By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL and JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – Twenty eight years ago today, Filipina domestic worker Flor Contemplacion was executed after she was falsely convicted over the twin murders of a fellow Filipina and her four-year-old ward.
Her much publicized execution has put a spotlight on how the Philippine government failed to provide due protection to Filipinos who left the country in order to work abroad, and, in return, keep the country’s economy afloat through their remittances.
In response, the government passed Republic Act No. 10022 or the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995 in an apparent attempt to appease strong public outcry.
Unfortunately, three decades later, Contemplacion’s story continues to reverberate among Filipino migrant workers, decrying that they continue to face government neglect and varying forms of attacks against migrant rights activists for advocating for their welfare.
Read: 20 years after Flor Contemplacion, Filipino migrants suffer same exploitative conditions
Read: From Marcos Sr. to Jr. | In the Philippines, more than half a century of labor migration has led to nowhere
In this list, Bulatlat highlights women migrant rights activists who rose to the challenge of standing behind beleaguered Filipino migrant workers and the families they left behind.
Joanna Concepcion was 12 years old when she and her siblings joined their parents to live in the United States. Growing up, their family did not have any connection to the Filipino community in the US, but this did not stop her from learning about her heritage.
Her mother left the Philippines first in 1998 and her father a year later.
Like other Filipino families, Joanna said that her mother’s decision to go to the US was to earn for the family.
“My parents’ income was insufficient for us. We were all enrolled in private schools, that’s what they wanted for us, yet what they earned was insufficient for our tuition, so my parents have acquired loans,” she said in an interview with Bulatlat.
In the US, Joanna and her siblings were enrolled in a public school. It was difficult for them, she said, as there was no support for immigrant students like them. They also had to adjust to the place since they were not in a community where there are many Filipinos.
When the US suffered the impacts of the global economic crisis, Joanna said that her family suffered and was deeply affected. Her parents, she said, had to do multiple jobs to pay for their loan. She and her sibling also had to work while studying in order to support their needs.
“So that we would not have to pass the burden of supporting our needs in school to our parents,” she said.
Like many American students, Joanna was buried in student loans while in college, forcing her to work two jobs while studying. She graduated in 2010 but was only able to fully pay her debt nine years later.
Having lived for almost two decades in the US, she decided to return to the Philippines to work as a full-time migrant rights activist.
A typical Filipino would not think of returning to the Philippines if they have received the most coveted US citizenship. For Joanna, however, returning to the Philippines to work for the migrant sector was a choice impelled by her love for her fellow Filipinos who are not as fortunate as she and continues to face abuse and other forms of rights violations.
Joanna was exposed to the issues of the Filipino people when she was a college student.
“I remember there was a campaign on Justice for Melissa Roxas. It was the time when there were gross human rights violations in the country under President Arroyo,” she said.
Her desire to help and serve the marginalized was strengthened not only when she started joining the progressive youth group Anakbayan in L.A. but also by her exposures to communities in the Philippines where she and other Fil-Ams integrated with the urban poor, workers, farmers as well as students and Lumad communities in Mindanao.
Since then, she involved herself with Filipino groups in the US and became part of the campaign on trafficked Filipinos in the US. She also became the director of the Filipino Migrant Center for five years and helped form Migrante chapters in Southern California.
These experiences, she said, helped her understand their family’s situation as immigrants.
Annie Dichoson, an Ilongga, spends her day-off helping fellow migrant workers at the Mission for Migrant Workers (MFMW) in Hong Kong as part of her union work. She is a member of the Filipino Migrant Workers’ Union and has been in Hong Kong for the past 11 years.
It was in 2018 when Annie learned about the MFMW because of her older sister, Judith, who is also a domestic worker in Hong Kong.
Her sister, she said, was not allowed to go out by her employer and had no day-off. Through acquaintances, she was told to bring her sister to the mission to seek advice on what to do.
Since then, Annie became a volunteer in the mission to help her fellow migrant workers on the issues they are facing.
She said she finds fulfillment in this volunteer work.
“Hearing them out, listening to their stories which is also very much relatable to me, is fulfilling. At least I helped them in releasing their burdens,” she told Bulatlat in an interview.
Annie stressed the importance of being aware of the existence of organizations like the MFMW for distressed migrant workers.
“Like me, I had a problem with my first employer. Had I known about the mission then, I could have asked for assistance on my case,” she said.
In her first employer, Annie’s work was not what was indicated in her contract, which is illegal. In her contract, she was supposed to do domestic work, but when she arrived, she was forced to work in a warehouse where she cleaned the drainage and cut wood.
“My contract was terminated because my employer declared that she had financial problems. Because what they did was illegal, they were told by my agency to find a way to solve the problem so that I will not go to the police and complain about them. Then I waited for my agency to redeploy me to another employer,” she said. She stayed with her first employer for two months.
Lack of sufficient income pushed Annie to leave her daughter and husband behind. It was a difficult decision for Annie even though she is not a stranger to hard work. In fact, she was a working student from high school to college in order to support her studies.
She finished Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education but was not able to land a job in line with her degree.
“In the Philippines, no matter how much you persevere, your income is really not enough,” she told Bulatlat.
“I don’t want my daughter to experience the hardships that I went through. I also do not want her to become an overseas Filipino worker. This is why I decided to work here to support my family,” she said.
Her husband is a farmer and a tricycle driver. He also takes care of her daughter in the Philippines. Their roles may have been reversed, but Annie said, this was never an issue for her husband.
“He doesn’t want to leave our daughter even if he has a sister who is in Canada,” she said.
Annie plans to go home for good when her daughter finishes her studies.
Sheila Tebia-Bonifacio was 23 years old when she came to Hong Kong to work. That was in 2007. Her father was sick then. Her salary as a teacher was not enough and her siblings were also studying at that time. She is the eldest of four children.
“I passed the board exams that time, but I felt that I needed to help my family as soon as possible so I applied for work abroad. I was about to leave for the Middle East, but my mother, who was still working in Hong Kong, found out about my decision and she did not approve of it,” Sheila said in an interview with Bulatlat.
She still pursued work overseas but this time, her mother asked her to work in Hong Kong instead. Her mother, at that time, was also a long-time volunteer of MFMW.
When she came to Hong Kong, her mother introduced her to the mission. She began to do volunteer work but back then she was still half-hearted to commit to the mission’s work.
“I would rather be with my friends during my day-off than do volunteer work in the mission,” she said.
Later on, she said, her employer finally showed her true colors. She worked for more than 12 hours. Aside from cleaning the house, she also takes care of two children. One of whom, an 11-year old boy, was violent to her whenever she refused to allow him to go out, which was also the order of her employer.
Her contract was terminated then and she stayed in Bethune House while she was looking for another employer.
In Bethune, she said, there are seminars and lectures about their rights. She also realized through sharing sessions in the shelter that there are cases that were worse than hers, and learned the realities of migrant workers.
“My realization then was, what will happen to me if I did not know where to go? I do not know anyone here,” she said.
It was also through Shiela’s friends in her group Likha Cultural Migrants’ Organization, that she was able to find a new employer in Hong Kong. This, she said, was an eye opener for her that made her commit to work for the welfare of the migrants.
Since then, she became a member of migrant groups in Hong Kong and became active in different campaigns for the welfare of migrant workers.
She is the current chairperson of women’s group Gabriela – Hong Kong. Her current employer also supports her work in the organization.
Dolores Pelaez is known as a constant figure in the forefront of the struggle for Filipino migrant workers welfare in Hong Kong.
Even though she is a business administration graduate at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Dolores still chose to apply for a job abroad.
“I applied for other companies and companies in other countries too. But the job order from Hong Kong came early so I grabbed the opportunity,” she said.
At that time, she said, she was doing volunteer work for different non-government organizations. But time came when she needed to work to support the family.
It was in 1995 when she came to Hong Kong thinking that she would come home for good after only two years. But after 27 years, she is still in Hong Kong but not only working as a domestic worker but also working for the welfare of the Filipino migrant workers.
But Dolores said that during the early years of her employment, she also experienced long hours of work, verbal abuse, her meals were insufficient and her day-off was not during Sundays.
“First three months here was my adjustment stage. My self esteem was very low, I wanted to come home. But I have a loan to my sister that I needed to pay also so I endured all the hardships,” she said.
She borrowed money for her placement fee from her sister who was also a former overseas worker in the Middle East. She also has two brothers who are seafarers.
Not long enough, Pelaez was introduced to different organizations in Hong Kong and she became a member of the United Filipinos in Hong Kong (Unifil). So when she renewed her contract to her first employer, she said she was able to have her rest-days during Sundays.
Her good relationship to her present employer allows her to perform her work in the organization. She said she was allowed to go to training and other events that she needed to attend because her employer understands and supports the fight of migrant workers.
As a leader, Pelaez has also been subjected to red-tagging. But she said, this has not affected her passion to continue with her work in Unifil.
“Those red-taggers only want to silence us. That will not happen,” she said.
At present, she is the chairperson of Unifil, a member of the Migrante International and the spokesperson of Asian Migrants Coordinating Body (AMCB), an alliance of migrants from the Philippines, Indonesia, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
Sherry Wang is the coordinator of Serve the People Association (SPA) shelter in Taiwan. This shelter houses Filipino migrant workers – men and women, who have labor dispute or who are victims of human trafficking. They also take care of those who are sick and assist them in availing medication.
The SPA has three shelters for Indonesian, Vietnamese and Filipino migrant workers. The shelter for Filipinos was established in 2014, Wang said. She said that her husband, Lennon, a Taiwanese, saw the need for shelter for migrant workers.
Lennon works for the SPA and has a friendly relationship with the migrant group Migrante-Taiwan chapter.
It was through Migrante that Wang met Lennon who would become her husband and paved the way for her to get out from her employer who exploited her for three years.
Wang came to Taiwan in 2010 to work as a domestic helper. Because she missed her family terribly, Wang had made herself busy, even accepting a part-time job at her employer’s stall. This is despite her knowledge that it is illegal.
“When I came to Taiwan I was really sad. I was crying. But then suddenly I remembered that we have loans and I have a placement fee to pay. So I just worked and worked even if I didn’t have a day-off,” Wang told Bulatlat in an interview.
Wang’s parents are both farmers in Mindanao. When her father died, her mother went to Manila to apply for work abroad but there was no luck. A year later, Wang and her brother followed their mother to Manila. Wang had always wanted to help her mother to support her siblings. To help on the expenses and support herself, Wang worked while studying.
In Taiwan, she was serving three families – her employer, her employer’s children and her employer’s parents, a total of nine people. She cleaned two houses, took care of the meal – from doing the market to cooking. She also did the laundry. She started her day at 4:00 a.m. because she would go to her employer’s stall in the market. At 11:00 a.m. she would go back to the house to cook lunch. She also toom care of the elderly in the house.
She considered the walk in the market and to the bank to send money to her family as a “day-off” at work.
Until she met a Filipina during her days in the market who turned out to be a member of Migrante. She was invited to Migrante’s lectures and other activities and encouraged her to join their organization.
“I got excited,” she said as she also found a way to have a day-off. However, her day-off was only two to three hours, once a month. But when she renewed her contract with the same employer, she said her day-off was extended to 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., once a month.
The time that she has spent with Migrante has made her aware of her rights as a domestic worker. This was also the beginning of her involvement with the group.
In Migrante, Wang became Lennon’s interpreter in his meetings with the group because they speak in Tagalog.
Until in 2014, Lennon asked her to help him in the establishment of a shelter for migrant workers in Taiwan, which Wang did.
Lennon was also persuading her to leave her employer due to her long hours of work because her health was also deteriorating. “The long hours of work have caused severe migraine attacks due to lack of sleep,” she said.
When Wang was finally able to leave her employer, she dedicated her time in the shelter of Serve the People Association in Taiwan.
“There was a fulfillment in serving our kababayans. Even if there are challenges, I will still continue to serve,” she said.
Gina (not her real name, a migrant rights leader in UAE)
For Gina, being a migrant rights activist in the United Arab Emirates means also putting their own safety at risk as they work behind the scenes and as quiet as possible to avoid drawing attention to themselves.
Gina, not her real name, told Bulatlat in an online interview that the UAE’s regulation, which mandates non-government and humanitarian agencies to be registered, is affecting their work. She said that since they cannot fulfill the requirements per the UAE regulation, including the needed seed fund and annual financial statements, they cannot go all out when it comes to offering their services.
Because of this, Gina, an overseas Filipino worker of 12 years, said this never stopped them from helping those in need. On some days, they have to be creative and usually take advantage of birthdays and other festivities to justify their gatherings.
This, she said, is nothing new to her as she was an activist way back in college. When she began to work abroad, it was difficult, he said, to not act against the injustices she was witnessing, including helping a former colleague who was a rape victim escape her employer.
“I saw how vulnerable domestic workers are. When my relatives decided to work abroad as well, I really taught them how to escape if needed, and how to file charges,” Gina, the current coordinator of Gabriela-UAE, said.
The UAE’s regulation for non-government agencies, coupled with red-tagging, did not deter them from carrying out services to Filipinos there, even amid the pandemic and the continuing government neglect among their ranks.
“There was no compassion and they have grown desensitized to cases of distressed OFWs, most especially domestic workers. They even blame them for their sufferings. The trend is that they just want to settle cases instead of holding perpetrators to account,” Gina said.
There were also reports of Filipino migrant workers who were subjected to pay cuts during the pandemic, after the UAE government allowed it. “There were even arbitrary changes in their contract. They cannot seek redress because their employers might terminate them.”
Filipinos in the UAE then banded together to raise funds and distribute food packs to OFWs in distress.
Among the services they also continue to provide OFWs in distress is continuing education on their rights and welfare.
Cynthia Tellez is the general manager of MFMW and a board member of the Bethune House Women Refuge Shelter.
It was in the 1980s when Tellez was deployed in Hong Kong as a missionary of the National Churches of Christ in the Philippines (NCCP) to conduct a survey among Filipinos who are going to Hong Kong for work. The survey was conducted for three months and then she went back to the Philippines, presented the survey and the proposals that came out of it and continued her organizing work in the community.
But after a few months, she was asked again to come back because no one would take on the program to be implemented in Hong Kong.
“A Methodist bishop talked to me about it and I said I needed time to think about it. So after pondering and consulting and talking with my husband, I finally agreed to take on but I said, not without my family,” she said in an interview with Bulatlat.
Along with her family, Tellez came to Hong Kong with a mission to establish a shelter for migrant workers. In 1986, the Bethune House was established with the help of church workers in Hong Kong.
Their stay was only supposed to be two to three years after she had established the shelter and had someone to take on the task to operate it. But more than three decades later, she was still in Hong Kong working for the welfare of migrant workers, not only Filipinos but also other nationalities.
“It has become a running joke here, the three years is actually three decades,” she said.
The shelter and the MFMW have helped the migrant workers not only to have a place to stay after they were terminated by their employer or processing papers, they were also being empowered through skills training and lectures such as Know Your Rights.
Asked why she chose to stay, she simply said, “There are many things to be done. I always see that many are still in need of help,” she said.
She almost didn’t come back to Hong Kong when a few years after their transfer, her daughter died in a car accident.
“We came back to the Philippines during the People Power to bury my daughter. I didn’t want to come back here but then I know that we’re needed here so we still came back,” she said.
There is also a fulfillment in serving the migrant workers, she said. “It is fulfilling when domestic workers would win their cases, would volunteer to work for the welfare of their fellow migrant workers, those who will come home for good and especially those who have finally found the strength to fight for their rights,” she said.
Marina de Vera
It was in 1994 when Marina de Vera left the Philippines to provide for his three children. Such a decision was not surprisingly difficult to make, she remembered, saying that it was the only way to ensure her children would be able to achieve a good education.
Through a relative, De Vera managed to find an employer. She said she was among the country’s last “direct hire” and that she processed her work and travel documents before the Chinese consulate in the Philippines. Here, she loaned from a financing company a total of P12,000, which she spent to cover the expenses of processing her papers.
“I had my own share of doubts too. I asked myself if I am up to the difficulties it entails. But I was determined to work and just left it all up to God,” she told Bulatlat in an interview along Chater Road back in December.
With her salary just enough to send to her family, De Vera said it was difficult to communicate with them as she needs some 100 HKD for a five-minute call. She would instead send snail mails to her family in the Philippines. In return, her family would write back, accompanied with their photos with dedication at the back.
But never, she said, did she share the hardships that she was experiencing as a domestic worker. “I did not want to make them worry.”
Soon, she joined a Filipino group, Sta. Maria de Pila Migrants Association and United Pangasinan. De Vera said she found the activities that these groups held as inspiring and suddenly thought to herself, “I can do that too.”
Even while on leave after giving birth in 2010, De Vera said she continued to help migrant rights groups, including resource mobilization for their activities. Despite the difficulties, she said that she draws inspiration from her fellow Filipinos who do not have anywhere to go.
De Vera currently sits as chairperson of Gabriela – Chater Road chapter. “I am now used to rallies like this, especially when there are policies that we deem will not benefit us.”
In an attempt to silence her and her advocacy, she said that she was also subjected to online harassment, where she would receive threats on Facebook, including one where she was told to never return to the Philippines. Red-tagging, too, she added, was also rampant, particularly during the campaign period in 2022.
“They want to threaten us because they want us to just blindly follow government policies instead of pointing out how it would not work for our interest. It is a fight that we continue to persist on, and we will never quit,” she said.
Karen Roxas did not want to leave the Philippines when her mother decided to bring them to the US.
At that time, her mother lost her job as a pharmacist when a pharmaceutical plant closed down in Laguna. Due to her mother’s age, Roxas said her mother had difficulty to find another job. But when there was a demand for professional health workers in the US, her mother saw this as an opportunity to apply for a job abroad.
“They went there first and then in 2005 when I was 13 years old, I finally followed them. We only have a guest visa then,” she said.
This means that they are not allowed to work even if they have legal status, no social security and have less privileges because they are not green card holders.
In the US, Roxas said she experienced bullying because of her accent, she was called by her classmates as an Asian bitch. But she just continued with her life and studied hard so that she could leave their town, which is already near Mexico.
“I think what’s difficult is that we’re not in a place where there is a Filipino community unlike in LA,” Roxas said. She is currently in LA.
It was in 2015 when their family had their green cards. But because she came last in the US, she experienced a problem with her status.
“When I was 21 years old, my permanent visa was not yet issued so the university is charging $60,000 because suddenly I am not a resident. I was also not able to find scholarships back then. Good thing there is Child Protection Status Act here, my age was still within the age bracket, so it was fixed eventually,” she said.
This experience had made her involved with the migrants group movement. At present, she is the current vice chairperson of the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns in the US which also has different campaigns and services.
At present, Roxas said immigrants continue to leave in fear as violence in the US is prevalent as well as Asian hate. This is why, she said they continue to hold education among immigrants to know the history and root cause of Asian hate. (RTS, RVO)