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ALBERT B. CASUGA, a Philippine-born writer, lives in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, where he continues to write poetry, fiction, and criticism after his retirement from teaching and serving as an elected member of his region's school board. He was nominated to the Mississauga Arts Council Literary Awards in 2007. A graduate of the Royal and Pontifical University of St. Thomas (now University of Santo Tomas, Manila. Literature and English, magna cum laude), he taught English and Literature (Criticism, Theory, and Creative Writing) at the Philippines' De La Salle University and San Beda College. He has authored books of poetry, short stories, literary theory and criticism. He has won awards for his works in Canada, the U.S.A., and the Philippines. His latest work, A Theory of Echoes and Other Poems was published February 2009 by the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House. His fiction and poetry were published by online literary journals Asia Writes and Coastal Poems recently. He was a Fellow at the 1972 Silliman University Writers Workshop, Philippines. As a journalist, he worked with the United Press International and wrote an art column for the defunct Philippines Herald.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

NANNYGATE: WHO TAKES CARE OF CAREGIVERS?




Last March, Chip Tsiao, a Hong Kong columnist of the HK Magazine called the Philippines “a nation of servants”, and cited that there are about 130,000 Filipinos working as maids or domestic helpers in Hong Kong. In the event that the Philippines goes to war with China on its claim to the Spratlys Islands, would these hired help and “toilet cleaners” side with the Philippines despite their monthly $3,500 HK wage as servants?

He told his Filipina maid, he wrote, that if she expected to get a wage increase, or if she did not want to be dismissed forthright, she had better tell her friends at the Statue Square in Hong Kong where the “domestics” congregate on their day off, to lay off Spratlys because the Chinese would not take this insult from this “nation of servants.” They will not shrink away from a “Falkland Island war” (recalling the UK/Argentina imbroglio).

The effrontery reverberated throughout the island republic, exciting all types of remonstrations from politicians and media people. The Department of Foreign Affairs counselled nevertheless that this matter should be ignored for what it is: the opinion of only one benighted Chinese “columnist”.

What would the Philippine Government make of this most recent case of a Canadian Member of Parliament employing Filipina caregivers who now claim they have been “mistreated, mentally tortured, and physically stressed” while in the alleged employ of MP Ruby Dhalla, a chiropractic doctor and an erstwhile Bollywood actor, and current MP for Brampton-Springdale, Ontario?

Magdalene Gordo, 31, and Richelyn Tongson, 37, testified before a Parliamentary Committee on Immigration on May 12, and repeated their allegations that their work with Dhalla’s family as reported by Dale Brazao and Susan Delacourt of the Toronto Star “involved days that started between 7 and 8 a.m. and often ended after 11 p.m. They allege they were made to do non-caregiver work such as washing cars in the freezing cold and shining a multitude of shoes for the family.”

“One said she had to do outdoor gardening work in the final days of winter in 2008. Both women were hired by the Dhalla family to care for Tavinder Dhalla, mother of Ruby and her brother, Neil. The nannies also say they had to clean chiropractic clinics owned by the Dhalla family and the house of a cousin. For this, they said, they were paid just $250 a week under the table,” the Star report said.

According to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, anyone who hires a foreign worker without the proper federal approval could be liable for penalties of $50,000 and two years in jail.

The Star report said it has “confirmed through a senior source in the immigration department that none of the three Filipino women had the federal work permits required to work in a home….Gordo and Tongson said they were concerned about the consequences of testifying after admitting they did not have the required federal approval….Both women, who came to Canada to work as nannies under the Federal Live-In Caregiver Program, said they have been facing considerable pressure from family members and friends who fear they will be deported after they testify.”

A third foreign worker, Lyle Alvarez, 32, who says she worked at the Dhalla home for only nine days in 2008, is now working in a restaurant in Western Canada. She was employed as a housekeeper, but was overworked and not paid the overtime she rendered. She was made to scrub the floor with her bare hands, and clean carpets daily, as well as wash clothes with her hands.

MP Dhalla has “remained silent on the caregivers’ allegations since they were made public in the Star…She held a news conference at her constituency office denying the allegations and said anyone who has ever worked at her family home has been treated with loved, care, and respect.”

At the Commons immigration committee, she testified that the caregivers lived comfortably in a basement apartment at the Dhalla home in Mississauga. “It is a beautiful basement apartment, 1,500 square feet, that was furnished with a 60-inch flat-screen TV, mahogany furniture, beautiful carpets, state-of-the-art technology, a kitchen, all for caregivers to live in, by themselves.”

Dhalla contended at the hearing that the caregivers were not working “illegally” when they were with her family. She hinted that the allegations are “politically motivated” by unnamed conspirators who wish to ruin her political career.

“The truth will prevail, and we told the truth,” Gordo told the Star after testifying before the Parliamentary committee. Parliamentary observers said it appears to be a “She-said-She-said” matter until allegations are substantiated.

-o0o-

Meantime, media in Canada have tagged this a “Nannygate”.

The Star’s deputy editorial page editor Martin Regg Cohn wrote May 12 that: “Lost in the media circus over Ruby Dhalla’s political missteps and Bollywood dance steps is the unglamorous tale of the nannies who toil, unseen and unheard, in the homes of upper-class Canadians, middle-class Canadians, and, unfortunately, some Canadians with no class at all.

“Nannygate is not just a story about a high-profile MP, but a cautionary tale about the fate of other caregivers in a program that approved 36,000 new hires last year.

“The reports of abuse shine a spotlight on the women we call nannies—but who are more often than not trained bookkeepers, midwives, kindergarten teachers, pharmacists, and nurses back in the Philippines, whence the majority come….

“In affluent Hong Kong, tens of thousands of Filipinas crowd onto downtown sidewalks and parking lots every Sunday, sitting on old cardboard boxes to give each other haircuts and share meals. The newspapers regularly report cases of abused nannies who are locked up or branded with hot irons.

“During the last Lebanon war, while Canada was evacuating its dual nationals, the Philippines was repatriating thousands of nannies who told horror stories to Manila’s newspapers – not about Israeli war crimes but rampant abuse by their Lebanese employers.

“Here in Canada, permanent residency is a big payoff. But the nannies, and the Philippines, pay a heavy price.

“Canada’s gain is the Philippines' brain drain. For it is not only overtrained nannies but underemployed professionals who flock to overseas jobs – about 9 million people, or about 10 per cent of the country’s population. They are the Philippines’ most lucrative export – a testament to their talents, but an indictment of the economy.

“They send home more than $20 billion a year, accounting for 12 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. Six per cent of that cash flow comes from Canada. Those foreign remittances prop up the Philippine economy, and typically pay for child’s education, but leave everyone with a heavy heart during the years apart.”

-o0o-

In the 70s when I worked with the Public Information Department in Malacanang, I would encounter even certified teachers who would seek help to get passports and permits to work as “domestics, maski na domestic helper, lang.” Why, I asked them.

Once they have had two years of work abroad, they would qualify for permanent residency. That would allow them to sponsor their immediate family, and they could look forward to a “better life” rather than the abject poverty that stare them in the face day-in-day-out.

In the midst of poverty, there is no starvation in the Philippines, unlike Ethiopia, Sudan, Calcutta, Ruwanda, etcetera. “I would rather take my chances as a domestic help abroad, and send home dollars to my family. That’s more money than the peso. Aieee….”

But, there is nothing to be ashamed of applying for these types of jobs. The Philippines has a healthy tradition of household help in its history. Anyone who lives under a roof is expected to help with chores. Such is the domestic helper’s work ethic. Employers of Filipino domestic helpers, caregivers, or personal companions cite the natural civility and humility of these workers. They are quick-learners, and they are resourceful. They speak better English than other foreign help. They repay loyalty and love for the employer’s love and loyalty. May utang-na-loob (they recognize good deeds done for them and are endlessly grateful). No shrinking mimosas, they are resilient. They adapt to disparate cultures quickly. Little wonder that prospective employers ask for “Philipinos.”

Household help in the Philippines tend to stay on for generations, as long as they remain healthy and happy. I remember my grandfather’s mayordomo staying on well past even the patriarch’s death. When he left, Jose (“Siparotoy”, we called him), saw to it that someone took over his functions. He retired in the farms he inherited from my grandfather, and up to his own dying days, he would send us all types of ripened fruit from his orchard. Even his relatives would stop by our old house and gifted us with produce that grandmother would cook to everyone’s delight.

The last time I saw him was when he brought a roasted pig on a pole at the municipal cemetery where grandfather’s grave was. He did not say a word. I saw him shed a tear as he chewed on his ubiquitous guava leaves. My father marvelled at how far he must have carried that delicacy – all the way from his farm in Nara. He did not come again the years thereafter. He died without any children or heirs. I never knew his surname, but when we visited Nara again when I was in high school, an uncle pointed out to Siparotoy’s grave, and it was marked “Casuga”. Jose Siparatoy Casuga, fallecio Abril 1950, a year after grandfather’s demise.

We have had household help all throughout our professional lives in the Philippines: Lourdes, Vicky, Chining, Fely, Neneng. Our children claim them for their own personal “yayas”, their own surrogate mothers while my wife and I pursued our ambitions and professional dreams. When I was a tot myself, we had Siyanang who would cook fried rice together with the ants that had invaded the pot. One of my children, now a Bell Manager, still sends her “yaya” Christmas and birthday cards, for her Yaya Fely and her own children who have themselves grown up to work in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, and other foreign destinations.

Thank God, we did not have any maids in Canada. Here, I learned to cook and wash dishes. Both two different kinds of art. Cuisine and “how-not-to-break-dishes.”

One of my grandchildren remarked while we jogged around the deck in one of those never-ending Disney cruises and their destinations: “Are those not Filipinos, abuelo? They are always painting the rails of the ship, and they are always cleaning, cleaning, cleaning. Do they ever stop?”

Another one chimed in: “And Mario, the waiter. I like him because he brings me ice cream even if I don’t ask for it. He got Mickey and Minnie to our table and I got their autographs and pictures, too!”

My wife likes spending long vacations in the Philippines now because the hired help spoil her rotten and she does not even have to wrack her head for things to eat, or where to shop. They know it all. They are not called “domestic help” for nothing. But they, too, are now hard to find back home. (In Canada or in the Philippines.)

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Albert,

Thanks for your thoughtful and complete blog post. A lot of the young people at the Youth Centre I serve at have questions about 'Nannygate' but struggle to understand the full picture.

Would you mind if I linked to your blog post from our blogsite?

Check us out at http://www.kapisanancentre.com

also, drop me a line at len.cervantes@ctv.ca

I'm also a grant recipient for poetry and would love to read your work.


Leonard Cervantes

Albert B. Casuga said...

Thanks for your note, Leonard. By all means link up from your blogsite.