficking are very broad, Van Laer said any decision will subjectively depend on the prosecutor’s biases.
If the decision goes against the workers, it’s likely “they just become undocumented migrants in Belgium. The problem doesn’t go away,” she said.
Buelens, however, asserted that the Borealis workers were indeed trafficked.
He explained that “economic exploitation falls under human trafficking,” which includes not paying the correct wages, deception, and other anomalous working conditions.
IREM, seen as the principal employer, is publicly accused of human trafficking and labor exploitation.
In a May 2023 statement, IREM said it remains “committed to fully cooperate with the Belgian authorities and to provide all available evidence to allow the authorities to ascertain the correctness of the conduct of the company.” It also pointed out that almost a year since, it has yet to contend with official charges.
IREM will likely face formal charges when the prosecutor finishes the inquiry.
However, Buelens and Van Laer, representing trade unions and trafficked workers, hope to enlarge the case to indict Borealis of these crimes.
Borealis maintained its innocence, implying in a statement that culpability lies with IREM as they had no knowledge of any illegal activity.
Last January, Borealis said they have “zero tolerance for any malpractice and puts stringent measures in place to mitigate related risks.” They also committed to setting up a crisis management team among other preventive mechanisms.
Buelens cited the account of the labor inspectorate which says Borealis knew about irregularities in the employment early on and did nothing.
“Borealis wants to look like the victim. Certain abusers will act like this, and we must be quite naïve to think that they didn’t know anything,” said Buelens.
After an initial suspension, both Borealis and IREM have resumed operations as early as October 2022.
The Belgian Workers Party (PVDA) decried the lack of urgency in the Belgian government’s actions, taking no concrete steps inside parliament on the case.
Last February, PVDA parliamentary representative Peter Mertens filed a proposition of law. It sought to pin the primary accountability of labor exploitation on “main contractors” like Borealis.
“We want them to be afraid,” said PVDA veteran Coenegrachts, if not, “companies will continue this practice because they’ve got nothing to lose.”
Living with uncertainty
Three evenings a week, Peter, Henry, Ricky, Patrick, and all of the others see each other for Dutch language classes. Their hope is that the prosecutor favors their stay. Then they’d actually get a chance to speak the Dutch they’re learning.
After class, they have routine cigarettes on street corners, rubbing their arms and waiting for everyone to finish before filing back into a tram. They take a few stops and reach a Lebanese eatery, the only affordable restaurant food in sight. They say the shawarmas are much better than in Manila.
They pool together their €10 and feast well into the evening, knowing only each other in the emergent European melting pot they’ve sought out for their family’s futures.
They don’t know how long this current job will last, when they’ll hear an update on the case, get to visit their families, take a holiday, speak to a lawyer, or when the Philippine and Belgian governments will take a greater interest in their cases. Or even whether Payoke will still be able to arrange for shelter once the next big trafficking scandal inevitably hits.
They live within the profound uncertainty of migration. They take comfort only in the collective dream of staying put and having available work. – Rappler.com