By Bobby Yip and Cheryl Ravelo
DATELINE: HONG KONG
Like most of the domestic helpers from the Philippines, Imelda “Susan” Famadula smiles a lot. She has been working in Hong Kong for 15 years, waking early in the morning, dropping the kids off at school, going to the market, bringing the kids back, all along taking care of various household tasks which last until midnight, and for six days a week.
Imelda loves Sunday. She can meet friends in the city’s financial Central district, where bankers and office workers make way for domestic helpers. Imelda also goes to church, but most importantly, she is free to meet her family – via the Internet.
Every month she sends nearly all of her salary back to the Philippines for her family. Only once every two years does she manage to save enough to travel back to her hometown. “I may not go back this year, second year in a row, as my kid needs more money while studying in the university”, she said, still smiling.
Internet is her lifeline, connecting her soul with those she feeds thousands of miles away.
In Hong Kong, she has two boys to take care of. When she started working for her current family eight years ago, they hadn’t even been born yet.
“They like me very much.” The work makes her happy, keeps her busy, and helps her mind from straying to homesickness.
Foreign domestic helpers make up around three percent of Hong Kong’s population. Nearly half of those are from the Philippines. There are many other Imeldas here, helping to keep the city running. For them, there is as much sweating as smiling.
As International Women’s Day neared, I was assigned to look for a family in the Philippines living off the remittances of a female member of the family. With 4,000 Filipinos leaving everyday to work abroad, I thought it would be easy to find my subject. I was wrong.
I solicited help from my friends and contacts from different organizations caring for overseas Filipino workers. I also surfed Facebook and Twitter and even assigned my younger cousins, nieces and nephews to look for classmates whose mother worked as domestic help abroad. But most of the families we found, if not separated, were broken.
After weeks of searching, I found my subject in the province of Pangasinan, located about 98 miles north of Manila
The Famadulan’s are a family of five. Susan, the mother, has been working in Hong Kong since 1997. Erly, the father, on the other hand, has been working in their town as a carpenter, electrician, and driver to help provide for their three children, Raymund, Reliza and Dan Mark.
I traveled early in the morning to avoid traffic. After more than 3 hours, I arrived at their two-storey unfinished stone house. In between shoots, Erly talked about their life, he recounted that back in the 1990’s they were just renting a small house made of wood. He did not have a permanent job back then, so he tried applying to work abroad but it was Susan who had the opportunity. Helped by her cousin, Susan accepted a job as a domestic helper. Their youngest, Dan Mark, was only two years old when she left.
While Susan raises her employer’s children, her own children can only see her through photos or read about her through letters. As she cooks, irons and cleans in her employer’s house abroad, her children grow up doing it for themselves. But despite these shortcomings, she makes up for it by calling or chatting online as much as possible and spends holidays at home every two years – if the savings permit, or if there’s a special occasion like a graduation.
Browsing through their albums, I noticed there was not a single family photo. Most of them were of Susan showing her activities in Hong Kong. With Susan’s absence, her family’s daily lives vary. They don’t eat together, nor do activities as a family. But the children help out in household chores and assist their father in his electrical work and sound system rental service.
The money sent home by Susan and the other 10 million overseas workers has not only added $20.12 billion into the economy last year, but also changed the life of their families. Susan’s monthly remittances allow her family to acquire much, like build a house, buy a jeepney and motorbike, start up the light and sound system rental service, pay household bills and most importantly, send her children to good schools.
After 15 years of sacrificing abroad, Susan’s eldest son is now a graduate computer technician, her daughter is in her second year of college studying Hotel and Restaurant Management, and her youngest is in high school. Susan may have missed a lot of birthdays and Christmases, but it’s a price she and other female overseas Filipino workers have made to give a comfortable life for her family and a better future for their children.