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The Secret Struggles of Undocumented Filipino Cleaners in the Netherlands

Working long hours behind closed doors, the undocumented of the Netherlands toil without access to the country’s full range of rights and protections.

The Secret Struggles of Undocumented Filipino Cleaners in the Netherlands

Undocumented Filipino cleaners shop at an Amsterdam sari-sari store, a tiny Filipino goods market.

Credit: Michael Beltran

*The names of the Filipino workers have been changed for their security.

There is an invisible workforce keeping homes in the Netherlands spotless. Filipinos, Indonesians, and Brazilians are among the most common nationalities of undocumented house cleaners in the country.

Filipino cleaners run about Dutch cities each day, their packs filled with dozens of jingling keys. They will commonly carry the house keys of all their clients, up to 30 households each.

Some will compare how many keys they carry at a time. They laugh and cheer the cleaner with the heaviest pack. 

This friendly competition is usually never shown in public. Cleaners prefer to go unnoticed by the authorities. Likewise, Dutch society willfully tries to ignore them and the unseen troubles which are quite literally happening behind closed doors.

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According to the Federation of Dutch Trade Unions, around 220,000 families make use of migrant domestic and undocumented labor in the Netherlands.

Eunice De Asis is the chairperson of Migrante-Amsterdam, the local chapter of an international grassroots organization of Filipino workers abroad. Because of the potential consequences of the authorities scrutinizing the growing undocumented population, many of her compatriots keep a low profile. 

“Filipinos are quiet, we don’t want to be traced by the system, we live through networks of our own,” she said.

Since the passage of the 1998 De Koppelingswet or Linking Act, foreign nationals have been explicitly cut off from most of Dutch society’s heavily subsidized welfare programs. Likewise there are virtually no pathways toward residency besides seeking asylum or marrying a Dutch national. 

Exempt from food, healthcare, education, and housing rights among others, undocumented workers are tolerated in the sense that they aren’t actively persecuted for possible violations of immigration law. However, exclusion from all the rights of a resident does make their lives quite intolerable. They’re left to fend for themselves and subsist on each pay check, persevering to provide for their families.

In one of the most liberal and wealthy countries on Earth, why are there no routes open for such migrant workers to gain residency? Why can the state regulate things like marijuana and sex work, but not domestic work? 

De Asis decries that those who are entrusted with people’s homes, arguably the most intimate spaces, continue to be treated as outsiders. They are unheard and preferred unseen.

Inspector Michael Zwart, a specialist on undocumented migrants with the Dutch National Police admits there is general attitude of indifference on the subject. Ordinary law enforcement doesn’t see it as a big problem for Dutch society. Most officers “don’t want to know too much because you’ll have to do something about it,” said Zwart.

He acknowledges that without outsourced labor, “a lot of restaurants will close. We will have a lot of dirty houses because no one cleans them anymore so we also need people to do some jobs.”

Fairwork, an NGO dedicated to undocumented labor, explains that the country relies on “a lot of work, which is invisible, but which also contributes to society and the economy.”

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“[Undocumented workers] are dependent on a salary to provide for the family. So they’re vulnerable because of their position. And if someone abuses that vulnerability, you can also not escape,” the group adds.

“Dutch society thinks our plight is unimaginable, they think themselves to be so tolerant,” De Asis mentions. When talking with her husband about the difficulties immigrants face in the United States during the time of President Donald Trump, she quipped “Dutch immigration is thicker than Trump’s wall.” 

Forty-eight year old Delilah arrived in the Netherlands on a three-month tourist visa that expired 24 years ago. She works 10 hours a day on three houses and can go through as many as 20 homes a week, barely taking a day off to meet her daughter’s needs in Amsterdam.

Delilah said that Filipinos are in demand because many can speak English and are perceived to be more obedient. “We stay longer in our work because we treat the house of our employer like it is our own,” she said. 

Delilah, one of the undocumented cleaners interviewed by The Diplomat, displays her hands. Photo by Michael Beltran.

Amsterdam Deputy Mayor Ruttger Wassink said it has become “completely normal to have an undocumented person cleaning your house.” 

Part of the reason why cleaners can go unnoticed is because he says labor inspection is “notoriously understaffed.”

The city of Amsterdam estimates that approximately 50,000 undocumented individuals are living in the Netherlands, and over half in the capital. De Asis believes this to be a conservative estimate and the number might account just for Filipinos alone.

Wassink’s office is preparing a host of new welfare programs to address areas of housing, education and food for the undocumented. There are currently no national policy proposals to tackle this growing section of the country’s population but Wassink wants the capital to set an example. Politically, he hopes to “normalize the debates about the undocumented.” 

Discovering the Undocumented

Initial efforts such as the establishment of the Alliance for the Human Rights of the Undocumented in 2012 was a response to talk of criminalizing the undocumented.

Greater mainstream discourse on the matter might have been swept under the rug for longer were it not for a global pandemic.

At the onset of COVID-19, everyone without papers was excluded from the vaccine rollout at first. It was only until migrant groups and domestic worker unions petitioned the government that services were slowly granted.

“It’s like we didn’t exist before COVID-19. It was so difficult to access food and medical care. You call and say you want a test, they won’t give you one if you’re undocumented. They’ll just hang up,” De Asis said.

For a long time, much of the immigration debate focused on asylum seekers. However the urgent need to feed the undocumented, mostly cleaners, began to take center stage “because they immediately lost their jobs. And what we saw is that thousands and thousands of people were in need of this food,” said Wassink.

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De Asis found herself rescuing people from the streets, delivering food to those who were going hungry and arranging for tests for those ignored by the health services.

Fairwork noticed a spike in labor complaints from domestic workers during lockdown. Most of their 122 Filipino clients in Amsterdam experienced extreme vulnerabilities.

Fatima Aarbaj, a research adviser at the office of the Amsterdam Ombudsman came upon similar observations around the same period.

She remembers meeting people who would complain to her office that they lived in a “storeroom without a toilet, because they couldn’t afford rent anymore.”

Aarbaj led the creation of a report by the Ombudsman on the situation of undocumented migrants. Released in 2021, Onzichtbaar (Invisible) recommends the gradual integration of undocumented labor into certain industries that might lack manpower. “We hope that it will go from Amsterdam to The Hague and other cities,” said Aarbaj.

She conceded though that “if we actually knew how big the problem was, it will be politically also very difficult. I can already see them fighting in The Hague. They will make an estimation about how much new policies will cost or how much to send people back home.”

Rights Unknown

According to Zwart, living without proper documents is technically an administrative offense, not a criminal one. The officer reminds his juniors to be lenient and treat immigrants as part of the community, acknowledging that many are afraid of police at the onset.

“From a police perspective, if you don’t have the right papers, who cares, it’s your problem,” said Zwart. The officer would rather undocumented individuals roam the streets and testify in court to help police with bigger cases.

But administrative offenses fall under the jurisdiction of labor inspection which Fairwork feels can be heavy-handed at times. The Netherlands views labor exploitation and human trafficking in the same light. If an undocumented individual shows no signs of either in an inspection, they can be detained.

According to the Ministry of Justice and Security, 270 Filipinos were deported from the Netherlands in 2022.

“The Labor Inspectorate should check on labor conditions and should keep to that task and not go into the field of migration policy. If there’s a need to have more domestic workers and care-workers, why aren’t there any legal pathways for people from outside of the EU, to fill in these vacancies?” asked Fairwork.

“They don’t have to be afraid of me but I’ve always been very clear about the fact that you are vulnerable for crimes,” said Zwart.

Unlike Belgium, Italy and many of its neighbors, the Netherlands has not ratified International Labor Organization’s convention 189 which recognizes the rights of domestic workers.

“Holland needs them, these people, but it doesn’t want to recognize them,” Aarbaj said. 

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Natalia Robles, 28, former chair of the Migrant Domestic Workers Union in the Netherlands, is now taking up a degree at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU) after she and her sister won a 10-year court battle to gain documents.

Born in Chile before emigrating with her parents to the Netherlands, Robles worked as a cleaner right after high school as there was no other job available.

“Both the job and the worker are unrecognized. If I, as a documented person now, continue to work as a cleaner, which I did for a while, I still wouldn’t have any rights. I still have to work as self-employed. But it’s not logical,” Robles said.

No Permanent Address

By far, the most common and niggling misfortune that undocumented migrants encounter pertain to housing. Whether due to arbitrarily high rent, evictions, the presence of immigration inspectors, or unreasonable landlords, any of their rights as tenants can be disregarded.

Wassink bemoans the lack of proper regulatory mechanisms for key aspects of life for immigrant work. “Housing and labor are the top problems, which are also completely dependent on national legislation,” he said.

Jane, who has cleaned homes in The Hague for 17 years, has lived in 22 homes. Her shortest stay was three weeks because the landlord decided to abruptly sell the apartment.

“One time I had to move because there was a raid on my street for illegal immigrants and the police were checking all the nearby houses. They knocked on my door, but I hid under my bed the whole night and pretended nobody was home,” Jane recalls.

Undocumented renters are at the whim of their landlords who can void any agreement and set the rent at an unusually high rate.

Delilah, her husband, and 5-year-old daughter were evicted in July 2022 and have been crashing on the couches of friends since then. Thankfully, the Filipino community is so tight-knit that it isn’t hard to find someone to take them in.

Their old apartment was part of a social housing project in a low-income neighborhood. The beneficiary of the housing, effectively her landlord, charged her 1,200 euro a month to live there when the actual cost was only 400 euro.

The building was slated for inspection because of a mold problem. When the owner found out, he told Delilah’s family to pack all of their things and leave by 11 p.m. “What are we supposed to do, just jump out of the house?” Delilah pleaded.

“We never got our deposit back. My daughter had one week left of school that she couldn’t finish and we could only come back for our things on the weekends, when there was no inspector,” complained Delilah.

Delilah, one of the undocumented cleaners interviewed by The Diplomat, shares a drawing by her daughter. Photo by Michael Beltran.

“Where Else Would They Go?”

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Tucked in a basement office between two alleys in Amsterdam’s red light district, Doctor Tom Matthews arrives each morning to receive patients at one of the most unique medical facilities in the country. Kruispost is the city’s only refuge for the ailing uninsured cleaners who form a line inside the clinic that spills onto the sidewalk each weekday.

At the non-profit, undocumented workers can avail themselves of medical attention for just a 5 euro donation. Kruispost can also make referrals regarding, and sometimes perform, major procedures that need to be done at other facilities.

Matthews, 40, has been volunteering as a Kruispost physician for 16 years. He makes it a point to convince colleagues to lend some of their hours to the clinic.

“If you think back on why you would want to become a doctor, usually it is because you want to help people out in need. And here is where that need is most felt,” he often told colleagues.

Matthews cites stress, hypertension and joint injuries as the most common complaints from Filipinos, all of which he said will inevitably take years off their lifespans.

“We haven’t had this many elderly people coming in ever. We took advantage of them as a society, but we did not take care of them, and the system is not helping them out. Where else would they go?” he adds. 

One of the Filipino patients at Kruispost recounts her medical history to the doctors. After working in four other countries as a cleaner, the Netherlands is the only place that never afforded her any medical insurance. Because of that, she avoids certain aspects of her cleaning job.

“If the ceiling or window is too high, I refuse. I don’t have my insurance if I fall down,” said the patient. Both she and Matthew admit that the one of a kind clinic can’t sustain the hundreds of thousands of people without healthcare.

“A Chance to Study”

The Netherlands doesn’t allow undocumented individuals over 18 to continue schooling. Finding out about one’s unlawful status can shape the adolescent experience.

Robles couldn’t cross any national borders and thus was unable to join many school trips.

“When I went out with friends, it was difficult. I was different and people didn’t understand that,” she said. “They take risks. They cross the street with a red light. They ride bikes with no lights, but not me. It wasn’t really bullying but they’d laugh at me for it. At some point, I stopped explaining and I just let them believe I wasn’t brave.”

“These everyday micro forms of exclusion create feelings of being different,” comments VU Professor Tara Fiorito.

Last year, a consortium of people and institutions including Fiorito, social workers from the ASKV Refugee Support, and the municipal government began working on a project to assist undocumented youths to enter the university. Seven youths were to be sent back to their countries of origin in order to apply for student visas so they could return.

Attending university as an international student when you’ve lived in Holland for most of your life does sound tricky. And it can be five times more expensive. The proper permits, by law, must be picked up in the land of one’s nationality. Wassink admits the whole process is “very complicated” and yet it is a useful loophole.

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Fiorito mentions that the act teeters on “the boundaries of what is legally possible because technically if you have a student visa, you have papers.”

Kai, 22, son to an undocumented cleaner, is the program’s first Filipino beneficiary. He is also the first Filipino on record to be assisted by officials to go from living illegally in the Netherlands to taking up higher education there.

This year, the city will sponsor another small batch of six or seven more youths to undergo the same process. Many undocumented mothers like Delilah are hoping this practice will one day benefit their children. But for today’s undocumented teenagers, the immediate life after graduation is to find an illegal job, like cleaning.

For now, Wassink says their responsibility is “to try to change the way we talk about these people and to, in a sense I just try to normalize and to put a wedge in the dominant way of thinking.”

Kai carries the immense pressure of blazing a trail for Filipinos and his family. Juggling his part-time job at a retail store, and suddenly being handed this huge responsibility has taken a toll on his mental health.

He buckled down then said “it’s a chance to study. I might as well take it. And just keep going.”

Kai traveled by himself back to the Philippines last year for the first time in nearly a decade. It was jarring, hearing Tagalog spoken around him, and meeting his family for what seemed like the first time. “It was like a new world. It was so unfamiliar and yet it had never changed,” he said.

It was an exercise in reacquainting with oneself. By contrast, at age 11 in Holland, he was instructed by Filipinos to be extra careful with his public behavior so as to not attract any authority figure who’d ask for his identification.

It took Randy over six months in the Philippines to complete all the necessary paperwork. Even after graduation, there are still no assurances about his stay.

Kai lifts his head, “We will try to apply for a working permit. There’s still uncertainty but we’re looking for a way.” 

He just hopes that all young people in the Netherlands make the most of opportunities in front of them. “Most kids don’t know about the challenges of living undocumented. They get jobs early on and save up for the future. We can’t,” he said.

Predatory Employers

In De Asis’ experience, Filipino workers come to the Netherlands by overstaying on a tourist visa, or as a former au pair. In rare instances, they are trafficked into the country. Whichever the case, the precariousness stems from a lack of social protections from abusive employers.

Clara, 52, a single mother of four, used to sell fans at one of Manila’s busiest districts to feed her children and pay off debts.

She’d been through a life of domestic abuse with her ex-husband and the extreme poverty took an added toll. She confessed contemplating taking her own life.

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“Once I asked my children if I can just poison my food, and they can live with their relatives,” she disclosed. 

But after two years of work in Hong Kong, she found a similar job in Dubai with a wealthy Turkish family. She worked 17 hours a day, caring for three children from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. including weekends, crying herself to sleep after each shift. The family only paid her 300 euro a month.

If you ask Clara, she’d still say all in all, the family she worked for were nice people. She still credits her employers for changing her life because the opportunity to escape her life in the Philippines despite the maltreatment she faced was still far more enticing. 

In 2015, she moved with her employer’s family to the Netherlands, with a tourist visa valid for only three months.

“When I came here, I felt like I became a slave. I even had to serve their neighbors,” she said. Her eyes turned watery but her upper lip stayed rigid as she shared how the family made her take care of three more children, plus all the cooking and cleaning, for the same pay. Sometimes the family loaned her to the neighbors without compensation.

After six months, her body had severely weakened. She pleaded for just one day off and to be sent back to Dubai to work for another family. Her boss agreed and said he would arrange for the transport.

On her only day off in five years, she saw another Filipino on the street and begged for help to escape. On the date of her flight to Dubai, she snuck out of the house to her newfound friend, a Filipino cleaner. 

Today, Clara works full-time with a Dutch family on 13-hour shifts and hopes one day to send for her children. Thankfully, she has now sought counseling about her trauma. Looking back, she sees how her hardships exacerbated her mental health issues.

“We want to pay taxes, we want to stay here legally, without fear or harm and we should. We are kept in the shadows at society’s convenience and because of that, anything can happen,” said De Asis.

Cora Espanto, of Migrante’s chapter in The Hague, was a domestic worker who was trafficked into The Hague in 2003 when her Saudi Arabian employer moved to the country to fill a diplomatic post. She escaped soon after and since then, Cora has rescued numerous other Filipinos from similar perils.

“They don’t know what to do, where to ask for help. You don’t see victims. They’re trapped in luxurious homes,” said Espanto.

“Some people think that everything is fine with us in Europe. But there is little knowledge of the rights we have. And the fear that comes with not knowing is what employers can exploit,” said De Asis. 

Espanto adds that lack of awareness of the standards makes many victims hesitant to speak out if they are being exploited or think they are being deceived.

Rachelle had worked for the family of a Greek diplomat for 12 years before finally leaving with the help of Espanto. She’d been granted a diplomatic stay in the Netherlands but was paid as low as 600 euros a month to work 14-hour shifts every day.

“I had diplomatic status, but I felt like garbage,” she said.

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When she spoke with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, she was shocked to learn that her employer was obliged to deposit 1,250 euro in her bank account as salary. Her employer complied with the Ministry’s wishes, but ordered Rachelle to return 300 euro to him.

“They are so proud when they display me in front of their friends and say ‘you know this is part of our family. Because she’s been here for so long… She is very nice. This is a good soul.’ But I was really stressed, I would collapse from exhaustion and still have to smile for them,” Rachelle said.

This investigation was supported by journalismfund.eu

You can read another part of this investigation, in Dutch, here.

Guest Author

Michael Beltran

Michael Beltran is a freelance journalist from the Philippines. His journalistic lens is shaped by extensive contact with marginalized folk in his home country. As a freelancer, his work dips into a broad range of issues, from economic trends, to global conflicts, migration and displacement, to human rights and on occasion, the local music scene. He has also authored a book on revolutionary Filipino exiles in the Netherlands, set to come out in late 2023.

Guest Author

Sarah Haaij

Sarah Haaij is a freelance journalist who specializes in stories on human/women’s rights, migration and the sweet and sour of globalization. Based in Amsterdam, she works for both national and  international outlets across the world. Her focus is on story-driven research projects and in-depth interviews; she is also involved in various podcast and documentary film productions.  She has been awarded the Global Media Competition on Labour Migration (2019) and the European Young Journalist Award (2010), among others.