By: Hans Cacdac
(This article was republished with permission from the author who is the current administrator of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration. This was first published in his Facebook account)
THE first thing I noticed upon coming across Alex Tizon’s “My Family’s Slave” in The Atlantic was the magazine cover. Eudocia Tomas Pulido or “Lola”, perhaps around 75 years old, with her head held high; white hair, facial age spots, squinted eyes, pursed lips, and that peaceful, pious look of everybody’s grandmother.
She lights up the portrait, like a candle in the dark. No longer invisible as she was for 56 years.
I read the article for the first time last weekend. I found it gritty, contrite, and humbling. As cold and authentic a confessional as one could ever make. And from the black-and-white cover and glaring title, I got a strong hint that the message for me would be straightforward.
“56 Years A Slaveowner”, this piece might have been called. It is told from the perspective of a son who, at 11 or 12, began seeing Lola’s dire circumstances as a housekeeper in his parents’ American household – no wages, verbally abused, deprived of choice and liberty. His narrative has a non-linear arc that shuttles the writer between Lola’s origins and remembrances as a slave, and the recent return to Lola’s hometown in Tarlac with her ashes in a box.
The glossy, well-defined portrait of Lola on the magazine cover makes me want to reach out. How was it like from her perspective? Sadly, we only have a black plastic box no bigger than a toaster. And Mr. Tizon himself passed away last March. So I wondered why he didn’t share Lola’s story with his colleagues at the Seattle Times during her lifetime, particularly after the death of his mother in 1998. We missed the benefit of Lola’s views exacted by an objective interviewer.
I do not mean to pass judgment on Mr. Tizon. I respect him as a writer, and value his article as a measure of how we can effectively locate ourselves as Filipinos in a world of modern-day slavery. Since every main character in Mr. Tizon’s sordid tale has died, we only have ourselves and our views about the article to sort out.
So what next?
Even while we argue about whether the late Mr. Tizon was a good or bad person, we have this glaring reality: Domestic work is invisible. It is not recognized as a form of employment, and is often excluded from the scope of labor and social security laws. It suffers from perceived low value, as the workers themselves are marginalized at work and within society. The fact that most are recruited out of poverty, and not for their skills or preparedness, contributes to this perception.
Domestic workers, who are mostly women, are often not viewed as employees, but as aides or “helpers”. They are deemed to owe respective households for the opportunity to serve and, in the case of minor domestic workers, be educated. And here lies a bitter paradox — for all the work and level of trust vested upon them for taking care of the lives and property of household members, domestic workers are deprived of an equal amount of care for their genuine rights and concerns. This was definitely the case with Eudocia Tomas Pulido, and likewise the case with millions of domestic workers today.
This “stubborn informality”, as ILO expert Manuela Tomei puts it, breeds the kind of undervaluation and vulnerability that has resulted in a wide range of abuses — from neglect and verbal abuse to physical harm, from sexual objectification to harassment to rape, from disrespect for contracts to wage theft to subhuman working conditions.
But there is a silver lining.
We should no longer live in an era of the quiet, suffering household worker that can be an employer family’s brutal secret. We live in an age and time when laws enacted by nations and communities have clearly heralded a “push back”, and articulated norms and guidelines for the better protection of domestic workers. I have divided these norms and guidelines into five clusters:
1) Decent Work for Domestic Workers. The ILO, on the occasion of the 100th International Labour Conference in 2011, adopted Convention 189, Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers (C189). It is a landmark piece of global legislation that requires all ILO Members to ensure: a) effective promotion and protection of human rights of all domestic workers; and b) enjoyment of fair terms of employment as well as decent working conditions, including the right to privacy. Domestic workers shall be informed of their terms and conditions of employment, with respect to, among others, remuneration, paid annual leave, food and accommodation, and repatriation. The Convention specifies its effective application to migrant workers, as well as effective protection to be undertaken by private employment agencies.
The Philippines was the second country to ratify C189, which has been ratified by 24 Member States to date.
2) Batas Kasambahay. Not long after C189, the Philippine Congress passed the Domestic Workers Act or Republic Act No. 10361. Here the State clearly recognized “the need to protect the rights of domestic workers against abuse, harassment, violence, economic exploitation, and performance of work that is hazardous, to their physical and mental health”. There are salient provisions that uphold the dignity of domestic workers, as follows: a) board, lodging, and medical attendance; b) guarantee of privacy; c) access to outside communication; d) right to education and training; e) elements of a legal employment contract; f) prohibition on debt bondage; g) minimum employment age; h) specific employment terms and conditions such as health and safety, daily and weekly rest periods, non-assignment to non-household work, extent of duty, minimum wage, non-withholding of wages, freedom to dispose of wages, leave and social benefits; i) termination of employment; j) regulation of private employment agencies, including the prohibition to charge recruitment or placement fees; and k) dispute settlement and penalties for violations of the law.
For overseas domestic workers, the 2006 POEA (Philippine Overseas Employment Administration) “Household Service Workers’ Reform Package” requires that the domestic worker should be skills-certified, at least 23 years old, and paid at least $400 a month. The worker should also not be charged recruitment or placement fees. In 2016, the POEA rules were amended to require worker welfare and protection desks and officers for every recruitment agency deploying domestic workers.
The ILO Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers, the Batas Kasambahay, and POEA rules and regulations shine a light on domestic worker rights and entitlements, effectively negating their invisibility and exclusion from Philippine labor laws and policies.
3) Anti-Trafficking in Persons. Human trafficking or trafficking in persons is a crime against humanity. In the Philippines, we have an array of laws on anti-trafficking in persons, including a law on punishment of labor and sex traffickers, and anti-child pornography. One classic definition of trafficking in persons is recruitment or transport of a person through coercion or deception, for purposes of exploitation. In Tizon’s story, the act of transporting Lola Eudocia as a “gift” by his grandfather Lieutenant Tom to his mother could have fallen under this defintion.
4) Government. The Philippine administrative framework for enforcement of laws on migrant worker protection covers all countries where Filipino workers are located. In particular, there are 37 Philippine Labor Offices (POLOs) with Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) Labor Attaches and OWWA (Overseas Workers Welfare Administration) Welfare Officers in areas where there is a large concentration of OFWs, especially in the Middle East, with the sacred obligation to serve OFWs in need. At host countries, POLOs are under the authority of Ambassadors or Chiefs of Mission from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), under the so-called “One Country Team Approach”.
At DOLE, POEA, and OWWA offices in the Philippines, local domestic workers and OFWs and their families may file complaints or put forward issues or concerns relating to domestic worker protection. There is also an established DOLE Hotline — 1343 — for this purpose. The OWWA 24/7 Hotlines are 5511560 and 5516641.
For anti-human trafficking, there is an Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT) led by the Department of Justice, that coordinates and facilitates anti-trafficking preventive and enforcement activities of various government agencies. There is also an IACAT Hotline for trafficking victims — 1343.
These days, all the above-mentioned government agencies could likewise be reached through social media, such as Facebook and Twitter.
The bottom line is that there are various governmental systems and processes to avoid or address domestic worker abuse and exploitation.
5) Fair Recruitment. Just as prevalent as domestic work are recruitment activities by intermediaries or agencies operating within the sector. There is no question that a protective recruitment industry amounts to well-protected domestic workers. Last August 2016, the ILO spearheaded the development of “General principles and operational guidelines for fair recruitment”, which inform the current and future work of the ILO and of other organizations, national legislatures, and the social partners on promoting and ensuring fair recruitment. Most notably, such “General principles and operational guidelines for fair recruitment” invoke respect for human and employment rights of workers in the recruitment and placement process. Among the key elements of the Guidelines would be the obligation of recruiters to exercise “due diligence” or utmost preparation, evaluation, and professionalism in the ethical recruitment of workers.
In the Philippines, we are replete with laws and regulations (the Labor Code, the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act, and POEA rules and regulations) that regulate recruitment for the better protection of workers.
Allow me to point out one particular facet of a recruitment agency’s work under the POEA rules and regulations: On-site monitoring. Recruitment agencies are supposed to monitor the well-being of their deployed workers. Many, however, are averse to monitoring, perhaps due to its attendant costs, or due to just plain inertia.
I could think of at least one case where the life of an OFW could have been saved by monitoring her welfare. In July 2016, OFW Irma Edloy from Valenzuela was deployed as a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia. Less than a month later, a stranger drove her near-lifeless body with bruises to the emergency room of a Riyadh hospital. She passed away five days later.
This is one case where I am sure that on-site monitoring by the (eventually cancelled) recruitment agency should have saved the life of a domestic worker.
In this day and age, there are many ways for a Philippine recruitment agency to monitor the well-being of a worker:
– communications with the foreign recruiter or employer;
– coordination with the families left behind;
– text messaging, snail mail, or email with the workers, foreign recruiters or employers; and
– Facebook, Twitter, or other social media coordination.
These five clusters of norms and guidelines help us find a place in a world post-Alex Tizon and Lola Eudocia. We could play at least two important roles. One is to be an employer of a domestic worker who abides by the law and makes things right. Or, we could be an inquisitive bystander, like the Tizons’ next-door-neighbor Billy, who spots tell-tale signs of domestic worker abuse and, with today’s tools of protection, calls the attention of the proper authorities.
Tizon’s message is straightforward. And it’s not about the heartwarming return to Tarlac with a box of ashes, nor about his daring confessional. Rather, it’s about saving Lola Eudocia by saving others. If we pay heed to Lola’s life lessons on domestic worker protection, then she holds her own against abuse and exploitation.
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