500 Filipino Women Found Living As Slaves

To protect the identities of the women interviewed for this story, aliases have been used.
Jennifer was a former domestic helper in Hong Kong. There, she endured being locked up when her employers were out, and being sexually harassed by her male employer and physically abused by her female employer – all to be able to send money back home.

"Those experiences strengthened me," Jennifer said. And after being back in the Philippines for a while, she hoped to be able to work abroad again.

Little did she know that she was to go through a similar ordeal, but this time even before being able to land a job abroad.

Jennifer arrived in Manila from her home province earlier this year and, after four months, found herself trapped in a six-story building.

Last week, police found Jennifer and about 500 other women crammed inside the building, each of them waiting for dollar-earning jobs.

"When the police came, we felt so happy because we knew that we were finally going to be able to get out of the rat-hole we were in," said Jennifer. "Life inside there was hard."

Anna, another rescued victim who was in the facility for five months, said they were treated as slaves.

"We had to guard the facility, we were made to clean the whole building, and we could only go out at certain times," said Ana. "And when you don't return on time, you'll be forced to clean the stairs, all the way from the ground floor to the sixth floor, alone."

The women say they were served what they described as "pig food." They had to pay for every cup of hot water (which was too salty to drink anyway). And because there were hundreds of them, five or six would have to fit into one wooden bed.

"We had to get up at four in the morning every day to take a bath. There's always a long line and if you're late, then you don't get to bathe because at 7 a.m., the water runs out," said Anna.

They were willing to make all those sacrifices for the chance of being able to work abroad. Most of them were going to be sent as domestic helpers to the Middle East, earning an average of $200 a month.

But months passed, and still they were prisoners in their own country.

"One day in March, they told me that my visa was out and that I was about to leave. So I borrowed money from a friend," Christine, a single mother from war-torn Mindanao, related.

"But when I was about to pay, they told me it was too late. And then they told me they were going to rebook my flight, but they never did," said Christine.

It was this endless cycle of promises being broken by the recruiter, Al-Alamia International Manpower Services, that prompted 21 women to escape the facility and report their situation to the Philippine National Police's Task Force Against Illegal Recruitment.

The police acted immediately to rescue the women. But when they got there, about 400 out of the 500 women opted to stay.

Police Superintendent Col. Bernard Yang, chief investigator of the task force, said the women had been constantly told by their employers that "if they went with the rescuers, they will be banned from going out of the country.

"Some of them came from far-flung provinces and they really wanted to go out of this country to work abroad, and that's the reason why they didn't want to join us," added Col. Yang.

Meanwhile, with the help of the Visayan Forum Foundation, a non-profit organization, the women who were rescued have filed administrative cases against Al-Alamia.

A preventive suspension against the recruitment agency is due out within the next few days, according to Atty. Celso Hernandez of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration.

As soon as it comes out, Al-Alamia shall be closed and the 400 women who have remained in their training facility would be advised to go home. But in the meantime, Al-Alamia continues to be "in good standing" and operational.

CBS News tried to get Al-Alamia's side of the story, but officials of the company were unavailable to comment.

For a country that sends millions of workers abroad, this case is not a first. Just a few months ago, 137 drivers were sent to Dubai only to be abandoned there without jobs. And last year, police uncovered a training facility in a Manila suburb that operates in the same way as Al-Alamia's.

Jennifer, Anna, Christine, and the other women who were rescued from Al-Alamia are determined to make the recruitment agency pay.

"They should be jailed. They should experience the pain that we went through," said Christine.

But when asked if they would still take their chances and apply for another overseas job, all three of them said they would.

By CBS News' Barnaby Lo reporting from Manila.