The smell of food lingered in the small carpeted room as two ladies arranged the sandwiches and drinks in the table opposite the door. The door, decorated with golden sinamay, a ribbon made of abaca fibers, led to a small hallway that serves as registration area before the open space where around 15 watercolor paintings hanged on the wall. A middle-aged woman was in the middle of the room, entertaining two early guests. They were heard speaking in English, code-switching to Tagalog at some point. She was explaining her invitation to put up photo exhibit in Singapore next year. After few minutes, five more guests arrived. She cheerfully greeted and welcomed them. A little later, the ceremonial opening of her solo painting exhibit commenced at the 14th floor of the United Center building in Admiralty, in the exhibition area of the Consulate of the Republic of the Philippines
The lady is Janet Pancho – Gupta, a rising Filipina painter and photographer and formerly an abused Hong Kong domestic helper. Traces of her dark past are hidden behind her thick eyeglasses. Her paintings revealed the longing for freedom from the past. Sixteen years ago, she ran away from her Chinese employer who sexually abused her. She roamed the streets of Hong Kong, sought the help of the Philippine consulate, asked favors from other domestic helpers, until she found home at Bethune House. The Mission for Migrant Workers (MFMW) assisted her until she won the case against the employer. It took few more years before she became ready to share her story and served as inspiration to other Filipina domestic helpers in the territory.
Gupta’s case is only one of the few success stories of abused migrant workers who fought and won the battle against their abusive employers. And although her victory may have inspired others who have the same ordeal, majority of them opted to drop their cases and keep silent. Despite the increasing number of injustices and maltreatment to Filipina domestic helpers, a lot of young women are still lured to go to Hong Kong to become modern-day slaves.
According to the Census and Statistics Department of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, the number of Filipina domestic helpers rose from 133, 761 in 2010 to 177,619 in 20151. They comprise around half of the total number of domestic helpers in Hong Kong. South China Morning Post reported than since 1970s, foreign domestic workers have been employed to address the shortage of full-time live-in helpers in Hong Kong2.
The history of domestic helper migration can be traced back in 1974, when then Philippine Pres. Ferdinand Marcos encouraged labor export to solve the nation’s unemployment and accounts deficit, gaining from workers’ remittances from abroad (de Guzman, 2003)3. It was also the height of economic activities in Hong Kong, which during that time is a colony of United Kingdom. The “Open Door” policy of Deng Xiaoping got Hong Kong into money making businesses, and it started the booming of the territory4. Since then, Hong Kong became a sought-after place for domestic helpers.
In the late 1980s, there have been abuses on migrant workers which were widely-publicized. Former Pres. Corazon Aquino banned the deployment of domestic helpers to “protect women migrants from abuse and exploitation in foreign countries where they work,” but it was criticized by different Non-Government Organization activists, as it promoted illegal migration and has violated the constitutional rights of workers to travel and find gainful employment5.
In 1995, Flor Contemplacion, a domestic helper in Singapore was sentenced to death after the Singaporean court found her guilty of killing fellow domestic helper Delia Maga and her employer’s three-year old son. The government of then Pres. Fidel Ramos, passed the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995 after Contemplacion’s execution6.
The succeeding administrations asked the migrant workers to “stay put abroad and continue to send their dollar remittances until the Philippine economy stabilizes7.” Unfortunately, the situation back home only permits abuses and exploitation not just from foreign employers but also from recruitment agencies which charge placement fees more than what’s allowed by the law.
According to Cynthia Tellez, general manager of MFMW, the root cause of abuses to Filipina domestic helpers is the flawed policies of Hong Kong on migrant workers.
“It would be great if contracts (of domestic helpers) are based on employment ordinance. Because if that is the case, they will be considered like local workers. But the Hong Kong Immigration came out with many restricting policies. For more than ten years, we saw that it is a fight between the Labor Department and Immigration Department. It is a silent fight of who should take charge of migrant workers,” said Tellez.
“Originally, contracts in the 1980s were taken cared by the Labor Department, but the Immigration Department said that they (migrant workers) are aliens, and should be under Immigration Bureau’s jurisdiction. Immigration won. They are now more concerned with how to restrict the entry of foreign workers in Hong Kong rather than their general welfare.”
She said that the policies of the Immigration Bureau are vague and discriminatory.
Tellez also added that because of the immigration policies, abused domestic helpers opt to keep silent and swallow their pride.
“Are you going to complain? Because if you do, even if it is just a petty complaint, your contract might be terminated [by your employers]. You don’t want that to happen. Unfortunately, majority of our fellowmen still think like that. It doesn’t matter if they suffer, as long as they are employed. Better than going home empty-handed.”
She also said that abused domestic helpers sometime do not want to cooperate and they cannot force them since they are guided by free will.
Tellez said that situation will be the same in the next five years unless the government of the Philippines act favorably for migrant workers. She believes the Philippine government can solve the problems of labor migration if the officials would have political will to change the situation.
“It hurts to know that parents see their children whom they toiled to get college education end up as domestic helpers. Nobody dreamed of becoming a domestic helper,” she said.
“I look forward to that day when Filipinos won’t need to go abroad and enslave themselves just give their children the future they deserve,” she concluded.