Barangay Matuber is a picturesque, if slightly rundown, fishing village near Cotabato City in the Philippines. Palm trees sway in the wind as the azure waters of the Moro Gulf shimmer in the afternoon sun. The village’s fishermen have returned with their catch, and are lounging around. A gaggle of children play hopscotch – a game many youngsters in the developed world do not even know exists. A water buffalo ruminates in a pond, unperturbed by the commotion. But something is missing in this bucolic setting – most of the womenfolk of the village.

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A housemaid – or sometimes two or three of them – taking care of children or hauling bags while their ‘mama’ shops is a common sight in Kuwait. One can also see them in parks and near schools, or early in the morning washing cars outside palatial villas. Every now and then, reports of abuse put these women under the spotlight, but generally, no-one gives a second thought about them. They have become part of the landscape, toiling away in obscurity. Where do they come from; do they have children of their own; what compelled them to leave their homes and homelands – these are questions that people rarely ask.

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The call to prayer resounds in the village, and men shuffle into a small mosque to pray. The barangay is located in Mindanao, the second-largest island of the Philippines with a large and restive Muslim minority. Matuber is a multi-religious village – a makeshift church built of corrugated iron sheets and exposed cement and plywood walls is a short walk from the mosque, a brick structure painted a bright yellow. Muslims and Catholics in the village live in relative harmony, eking out a frugal subsistence from the sea.

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The minimum wage for domestic workers in Kuwait is KD 60 ($200) – it used to be KD 45 ($150) until mid-2016. These workers mostly hail from the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Ethiopia. Among them, Filipinos are the highest-paid – KD 120 ($400) – an amount set by the Philippine government. Manila encourages its citizens to seek work abroad, as overseas Filipino workers – more than 10 million of them – remit billions of dollars back home, which form a major component of the impoverished nation’s economy.

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Back in Matuber, a woman running a small convenience store in the center of the village speaks good Arabic – she worked as a maid in Saudi Arabia for many years before returning and setting up this small business with her savings. But there’s not much here to make a living, so many women who return home after their contracts expire soon head out to the Gulf again, bracing for a harsh life of drudgery and servitude. $400 is a meager amount – but in hardscrabble villages like these with no economic prospects, it is decent money.

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It’s a long way from the Moro Gulf to the Arabian Gulf. At Kuwait International Airport, the maids arrive by the planeloads – dressed in shiny new clothes, clutching their documents as they are herded through immigration. A mix of fear and wonderment can be seen on the faces of first-time arrivals, while the veterans look resigned to their fate. Life as a housemaid is a tough one, and lurid incidents of abuse and assault occasionally make the headlines. Every day, an average of 10 Filipinas escape from their abusive employers and seek refuge at the Philippines Embassy. The embassy’s shelters are home to hundreds of these runaway maids at any given time. But despite these horror stories, the flow of Pinoy workers continues unabated.

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For the men of Matuber, the money sent by their OFW wives is a welcome addition to what they earn selling fish. For the children of the housemaids playing in the dirt bylanes of the village, the remittances enable them to go to school. A good education will hopefully help them avoid making the journey to the Gulf themselves, but the likelihood of this happening is admittedly bleak. For now, the only link these rambunctious kids have to the faraway lands where their mothers are laboring is the small yellow mosque – a closer inspection of a marble plaque fixed near its entrance reveals it has been built by a charity from Kuwait. The wheel comes full circle.

By Shakir Reshamwala