Illustration by Eleanor Doughty
For working-class women in the Philippines, becoming a live-in domestic employee abroad is a chance to provide for themselves and their families. But they often face exploitation and debt from training centers, employment agencies, and the employers themselves.
Looking for an "honest, God-fearing" Filipina who has a high school diploma and is between the ages of 23 and 40. She must be a "fast learner" and able to do "all-around household chores" for a family in Hong Kong. In exchange for this work, she will receive a salary of about $550 a month, one day off a week, and a "stepping stone to have a better future."
These are the requirements set out by just one of many online ads in the Philippines for foreign domestic worker jobs in Hong Kong. The demand for positions abroad is high, as finding employment in the Philippines—in many sectors—is becoming increasingly difficult. Domestic work, which does not require higher education, is widely seen as an accessible job for working-class Filipinas that pays substantially more abroad than the same job at home.
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Thanks to the Philippine government's Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA)—which accredits scores of training centers to certify foreign domestic workers—women are pouring out of the country in search of work. Though Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates accept the most overseas foreign workers from the Philippines, Hong Kong is also a popular destination, and as of July 2015, about 165,000 of the 336,000 registered foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong were from the Philippines. (The next-largest portion of that statistic came from Indonesia.)
But a painful life often awaits many of them there. In Hong Kong, foreign domestic workers must live with their employers, often in notoriously tiny living quarters, to receive a visa and are not legally entitled to the minimum wage for domestic workers from Hong Kong. Mistreatment of domestic workers is rampant: Horror stories of psychological and physical abuse abound. It is common to hear of domestic workers being denied food and having to be on call 24 hours a day. Earlier this year I spoke with one domestic worker in Hong Kong who was savagely beaten without warning by her employer, a stay-at-home mother, while making the woman's lunch.
The Philippines has some 2.4 million workers abroad, and in recent years the government has become increasingly systematic about accounting for their safety. A law passed in May 2013 protects domestic workers "against abuse, harassment, violence, economic exploitation, and performance of work that is hazardous to their physical and mental health." Among its provisions are the regulation of private employment agencies as well as the requirement that all domestic workers heading overseas procure certificates from TESDA-accredited training schools.
Some domestic workers will return to the Philippines without having made any money—and because common fees range from training school to paying the employment agency that brokers their contracts, their debt could be insurmountable before they even start work.
[Agencies] know the women can easily be forced into paying that excessive fee—there's a long queue of applicants for [each] job.
When I visited Overseas Academy—an unremarkable building at a busy intersection in Metro Manila's Makati City—in March, dozens of women were hurriedly practicing different household chores: tightly folding bed corners, cooking Chinese fried rice, setting tables with swan-shaped napkins, caring for small dogs in cages, and drying laundry on the roof. A large group huddled in a classroom peered at a whiteboard that read, "Duvet—Crosswise, ¼ on spot, ¾ on top," along with a tiringly long list of other rules for making a bed.
Overseas Academy is a TESDA-accredited training school for domestic workers heading overseas, mostly to Hong Kong. Students there prepare for the National Certificate, which requires a one-day examination in which applicants must perform various household chores, or "core competencies." Once they complete the course, trainees can take the certificate to the Philippine government and subsequently an employment agency to get a contract as a domestic worker abroad, and become kasambahay: the Tagalog word for the job.
Esperanza Pascual, the academy's president, said the center can get anywhere from 50 to 200 new trainees each week. Tuition is expensive—the fee for training costs $368 and the exam costs $10—exceeding the average monthly wage in the Philippines in 2012 by about $100. More than 26 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to information from 2015 from the Philippine Statistics Authority.
Training at the academy is rigorous. Though schools' websites advertise programs that last hundreds of hours, most students spend just seven days—starting at 5 AM and finishing at 7 PM, to emulate the grueling hours they would be working in Hong Kong, Pascual said—preparing for the hands-on exam.
"We teach the attitude of the Chinese employer: very clean," Pascual said. "You touch and there's no mess."
The National Certificate exam is difficult, trainees told me: Most were excited to go abroad but nervous for the test. Pascual said that those who failed would probably seek out an illegal training center, not accredited by TESDA but with links to overseas employment agencies, because tuition is cheaper and there is no exam required.
Aerial view of the Ayala Triangle in Makati City. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
For domestic workers relocating to Hong Kong, it is not uncommon to become trapped by debt. A report released by Justice Centre Hong Kong last year—drawing on interviews with more than 1,000 foreign domestic workers in the city—found that debt often begins before a worker arrives at their employer, making them vulnerable to exploitation and forced labor. Nearly half of those surveyed had borrowed money in some form for the recruitment process. More than 35 percent of all respondents had debt-to-income ratios of at least 30 percent of their reported annual income.
Training centers can be where that debt first begins. Pascual said that she would allow a down payment of $100 on the school fee—and the rest could be paid to the academy over time.
Debt can then spiral when employment agencies in Hong Kong sign foreign domestic workers to a contract. Employment agencies by law can only charge foreign domestic workers up to 10 percent of their first month's salary after placement by the agency, but these agencies often do not abide by the rules. In 2015, 490 women came to Hong Kong-based NGO Mission for Migrant Workers for help with cases against employment agencies charging illegal fees, which are presented up front and under the table, according to Cynthia Abdon-Tellez, the general manager of the organization.
"Those are women who actually filed cases," Abdon-Tellez told me over the phone, implying there are more victims. "[Agencies] know the women can easily be forced into paying that excessive fee—there's a long queue of applicants for [each] job."
The International Domestic Workers Federation in a report released last year found that the average amount paid by a foreign domestic worker to an agency for recruitment fees was nearly $1,500 before they left the Philippines; once in Hong Kong, many workers paid additional steep fees to placement agencies, often through salary deductions.
"For many migrant women, the employment agency is the only people they know in Hong Kong when they first arrive, making it very difficult to refuse or question them," said Lenlen Mesina, the executive director of Hong Kong-based charity Enrich.
I'm heading to Hong Kong because I want to experience the tradition, the culture, and also the high salary.
Holly Carlos Allan, director of HELP for Domestic Workers—an organization giving free legal advice to domestic workers in Hong Kong—said employment agencies that charge illegal fees almost never leave a paper trail with receipts or loan documents, in order to stay hidden from law enforcement. To pay illegal excessive agency fees, many women are given payment cards by employment agencies to transfer money each month at a 7-Eleven over to loan sharks the agencies collude with, Allan's organization found.
"Of course agencies don't issue receipts—if investigations are conducted, the agency will say it's [the domestic worker's] own personal loan and it has nothing do with [the agency]," Allan said.
Quantifying how many employment agencies in Hong Kong engage in illegal activity—which can range from overcharging to colluding with loan sharks—is nearly impossible. The Hong Kong Police Force does not maintain statistics on illegal activity at employment agencies, said Cindy Lam, a spokesperson for the Police Public Relations Branch, over the phone.
Instead, the Hong Kong government's Employment Agencies Administration (EAA), which works under the Labour Department, is tasked with ensuring agencies comply with the law. Allan said the EAA is mostly failing to stop agencies from charging illegal fees because both monitoring and investigation are poor.
"EAs operating without licence or charging job-seekers excessive commission is an offence, and shall be liable to a maximum penalty of a fine of HK$50,000 under the EO.The Labour Department (LD) has been taking rigorous enforcement actions," the Labour Department's Information and Public Relations Division wrote in an e-mailed statement. "Upon receipt of complaints against EAs [employment agencies], LD will initiate investigation immediately; where the complainant concerned agreed to assist in investigation and there is sufficient evidence, prosecution will be instituted. The Commissioner for Labour will also consider revoking or refusing to renew the license of the EA concerned if the licensee is convicted."
Hong Kong. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Margie Sella, a single mother with two children, is training at Overseas Academy for the National Certificate. When we spoke, she had recently returned from Saudi Arabia, where she said she made only $400 a month and alleged her employers overworked her and gave her little to eat. She has high hopes for Hong Kong, where she intends to go next.
"I think Hong Kong is a nice place. I think the regulations are better than in the Middle East for the contract that you sign," Sella said. "There will be a big difference in Hong Kong."
Sella's friend Clarise Bayani, who is training with her, told me that Hong Kong could afford her a better life than what she experienced in her previous position, in Singapore. There, she barely made enough to support her family back home in Bacolod City. "I'm heading to Hong Kong because I want to experience the tradition, the culture, and also the high salary," she said.
Indeed, at the training school in Manila, the vision of Hong Kong is without doubt a rosy one. Few trainees were worried about coming home empty handed or had heard of cases involving physical or psychological abuse.
"We have abuse in Hong Kong? I can't—I don't know," Pascual said. "We prepare [trainees] for dangers like heights, like the windows." (Last year, Hong Kong's government passed a law regulating the cleaning of unsafe windows.)
"I'm not scared to leave my family—I want to work hard for my son, he's three years old. I want to prepare for the future for my son and to help my family with their financial problems," said Domelyn Orioque. A single mother who plans to head to Hong Kong, Orioque is planning to leave the Philippines for the first time when she finishes her training, and she believes the city will be safe.
Maria Christal Naguna—smiling ear-to-ear in a hairnet and thick black glasses—took a break from cramming house chores to tell me about her recent experience in Hong Kong; she had just come back to Manila to receive her National Certificate after her previous employers moved to Canada. Like Sella and Bayani, Naguna left the Philippines before training centers were mandatory.
In Hong Kong, she paid an agency half a month's salary for her local contract—five times more than what is legally allowed. Despite this, she plans to return soon.
"Going abroad is for my family and to help them," Naguna said. "It's all for my family—I want to give them a good future."
Unless otherwise noted, all monetary values are in USD.
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