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An unsung carol: Silent nights of a domestic worker

For many domestic workers, the holiday season may not always be filled with joy.

With the Christmas season in full swing, spending time with those closest and dearest to you is expected. But for most domestic workers, this isn’t always the case. Some may be chained to an immense workload, others may struggle with the exorbitant fees that come with returning home. Either way, it seems that these hard-working heroes can barely catch a break during the holidays. 

In a day’s work

Joy*, a local domestic worker who has been employed by the same family for over 35 years, shares that her duties concern taking care of both the household and the house itself. She professes that taking care of the children is her favorite part of the job. Although they might not need her as much now as they did back then, “I was so happy because I like kids,” she expresses. “That’s why I became a yaya.” 

Even so, she admits that she doesn’t usually tell her own family how much work she actually does. “Sometimes, they say I need to stop because I’m getting old and I’ve been working since [I was] very young,” she reasons. Nonetheless, she is content with her current job, but postulates, “I want to do something—I can’t really explain [it], but I want to do something more.”

But for international domestic workers such as Armafe Cajiben, being stationed in another country inflicts its own kind of strain onto the individual, especially during the holidays. Her workload is similar to Joy’s, but contrastingly, she has been employed by four different families in her 10 years of work. 

Armafe’s candidness and honesty when describing her situation only highlight the heavy fatigue that rests upon her shoulders. Despite this, she adamantly repeats that her fuel is the thought of her family and their future back home. “Mahirap pero no choice, ganun talaga [kaya] kailangan mo tiisin,” she conveys wearily. 

(It’s hard, but I have no choice. It’s really like this so you need to endure it.)

Away from home

Amid the hurdles and challenges that come with the job, allocating time to spend with their families—even during the holidays—is the toughest to conquer.

Joy is one of those who can fortunately go home to their families during the Christmas season. Though her employer celebrates Christmas similarly to her own family, it’s always special when she gets to celebrate with her closest loved ones. “You’re happier because it’s your own family,” she states.

However, not all domestic workers are given the opportunity to come home, especially those who are based abroad. “Kapag uuwi [ako] ng Pilipinas, 14 na araw lang [ako] pwede. ‘Yun lang ang [aking] bakasyon, tapos babalik ka na,” Armafe explains. Outside of that, she is essentially trapped, unable to risk losing her job. 

(When I go back to the Philippines, I’m only allowed 14 days. That’s how long I have for vacation and at the end of it, I have to go back.)

Additionally, since quarantine expenses are expected to be shouldered by their employers, many don’t allow their workers to go home because of the hefty sums. “Kaya…walang [amo ang may gusto] na umuwi ang kanilang mga workers. [Kung] meron man [amo na may gusto], siguro iilan lang, pero majority wala,” she tells.

(No employer wants their workers to go home. If there are any, then it’s only a few of them. Most of them don’t allow it.)

As an alternative, Armafe makes use of digital means such as video calls to connect with her family. “Kamustahan lang,” she describes. “Mino-monitor mo sila, tapos tinatanong mo kung ano nangyayari sa kanila.”

(You ask them how they’re doing. You monitor them, and ask what’s currently happening with them.)

Workers’ woes

Looking back, Armafe realizes none of her employers have treated her hospitably, much less shown empathy for her workload. Working for 16 hours a day—even 24 hours for when there are kids to look after—subjects Armafe and over 204,000 Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong to modern-day slavery.

Babagsakan ka ng palanggana, sisigawan ka, mumurahin ka,” Armafe tearfully divulges. “‘Yung kamay ko, masyado siyang [na-eexpose] sa chemicals [kaya] nagsusugat siya.” For many Filipino domestic workers, abuse has simply been associated with the job. 

(They’ll drop the basin on you, shout at you, or curse at you. My hands have become wounded from being exposed to chemicals too much.) 

For Joy, the solution is simple: “The amo [needs] to be better. [They shouldn’t] give a low salary [then] give [helpers] a lot of work.” But what can kasambahays do to escape the exploitative conditions they’re employed under? Meanwhile for Armafe, the options are limiting, “Gustuhin ko man i-terminate ‘yung kontrata ko, hindi naman pwede dahil mahigpit ngayon ang immigration. May posibilidad na hindi ako bigyan ng panibagong visa.”

(Even if I wanted to terminate my contract, I can’t because the immigration agency is stricter now. There’s a possibility that my visa might not get renewed.)

Armafe expresses disappointment at the overwhelming neglect from the government, rendering them as an invisible and vulnerable sector. In 2020, an average of six Filipino domestic workers die every month due to cancer, heart attacks, or worse, suicide; but it seems that the government isn’t doing much to address this pressing issue. “Dapat mino-monitor nila kung bakit may mga pangyayaring ganon…[at kung] bakit patuloy pa rin ang pagpupunta ng mga kasambahay [sa] ibang bansa,” she remarks, “Maraming Pilipino pa rin ang inaapi, inaabuso, [pero] wala naman [ginagawa ang gobyerno].

(They should monitor why these things happen…and why more domestic helpers still choose to work abroad. Many Filipinos are being abused by employers but the government isn’t doing anything.)

The Progressive Labor Union of Domestic Workers in Hong Kong strives to fill these gaps in government support. Members like Armafe dedicate their days off to organize other Filipino migrant workers, assess their situations, and inform them of their rights. Some workers, though aware of labor rights, choose to act defenseless. “Kasi [kapag] alam ng mga amo [na] palaban ka sa kanila, ite-terminate ka nila,” she notes. Despite its necessity, asserting one’s rights is unfortunately used to blackmail and exploit these workers—a burden many Filipinos are too familiar with.

(When employers see that you can defend yourself, they’d have you terminated.)

A Christmas wish

The call to protect Filipino domestic workers should be at the forefront. “Sana ‘yung embahada natin dito [pinapayuhan nila] ang mga amo na ‘wag nilang abusuhin ‘yung mga karapatan [naming mga domestic workers],” Armafe offers. Despite the long nights and grueling shifts, what keeps millions of these workers around the world going is the thought of home—a family eagerly waiting for their return. 

(Our embassy should advise employers against abusing the rights of domestic workers like us.)

Joy wishes for a bit more time away from work. “Usually when I go home to my family, it’s already on the 25th in the afternoon. I want unta to spend ba on the 24th,” she says. Meanwhile, Armafe’s bliss is rooted in seeing her loved ones, “Siyempre, [kapag] Pasko, ‘yung kaligayahan mo [ay kapag] kasama mga anak mo, ‘yung magulang mo, mga kapatid mo”. 

(The joy of Christmas is being with your children, your parents, and your siblings.)

For Armafe and Joy, celebrating a warm and lively Christmas in their family’s embrace is their heart’s one wish today, reserved for a blissful someday.

*Names with asterisks (*) are pseudonyms

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