Thursday 18 January 2018

Mothers for rent

For every woman who breaks free from domestic drudgery, another takes her place. Since the boom, Irish families have hired thousands of women from the Philippines. One of them tells Kay Sheehy of her life of exploitation here -- the low wages, the long hours and the terrible heartbreak of being forced to leave her own children back home

Kay Sheehy

We see them in parks and playgrounds all over middle-class Ireland -- Filipina women pushing prams and minding fair-skinned Irish toddlers. Their gentle, loving care of their charges is to be admired, but it's also something of a mystery.

What makes women from this tropical Asian archipelago leave their small children behind in order to secure work with European and Irish families?

Why Irish families prefer Filipina childcare workers over any other nation is more understandable.

The Filipina domestic worker or child carer is seen as the BMW of the grade because they are, in the main, English speaking (having been colonised by the US for more than 40 years), Christian, often Catholic (now the only country in the world without divorce), hard working, caring and docile.

Maria is from Mindanao in the Philippines. Back home she was an accountant; in Ireland, she is a middle-aged domestic worker.

She fits the 'BMW' specifications as she has good English, a productive work ethic, a caring disposition and a Catholic faith.

However, this proud, intelligent and opinionated woman puts paid to the idea that Filipinos are docile or submissive -- but she can fake it when necessary.

Maria came here 12 years ago. After four years, she encouraged her two younger sisters to join her in Ireland, helping to secure them jobs as domestic workers too.

Maria and her sisters work caring for young Irish children, who are the same age as their own children in the Philippines. Maria is now very happily settled in an Irish family, but it has not always been so.

Her experience mirrors that of many live-in domestic workers -- they find themselves initially welcomed with open arms and showered with invitations to feel 'part of the family'.

But very quickly being considered 'part of the family' can turn into a claustrophobic trap, as confusion abounds between what the employer and domestic worker consider to be time off for the worker and time on-call to the family.

The domestic worker can be given a never-ending list of chores and childcare requests.

"Not only have you loads of work to do -- washing, ironing, cleaning and feeding the children -- but then, the employer's friends will drop by and land their two or three children on top of you, saying, 'Hi Maria, do you mind looking after this lot for a while?'.

"So that means I must concentrate on them and the knock-on effect for me is that I have stacks of ironing still to do the next day."

Maria arrived in Ireland at the height of the Celtic Tiger. Her employers were very wealthy and lived in a huge house.

"I was hired as a nanny, but I ended up doing everything. I cleaned the massive house, looked after the children, dogs and other pets.


"I was supposed to have an hour-long lunch break, but Filipino food is very different from Irish food and I felt I could not cook my own food as they complained it was 'smelly'.

"So I used to just take a slice of bread and eat as I worked. When I made friends with a Filipina woman in the park, I asked her for some food and, after that, she used to feed me."

Maria's employers provided her with a beautiful bedroom, "but I think it was only for show, she would show it to her friends, and they would say, 'Oh Maria, how lucky you are'", Maria says. "I don't need a beautiful room, I need food to eat."

It was the Filipina friend Maria met in the park who also taught her how to iron.

"I never learned to iron in the Philippines. It used to take me 30 minutes to do one shirt. Now I am quite good and quick, which is important when my employer comes and asks me to treat his Gucci or Dolce & Gabbana shirt with TLC."

"He says, 'It's not to boast about the price, Maria, but these shirts cost me £600 each, so please be careful'. You can imagine how careful I am, because if I burnt a hole in one of his shirts it would be more than a whole week's wages. Then, I would have no money to send home to my family."

Looking from the point of view of the Irish employer, they probably see this friendless, isolated employee with time on their on their hands, and expect the women would be happy to put in the extra hours with the family they are part of

Whether that extra work is negotiated or ordered, paid for or done for free, is another aspect of the blurred boundaries when you are 'part of the family'.

When the domestic worker arrives in the country, they usually have no fellow countrywomen or friends. However, a chance meeting with another Filipina worker in the playground can be illuminating.

Maria explains that it was such a chance meeting that made her realise that her wages were far too low (€250 a week) and that she was entitled to days off.

Emboldened with this information, the domestic worker confronts the employer about her wages and rights. This exchange can have a positive or negative outcome, but, according to Maria and her sisters, the employer has the upper hand -- control over the work permit.

It is the employer who applies for either a one or three-year work permit from the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. The permit involves a contract between the worker and the employer, and it is the employer's job to renew it each year.

If the employee wishes to move, they first have to find a new job. After seven years, the women are entitled to permanent residency.

"I wanted to leave," says Maria's sister Isang, "but, at that stage, I had been there five years and I said to myself that if I could stay another two, then I would have my residency".

Living in Celtic Tiger households meant that a long, continental family holiday was an annual event. Isang explains how she loathed the thought of going abroad for two months each summer.


"The problem was you were usually located in a very expensive place, so going out was not an option. Also, the price of phoning the Philippines from there was prohibitive.

"And the worst thing was if they go out, they would leave you minding the children for the whole day.

"Then, they would return home, run into the shower, put on their make-up, change into their pretty clothes and go out to dinner, never even saying they need a babysitter, not asking if you are hungry, even though you are starving. They just take you for granted. I mean, how many hours is the domestic worker expected to work?"

Isang gets tearful at the memory of endless hours minding the children of her employer and their friends. "When they say you are part of the family, that's bullshit, it's a bullshit phrase. What it means is they are going to give the full responsibility of minding the children over to you."

One can only imagine the repressed emotions that simmer beneath the surface in these women; the guilt of leaving her children behind in the Philippines, observing Irish women embracing the freedom that their presence here has allowed them enjoy.

The researcher Rhacel Parrenas observes that in Europe and Western countries, although women have won a certain amount of independence to work outside the home, an equal distribution of work within the home between men and women has proved to be more elusive.

Therefore, European women have looked to women from developing countries to fill the gap.

It is fair to ask, however, particularly given our own relatively recent experience of servility in British and American households, why some Irish female employers treat their live-in employees badly.

Maria believes there is some racism involved, but the main reason is the power relationship. "I think this way they know we come from a poor country, a third-world country, and maybe because our skin is brown they think we are stupid too.

"They also have power over you because they pay your wages. If you are a cleaner or a minder, they guess you must be an idiot.

"They show you around the kitchen pointing at their cooker, warning you to be careful. As if we don't have these kind of things in the Philippines."

The women recount acts of discourtesy which completely disrupted their lives. Contact with the Philippines is the most important thing to the domestic workers. This is not always understood by the Irish employer, who will initially give generous invitations to their new employee to 'use the landline' when phoning home.


However, when the telephone bill comes along, they dock the price of the call from the domestic worker's wages.

Again, because systems are more lax in a domestic home, paying wages can be haphazard. "Sometimes I would get paid on a Wednesday, sometimes on a Thursday," explains Maria. "The cheque would take three days to clear, leaving me with no money for myself or to send home to my family until the following week."

To get away from the stress of being a domestic worker, the women head to Café Manila in Dublin's Abbey Street for karaoke night. Here, over plates of steaming noodle and rice dishes, the women sing romantic ballads and reminisce about their life in the Philippines.

Maria and her two sisters are the mothers of young children back in the Philippines. The sisters, who have professional qualifications at home that would give them middle-class status in Ireland, struggle within tight budgetary constraints in the Philippines.

They can manage the balancing act between poverty and subsistence until they have children, then their low wages make it impossible to provide a good education and a chance of a future.

Maria explains that it was when she had her four children that she and her husband decided the only way to provide for their future was for her to go abroad.

"I left the house when the children were sleeping and I cried the whole journey to the bus terminal."

When she left, her youngest daughter was just two and it would be two years before she would see her again.

"My hair was cut short when I left the Philippines, when I returned it was long. I met my youngest daughter at the airport and she said, 'You are not my mamma, my mamma has short hair'. But going home in the bus she began to beat her breast and said, 'You are my mamma, I know because my heart beats like this'.

"But I know those years I have lost with my children cannot be got back.

"Minding the children in Ireland helps you; it's as if you are minding your own children, but in your subconscious, you have a feeling of guilt. Sometimes, when I hold their small hand in mine I think of my own children, and it's so hard."

Maria and I travelled back to the Philippines last May to make a documentary for RTE Radio 1. Mindanao is the second largest island in the archipelago that makes up the Philippines. It should be a tourist trap, as it is surrounded by glistening seas and white sandy beaches.


It has coconut, banana and other exotic fruit trees in abundance and is guarded over by the imposing volcano Mount Apo.

However, it is also the home of frequent terrorist threats and attacks. The major terrorist threat comes from the militant faction of the Muslim majority who would like to break Mindanao away from the Philippines.

We visit Maria's home in Digos city in the south of the island. When we arrive, her little home is full of children -- her two sons and daughters, granddaughter and the children of her brothers and sisters.

On the table is a laptop and camera, evidence of the loot Maria has brought from Ireland. The children are friendly and loving towards each other and their parents.

There is no doubt that Maria is accepted in the family as their bona fide mother -- this connection is kept alive and vibrant through daily telephone calls.

"My greatest expense is the top-up on my mobile. When my daughter is telling me about her homework, I can't just say I have to go."

The children too cite the daily phone call or Skype session as being crucial in their lives, though sometimes they pull back on telling their mother any problems they might have as they "appreciate how hard she works and they want her to be happy far from home".

But when we sit down and chat about the fact that their mother works abroad, the pain of separation is palpable. Maria's children are looked after by her husband, David, but a huge responsibility also falls on the shoulders of the older children, such as Cara, the daughter of Maria's second sister, Anna, who also works in Ireland.

Cara has become a substitute mum to her two younger brothers. "It was a hard time for us when my mother left. I was in fourth year in high school. Before she left, she trained us how to cook and clean the house so we would be responsible when she left.

"I get up at 4am each morning and prepare breakfast and lunch for my brothers and then I go to class. In the evening, I make dinner for the boys and my father."

In each family, one of the children is designated as banker in order to keep account of the money sent home by their mother.

Tiffany (16) is another niece of Maria's, whose mother works as a domestic worker in the United States. College-educated with flawless English, spoken with an American accent, Tiffany explains that she lost part of her childhood when her mother went abroad.

"My mother left when I was 11; it was a very hard thing for us. I was so used to my mother being there for me, but then, at the age of 11 I had to become a mum.

"While my peers were out playing, I was sitting at a desk with a ledger balancing all the money my mum was sending."

Tiffany had to budget her mother's remittances and decide who was to get what within the extended family.


Talking of her mother's 'choice' to work abroad, Tiffany argues, "We have no choice -- we either stay in the Philippines with our children and starve, or go abroad and lose each other's presence".

While Tiffany understands the choice her mother made and appreciates the sacrifice, the effect of her absence has been profound.

"When I was younger I used to dream of being a lawyer or doctor, but having my mother and aunts away has affected me so much that it has changed the aspirations I have," she explains.

"Now, if I had a choice, I would choose to be a mother and stay here in the Philippines, because I want to correct the flaws that my family has. I would never allow my family to suffer like we do now."

Maria's brother Allan also pinpointed another problem that threatens to destabilise Filipino families -- "the crisis of abundance". For the husband and families left behind in the Philippines, they now have to cope with the fortnightly cheque or money order dropping through the letter box.

Not appreciating how hard-earned this money is by the domestic worker in Ireland, the new, easy-got cash can go to the Filipino husband's head.


"Drinking, buying jewellery, gambling and going with chicks" are just some of the problems.

Maria agrees. "Yes, it often happens when the women are away the man gets someone to fill the vacuum. They go out drinking, not cheapy cheapy beer, but good wine. The problem is that they spend the money, so when the woman finally retires home, there is nothing left in the kitty."

The money or remittances sent to the Philippines by foreign-based domestic workers accounts for the second-biggest export income in the economy.

Maria wants to come home for good in a few years, but to do so she has to invest in enterprises that will generate an income in the future.

From Maria's wages earned during her 12 years in Ireland she has accumulated a modest property portfolio at home, including a new home, four plots of land for investment and a small farm.

Many times while working in Ireland, Maria and her sisters would get a new or unplanned request for money from the wider extended family -- it could be the funeral costs of a grandparent or the educational fees of a cousin.

They already work within extremely tight margins given their small wage, so each new request can add anything from a month to a year on to their stay in Ireland.

The sudden shrinking of the Irish economy has put a new pressure on foreign domestic workers -- now, their employers are suffering the pinch and can no longer afford full-time care for their children.

This means that domestic workers are finding themselves on half-time, forcing them to get part-time work to up their wages.

The jewel in Maria's crown of investments is her coconut farm nestled in the foothills of lush Mount Apo.

In a few years, the banana and coconut trees growing there should give an income of €200 a week, enough for Maria to contemplate retirement.

"When I am in Ireland doing my ironing I think about sitting here on my rocking chair surrounded by my children and crops and looking at the mountain."

But behind the romantic dream of a future at home in the Philippines, there is the nagging doubt that plagues all domestic workers: was the sacrifice of 10 and 15 years spent working in Ireland, out of the lives of their young children and loved ones, worth it?

'Part of the Family' is broadcast on RTE Radio 1 on Tuesday at 10pm, as part of the One World series. It is funded in conjunction with Irish Aid

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