Mired in debt, the mother of three left to work as part of the Gulf’s kafala labour system. She was last heard from in 2015 and her family want answers
Edelyn Eborda Astudillo wanted a better life for her three children. The 36-year-old from Mariveles in the Philippines, and her husband, Crisanto, had been unemployed for six years and things were getting desperate. So, in early 2015, Edelyn made the decision to travel to the Middle East to get a job as a domestic worker.
After applying to a Philippine recruitment agency, Manumoti Manpower, Edelyn was soon on a flight abroad. She was placed in a house to work for a couple in Taif, in the west of Saudi Arabia.
However, it became clear almost immediately to her family that something was not right. Edelyn’s phone was taken by her employers, and she was only able to speak to her family about once a month. During these conversations Edelyn hinted to Crisanto that she was also being physically abused.
One of these calls to Crisanto came in the middle of the day. Edelyn asked to speak to her children. When she realised they were at school she began to cry. In the background Crisanto could hear a woman, one of Edelyn’s employers, screaming: “Stop it! Stop it!” Then the line went dead.
It was 26 August 2015. Edelyn has not been heard from since.
The oil-rich nations of the Gulf rely on millions of migrants from countries in Africa, Asia and poorer Arab states to do low-paid jobs in construction, hospitality and domestic work. Saudi Arabia is the main destination for Filipino overseas workers. But some, such as Edelyn, never come home.
The Guardian has reviewed more than 40 pages of documents and emails relating to Edelyn’s case. The Astudillo family want to know what has happened to her, but they have received no answers from the Saudi authorities.Advertisementhttps://80bd2a09c164d6ec28305665dc335bf5.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
Edelyn’s children – Chris Edrix, 19, Crislyn Jane, 17, and Christine Joy, 13 – are traumatised by their mother’s disappearance.
The family’s situation deteriorated in 2009, when Edelyn and Crisanto lost their factory jobs during the global economic recession. They survived by taking out loans and on financial support from relatives, with Crisanto picking up any casual work he could.
The Astudillo’s poverty and debts became so overwhelming that there was little choice but for one parent to leave to try to make money overseas.
“Her dream was to build a new house for her family, to be able to buy better food and give her children gadgets,” says Lou Astudillo Ambita, Edelyn’s sister-in-law. “She had many dreams, but they won’t come true because she’s missing. It’s so sad.”
The Astudillo family rent a room in a small house shared with three other families. Their living room is also their bedroom and kitchen, and they sleep on mats on the floor. There is no access to wifi.
“Edelyn is funny, intelligent, caring,” says Crisanto. “My favourite happy moments were when we would dream together that some day we would own a house of our own.”
Migrant domestic workers are employed in the Gulf under the kafala sponsorship system, which ties their legal status to their employer. Migrant workers typically have their passports taken by their employers, who have control over their movements, even though this is now illegal in most Gulf countries and banned in Saudi Arabia since 2015.
However, domestic workers are still excluded from the labour law and some of the reforms institutionalise discrimination against women, according to Human Rights Watch. If a domestic worker breaks the contract and leaves – or runs away if they are victims of abuse – it is considered a crime.
The kafala system has drawn widespread criticism from humanitarian organisations, with Human Rights Watch calling it “abusive” and “exploitative”.
Documents reviewed by the Guardian paint a confusing picture that reveals nothing was done by the Philippine authorities or the recruitment agency to help locate Edelyn for at least three months after the alarm was raised that she may have come to harm. On that occasion, Manumoti Manpower did not respond to several requests for comment.
I think her employer has hurt her … if she died, we would like to know where she is
Lou, Edelyn’s sister-in-law
The first sign of action was in December 2015, when the Philippine consulate in Jeddah contacted Edelyn’s employer, a Saudi citizen whose name is known to the Guardian but is being withheld as he could not be contacted for comment.
The employer then filed a report with the Saudi authorities stating Edelyn had run away on 21 September 2015, therefore absolving himself of his responsibilities to her.
Under the kafala system, whether she is dead or alive, Edelyn is now regarded as a criminal for absconding. The Philippine consulate in Jeddah also conformed to this version of events.
“The runaway report submitted by the concerned employer to the immigration and passport authorities releases him from any liability for whatever will happen to the subject worker, hence, there is no legal basis to build a case against said employer at this time,” stated the Philippine consulate in Jeddah in an email in November 2016. At this point, Edelyn had been missing for 15 months.
Edelyn’s family do not believe she ran away, and say she would have contacted them. There is no way the doting mother would have willingly cut contact with her children for the six years that have now passed, they insist.
“I think her employer has hurt her,” says Lou. “If she died, we would like to know where she is.”
Despite many attempts, the Philippine consulate did not respond to the Guardian’s requests for comment.
“Sometimes, they treat these cases as just cases, even though [domestic workers] are human beings, and their lives and their families are affected,” says a Saudi national, who briefly worked on Edelyn’s case, and spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of professional reprisals. “It could have been investigated more thoroughly.”
Not only is it common for employers to file false runaway reports, but sometimes they do it when the domestic worker is still in their home, says Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“This is partly to absolve them of having to pay for their worker’s return ticket home, as the worker would be considered to be in violation of the immigration system, at risk of arrest and deportation,” says Begum.
Falsely reporting a domestic worker as missing is also a method employers use to avoid paying their salary but keeping them as servants, with little consequence, Begum says. She recalls a case where an Indian domestic worker in Saudi Arabia was held in a house for 16 years, until she managed to get a message to her family.
“The employer was not arrested for forced labour, domestic servitude or even the minor crime of passport confiscation,” says Begum.
Could this mean that Edelyn may still be alive?
Searching the home of her employer soon after her disappearance could have helped determine whether she was alive. But the documents seen by the Guardian indicate that no search took place.
A report in January 2018 from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration states that a request to search the house had been made to the Saudi authorities in January 2017. However, a year later, the report said it had “yet to receive a response from the formal communication sent regarding the matter”.
The Saudi government’s Center for International Communication did not respond to a questions about whether it provided assistance in Edelyn’s case, and if the Saudi authorities typically investigated reports of missing migrant workers.
“Governments in the Gulf do not conduct investigations into ‘missing’ workers. The presumption is that they have absconded and are working as undocumented workers,” says Begum.
My mom always wanted family outings. She loved the sea and the sand
Crislyn, Edelyn’s daughter
The exact numbers of missing migrant workers in the Gulf are unclear, according to Human Rights Watch and the UN’s International Labour Organization.
“Many workers go missing every year,” says Begum. “Governments of [migrants’] countries of origin should track this even when Gulf governments do not, as families do report to them when they have lost contact, but this data is not made available.”
The Guardian sent a series of questions about Edelyn’s case to the Philippine government’s Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Labor and Employment, the Philippine embassy in Riyadh, and Silvestre Bello, the secretary of labour and employment in the Philippines, as well as the consulate in Jeddah. None of these questions were answered.
A director from Manumoti Manpower, Edelyn’s recruitment agency, told the Guardian they did not know her whereabouts.
The Astudillo family claim that it is because they are poor that the Philippine authorities have not prioritised the case.
They have been left desperate and broken. The children yearn to have their mother back. They especially miss family trips to the beach on Saturdays – one of Edelyn’s favourite outings. But their memories of her are fading.
“They were very happy times,” says Crislyn. “My mom always wanted family outings. She loved the sea and the sand.”
This is a milestone year for Crislyn. She recently graduated from high school and will turn 18 in October.
“I wish I could see my mom on my birthday, that would be the best gift ever,” she says. “I miss my mom’s care; I miss her so much. We are not rich, but having a complete family was enough for me. She is the best mom in the world.”