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For Filipina domestics, hard lonely life

NCR Staff
Hong Kong and Taipei, Taiwan

At least 2,000 women are crowded into St. Joseph's Church on Garden Road, Hong Kong, for the 8 a.m. Mass. Half of them have not seen their children in two years.

Another 2,000 -- also far from a home to which they infrequently return -- will be at the 9 a.m. Mass, then the 10 a.m. and the 11 a.m. and so on throughout the day.

These are Filipinas, some of the 150,000 working as domestics in Hong Kong. There are another 65,000 in Taiwan. Throughout Asia, including southern and mainland China, there are probably a further 750,000 documented Filipinas -- the undocumented reportedly could go as high as 2 million.

They work 12 and 14 hours a day, six days a week, living in cubbyholes and small rooms in apartments and houses as they serve families throughout Asia.

Traditionally they have one day off a week: Sunday. Predominantly Catholic, the Filipinas flock to churches like St. Joseph's. In Hong Kong, after Mass, they gather in Chater Garden.

There they read each other's letters from home, joyfully show photographs of the growing children they rarely see -- children being raised by others including husbands with whom they barely share a life.

This is the heart-wrenching underbelly of Filipino poverty. For families separated for the sake of economic survival, the meager pay remitted home from Hong Kong and Taiwan is the mainstay of support back in Manila, Mindanao and Cebu.

It is not an easy topic for the women to discuss. Outside St. Joseph's, sisters Susana Foronda and Cynthia Yutuc talked to NCR more about their trips home than their lives away from the Philippines. Foronda's husband farms, but her income helps support the family. Yutuc, who has been in Hong Kong for 15 years, and Foronda, for 10, are a support system for each other and were delighted to introduce a niece who also works in the colony.

Another Filipina, the mother of three younger children, started to explain how she coped without them, started to cry and could not continue.

Outside the church, although the 8 a.m. Mass has not reached the offertory, lines are forming for a seat at the next Mass. Inside, Maryknoll Fr. Ron Saucci will draw on his own family's experiences in his homily as he reaches across cultures to give relevance to the readings.

In Taiwan, explained Mercerdarian Sr. Stephana Wei Wei of the Rerum Novarum social services center, there are perhaps 60,000-70,000 Filipinas. Rerum Novarum, which provides legal aid to Taiwanese workers, also cares for these migrant workers.

"The domestics are more vulnerable than other migrant workers," said Taiwan-born Wei Wei. "Factory workers have standard labor law to protect them, but the house is a private area and the Filipinas depend on the mercy of the employer."

The center becomes involved, she said, when Filipinas come to ask for help. The standard one-year contract specifies the work, pay and hours.

"But the employer may ask them to work from early morning, 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. The contract might say they serve only three people or four people in the house. But after one month," said the nun, "the whole family arrives and they have to work for several families. Or their working contract has them as a caretaker for aged people or sick people, but later the employer makes them clean, do everything."

Migrant workers in the factories, she said, make double the Filipinas average $500-a-month salary "unless the employer is very kind. One worker who often comes to our office has an employer who pays her almost $800, and the worker is very happy. But many are not like that."

Usually the Filipinas, who hear of Rerum Novarum through word of mouth, come for help when there is mistrust or miscommunication, said Wei Wei, "or sometimes the employer is not very happy with this worker and, without warning, sends them right away. According to law they should be given notice, but they send them home."

The problems facing the Filipinas are compounded, she said, because while the salary is low, it is not low by Filipino standards. More than that, to get their working position in Taiwan, the Filipina domestic has committed herself to pay a very high fee to a job broker.

"Usually they need to work for 10 months just to pay the broker," said Wei Wei, "sometimes even their home or land in the Philippines is held as a guarantee. So here they are under high pressure. Even if they are not happy with the working conditions or there is a problem between employer and themselves, they don't have freedom to choose to go back."

In addition to being separated from their children, homes and families, she said, the psychological pressure on them to survive in the Taiwan contract is enormous.

"So many people have psychological problems," said Wei Wei. "We offer some psychological counseling. The sisters will also go to the police office because the Filipinas don't know any Chinese and it is very difficult for them even to fill forms."

Rerum Novarum Center emphasizes education and provides some religious formation on Sunday. There are Mandarin classes and career meetings -- plus Bible sharing.

"Actually though," said Sister Wei Wei with a sigh, "we are doing very little because the situation is related to the economic structure in their own country. But they sacrifice such a lot and stay away from home for so long, it is a serious social problem for them."

National Catholic Reporter, October 25, 1996