This is an English translation of the full-page article about the “servant work” of Ka Maxxy Santiago which was published in Le Courrier. Le Courrier is a Swiss French-language daily newspaper in Geneva.
Michelle_Fe_Santiago, the voice of abused domestic workers
In the Gulf countries, the abuse of domestic workers is often the “front page”. Based in # Kuwait since 1999, Filipino journalist Michelle Fe Santiago carries the # memory of violence that strikes her community.
SUNDAY, JULY 28, 2019
BY SEBASTIAN CASTELIER & QUENTIN MÜLLER
“Love to the max … max, max, max! “Gleefully trumpets a jingle. Michelle Fe Santiago, called Maxi, takes place in the studio. The jovial Filipino journalist hosts the morning of Pinoy Arabia, an online radio created in October 2014 to entertain an audience mostly composed of compatriots. A large community in Kuwait with no less than 222,000 Filipinos, 62% of whom are domestic servants. “I spend some love songs. Sometimes I respond to comments from listeners, I relay diaries and broadcast some news, “says Michelle behind his screen.
The journalist, who has been stationed in Kuwait since 1999, covers Emirate news for the Arab Times in parallel with her position as a correspondent in the Middle East for the Philippine television channel ABS-CBN. In almost twenty years of expatriation, Maxi knows how easy it is for the Philippines to live and work in the Gulf countries, especially in Kuwait. A new jingle passes: “Live is short, love to the max (life is short, love to the max, ed)”. “I’m not going to go into details, but I happened to cover various facts …”, Maxi restrains an embarrassed smile.
Heavy to wear
Seven years ago, she was notified of the hospitalization of a Filipina maid found dead in the desert hinterland, stabbed. “She crawled a long time, but survived. A policeman raped her in the back of her car and wanted to make her disappear. In the columns of Kuwait Times, Michelle is the first journalist to cover the drama. Her article is echoed by a Kuwaiti lawyer who volunteered to represent the maid for free. “The policeman was arrested, tried, then sentenced to life,” she nods solemnly.
Cases like this servant, Maxi has covered a multitude. An exercise that leaves marks. “Sometimes when I hear their story, I feel like crying, but as a journalist you can not show your emotions. It’s unethical to cry in front of your interlocutors. I learned to control my tears. When I go home, however, I happen to literally collapse. “
The Philippine embassy in Kuwait estimates that more than 2,500 cases of domestic violence or physical abuse occur annually. A figure that does not reflect the reality, according to several local associations to help foreign workers. This is the case of the Kuwait Society for Human Rights. In 2018, the NGO received some 5,400 complaints from foreign workers, mostly domestic workers.
The same goes for Sandigan, a Filipino group based in Kuwait known for its spectacular evacuation of domestic workers. These social workers say they receive hundreds of calls for help per month. Unpaid wages, flight defenestrations, abuse, sexual abuse, lack of food; Filipino domestic workers face impunity for Kuwaiti households, which are difficult for local police to access.
Difficult to denounce too. Because if Kuwait is the only country to boast of having a parliament and a political debate where it is possible to question and criticize the government, freedom of expression remains relative when it touches the image of the country . “Here you sometimes have to find devious ways to cover a subject. But I can not keep my eyes closed either. So I make sure that the self-censorship that I exercise on my work does not sacrifice the veracity and the facts, “smiles the journalist.
Calls for help
On the occasion of the mid-term elections, Maxi delivers some practical advice to go vote on the waves of Pinoy Arabia between a few dedications of Filipino parents dedicated to their children exiled in Kuwait. Last year, while the umpteenth murder of a Filipino domestic was the headline of the local press, Philippine President Duterte banned for four months any new national to come to work in the Emirate . A highly criticized measure in Kuwait, and a period of strong diplomatic tension, which nevertheless resulted in an agreement. “Pinoy Arabia worked with the embassy to help all those who wanted to leave Kuwait during this period. “
If the radio founded by Maxi has no political vocation, and serves mainly to entertain his audience, it is a great way to take the pulse of the Filipino community. “Even though the conditions of my compatriots have improved since the agreement, I still receive calls for help. I never do rescue myself. My role is to coordinate with the embassy when that happens. “
Caught at high risk
After a long presence on the soil of Kuwait, Maxi has certainly gained popularity among his own and was able to cover among others the US invasion of Iraq, but the Filipino journalist grimaced the idea of remaining a new decade in the Emirate. “It was not at all expected that I would make a part of my career here. I had just come to spend Christmas with relatives. “
Born in Zamboanga, a town in the west of the island of Mindanao, Michelle, born of two primary school teachers, said she had always been journalistic and had never thought of ever going into exile in another country. 10% of the population of the Philippines – 11 million people. “I took a big risk coming here because I made a good living in the Philippines. In five years, I think to return. Why not make documentaries about social problems that exist in my country? “