'Heroines' of Philippines leave families for salaries

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

August 18, 1992|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Staff Writer

HONG KONG -- Rosa is an educated, well-mannered, hard-working, 42-year-old Filipino.

Back in the Philippines, she is somebody. She has a home and a family. She once had a decent job there, too.

But her $200-a-month salary as a clerk was not enough to cover college and high-school tuition for her three children and care for her husband, an unemployed engineer stricken with multiple sclerosis.

Here, Rosa is an "amah," a maid, a virtual nobody with few rights and even fewer options.

For the past six years, she has worked six days a week, 15 hours a day, tending other people's children, buying and cooking their food, washing and ironing their clothes, sweeping and scrubbing their homes.

Her homes have been tiny rooms off her employers' kitchens, typically not much larger than a single bed.

Her social life has been restricted to back-stair conversations with other Philippine women in the same situation, one-night-a-week Bible study groups and one day off each week, Sundays, which she devotes to attending church and charity work.

Her trips back home have been limited to once every two years.

From this life, Rosa earns enough to keep her kids in school.

Rosa, whose dignity would be disturbed if her real name were to be used here, is one of almost 80,000 Philippine women who have fled the failing economy of their country for similar lives and minimum monthly salaries of about $400.

The women -- many are nurses, teachers or other professionals -- usually send home at least half their wages. Along with their counterparts in the Middle East, they are the largest source of foreign exchange for the Philippines, sending home at least $5 billion a year through both official and unofficial channels.

As a result, former Philippine President Corazon C. Aquino called these women her country's "new heroines."

There's not much glory for the women, however. Many of them are not much more than chattel, leading lives dictated by the whims of their employers.

Their first six months of wages often are eaten up by loans taken out to pay exorbitant fees charged by Philippine labor companies to find them their first jobs.

They can be fired for virtually any reason -- not being subservient enough, not being pretty enough, becoming too close to their employers' children -- with little recourse.

If they are sacked, they must leave Hong Kong within two weeks unless they find another employment contract -- a rule that hangs heavily over those still paying off debts back home.

Sometimes, they are not given even a room to live in and have to sleep on living-room couches. Sometimes, they aren't given enough to eat.

Sometimes, they face psychological abuse or sexual assaults -- reports of which are on the upswing.

Even if they wish to go home for a short visit, they must have a letter from their employer to get a visa allowing them to return.

Sundays are theirs.

On this day every week, almost 10,000 Philippine amahs gather in Hong Kong's central Statue Square to eat, write letters, gossip about their employers' foibles, change money, buy and sell necessities, manicure each other's nails and create, if only for a short while, a Philippine village amid the British colony's cold steel towers.

Frequent beauty contests, two radio talk shows in the Philippine language of Tagalog and a magazine in "Taglish," a mixture of Tagalog and English, further hold together the amah subculture in Hong Kong.

Rosa usually has held herself a bit aloof from all this, but this summer she has been relying on other amahs as never before.

Suddenly fired by her longtime employer in May -- for a "personality conflict" -- she got him to agree to pretend she still works for him until her contract ends next month.

Tips from other amahs have led her to a series of temporary, technically illegal jobs in new homes, to which she has moved her one suitcase of belongings. But constant interviews have not turned up a new contract that will allow her to stay here.

Meanwhile, her mother died. Rosa wanted to attend the funeral. But the employer who still holds her contract was traveling and could not be found to give her the letter she would need to return to Hong Kong.

So, while her mother was laid to rest in the Philippines without her, Rosa stopped working for a few hours, went to church and cried.

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