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What happens when the only way to ensure the survival of the people you love the most is to leave them behind?
That’s a choice no one should have to make, and yet it is the dilemma of overseas workers everywhere, no less so than in the Philippines, which exports about a fourth of the world’s 11.5 million migrant domestic workers, a predominantly female army of nannies, maids, and cooks. A significant percentage of these women are mothers separated from their own kids while caring for the children of others, sending home remittances and boxes of chocolate, Spam, and other treats, and wondering if their husbands are faithful and how many years will pass before they can see their families again.
“In the eyes of many employers, Filipinas were at the top of the ethnic hierarchy for domestic workers,” Rachel Aviv writes in one of the powerful stories below, “as if their nationality had become synonymous with family duty and deference.” Such sought-after traits have been a blessing and a curse, giving Filipinas access to the lives of elite families in cities like Hong Kong, Dubai, and New York City, but also subjecting them to highly exploitative and even dangerous situations.
Adding to their burdens, overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) have been called on to be “modern-day heroes” and uber-patriots. “Now, more than ever, we need you, the OFWs and your families, to take part in our nation-building efforts,” former President Rodrigo Duterte once said. “I thus call on you … to make our country proud.”
Laborers who remain in the Philippines, meanwhile, face their own dismal work prospects, such as foraging for discarded valuables in Payatas, a former dumpsite outside of Manila. Whether at home or abroad, Filipino laborers struggle valiantly to preserve their humanity amid hellish work demands.
You might not think that emotionally and physically arduous labor would be an inviting subject for longform writing, but it is. That’s because the writers featured in this collection portray the subjects of their stories not as victims but instead as three-dimensional people. As a journalism professor who has also reported on labor, occupational safety, and immigrant health issues, I turn to these compelling and well-researched narratives to illustrate how to report with empathy and care.
My Filipino American students in the Literary Journalism Program at the University of California, Irvine, appear to connect to the stories in this collection at an almost cellular level.
“I didn’t realize we could be in these stories or write these stories,” a student told me after reading the work of Filipino American author Alex Tizon, whose essay is featured in this collection.
Fortunately, the U.S. media has broadened its coverage of Filipino and Filipino American narratives in recent years, and we now read about Filipino American entertainers, food culture, and political leaders. But it’s important not to forget the cost—borne by so many Filipino laborers—of toiling at the hardest jobs imaginable to provide for the people they love.
The following five excellent pieces reveal the endless work ethic of Filipino workers— those who leave and those who stay.
My Family’s Slave (Alex Tizon, The Atlantic, June 2017)
With deft sentences and restrained prose, Alex Tizon recounts the story of Lola (Eudocia Tomas Polido), a servant who accompanied his family when they moved from the Philippines to the U.S. in 1964. Tizon exposes the horrors of modern-day servitude in a deeply personal and indelible way. Sadly, he died a few months before the piece was published as The Atlantic’s cover story, which went viral and generated both praise and criticism.
The story begins for Tizon at birth, when Lola served as a maid, cook, and nanny to his family while his parents worked to establish themselves in the U.S. By the age of 11, Tizon had come to understand that his beloved caretaker—who was “given” to his mother, then a child living in the Philippines—received no salary. Lola slept in random spaces of Tizon’s home, such as on the couch or in the laundry room. Lacking documentation, she could never leave the U.S. to return home; she also suffered physical abuse and cruelty at the hands of Tizon’s parents.
No other word but slave encompassed the life she lived. Her days began before everyone else woke and ended after we went to bed. She prepared three meals a day, cleaned the house, waited on my parents, and took care of my four siblings and me. My parents never paid her, and they scolded her constantly. She wasn’t kept in leg irons, but she might as well have been. So many nights, on my way to the bathroom, I’d spot her sleeping in a corner, slumped against a mound of laundry, her fingers clutching a garment she was in the middle of folding.
What strikes me each time I reread this piece is Tizon’s anguish over his family’s treatment of Lola. He also wrestles mightily with his own complicity, despite having provided Lola a pampered life when he became an adult. But as this story reminds us, good deeds don’t wipe away the sins of the past. Tizon’s final published piece is a testament to how difficult it is to forgive our family and how it’s even harder to forgive ourselves.
After Lola’s death at 86, Tizon hand-carried Lola’s ashes back to her remaining family in the Philippines, in a beautifully rendered scene of pure grief among the now-aged people who knew her as a youngster. En route to this encounter, Tizon draws on the islands’ fortitude—surprising, given their fragile formation—to suggest a metaphor for the spirit of Lola and the enduring work ethic of her beleaguered yet resilient people.
Life here is routinely visited by cataclysm. Killer typhoons that strike several times a year. Bandit insurgencies that never end. Somnolent mountains that one day decide to wake up. The Philippines isn’t like China or Brazil, whose mass might absorb the trauma. This is a nation of scattered rocks in the sea. When disaster hits, the place goes under for a while. Then it resurfaces and life proceeds … and the simple fact that it’s still there makes it beautiful.
The Cost of Caring (Rachel Aviv, The New Yorker, April 2016)
Lola is only one face of the Philippines’ massive overseas workforce. In this New Yorker piece, Rachel Aviv portrays another laborer, Emma, who leaves her nine children behind and becomes a nanny to wealthy families in the U.S. In a heartbreaking moment before her departure, Emma faces doubts too enormous to ignore.
She said, “My conscience was telling me, ‘Don’t leave your kids. Don’t leave your kids. They are young and need you.’”
But like all working mothers, she chooses work over her children. Or, more accurately, she chooses work to provide for her children. I strongly connect to Aviv’s writing—which is as elegant as her research is exhaustive—and the piece’s theme of anguished working motherhood. I hated leaving my firstborn with strangers even though his babysitters provided loving care. My plight is of course trivial in comparison to mothers like Emma, who live apart from their children for years and even decades while they channel their maternal instincts toward the children of others. I wonder: Is this rerouted maternal love a form of consolation, or a source of bitter pain?
Either way, it’s clear that Emma’s children never stopped yearning for their mother’s return during her 16-plus-year absence, during which she mainly talked to her daughters through Facebook and brief telephone conversations (five minutes for each child). And while her girls gained opportunities from Emma’s sacrifice, these advantages didn’t seem to take them far enough. We learn at the end of Aviv’s story that their economic prospects in the Philippines have not improved much in their mother’s absence—one daughter has already emigrated to Abu Dhabi to work as a secretary—which is a stunning revelation given everything that Emma sacrificed to provide for a better future. And so the arduous toil of hardworking Filipina caregivers continues:
Emma’s daughters and their friends wished to go abroad, too, if not to America then to Japan or Hong Kong or New Zealand. “I think there’s no end to the cycle,” Emma told me. She found it hard to resist the idea of her daughters joining her in New York. She hasn’t seen them in sixteen years and still can’t discuss the separation without quietly crying. Over time, the tone of her children’s letters has evolved; there is less rivalry and more resignation. In the early years, the children kept guessing which holidays might be the occasion for Emma’s return. Gradually, they stopped asking about her plans. “I believe someday, if God permits, you can be with us once again,” her daughter Roxanne recently wrote.
Departures (Tan Tuck Ming, The Kenyon Review, October 2022)
Working for an employment recruitment agency in international domestic work, Tan Tuck Ming brings a unique vantage point to this essay about Filipina housekeepers in Hong Kong. But for him the issue is also personal: He was cared for by a beloved Filipina housekeeper as a child, and it’s clear that her kindness left an imprint on his soul. Ming’s piece mines some of the same material as Aviv’s, but the essay form allows for more rumination and ties together personal narrative with historical and theoretical frameworks. Here, for example, he discusses migrant caregiving as the fuel powering the economic engine of international commerce:
[T]he way I understand an economy is as vertical motion, people either moving up or down but never staying still. This is how cities like Hong Kong or Singapore—these dense, vertiginous centers for global capital and its circulation … are made possible by tracing the fissures of nation, empire, and debt; by the subdivision of labor charted as unskilled within the topographies of capitalism to a secondary class of migrant workers. “We need to protect domestic workers with all our might,” a member of the legislative council says, at an antitrafficking fundraising event. “After all, without them, Hong Kong cannot unleash its economic power. We must be grateful to them for releasing our workforce.”
This politician’s statement is of course vexing. I wonder if a low-earning Filipina maid in Hong Kong actually aspires to unleash the power of the wealth-gathering class. And yet the comment suggests a key truth, which is that the center of Hong Kong’s economic juggernaut is not a technology or financial infrastructure so much as a beating heart—that of the industrious, loving Filipina caretaker.
The Laborers Who Keep Dick Pics and Beheadings Out of Your Facebook Feed (Adrian Chen, Wired, October 2014)
Of course, Filipino labor doesn’t only occur overseas. In fact, the Philippines is one of America’s leading outsourcing destinations for customer service, technical support, and other industries.
Adrian Chen explores the highly stressful labor of content moderators, whose job is to evaluate questionable uploads to social media and to remove offensive, harmful, and inappropriate material. And this profession takes a toll, as Chen documents in interviews with workers in the Philippines who spend all day looking at the beheadings, sexual assaults, animal abuse, and other horrendous content that users attempt to post on Facebook and other platforms. Chen shows us an invisible workforce taking on the worst of humanity to make our reading and viewing online more benign. But as always, it’s the laborer—and in this case, the Filipino/a worker—who makes a massive sacrifice to enable our scrolling pleasure.
In a shopping mall, I meet a young woman who I’ll call Maria. She’s on her lunch break from an outsourcing firm, where she works on a team that moderates photos and videos for the cloud storage service of a major US technology company….“I get really affected by bestiality with children,” she says. “I have to stop. I have to stop for a moment and loosen up, maybe go to Starbucks and have a coffee.” She laughs at the absurd juxtaposition of a horrific sex crime and an overpriced latte.
Constant exposure to videos like this has turned some of Maria’s coworkers intensely paranoid. Every day they see proof of the infinite variety of human depravity. They begin to suspect the worst of people they meet in real life, wondering what secrets their hard drives might hold. Two of Maria’s female coworkers have become so suspicious that they no longer leave their children with babysitters. They sometimes miss work because they can’t find someone they trust to take care of their kids.
The Magic Mountain (Matthew Power, Harper’s Magazine, December 2006)
In this final selection, the late great adventure writer Matthew Power explores one of the world’s notorious trash dumps at the time in Payatas, a barangay outside of Manila.
In this literally toxic workplace, enterprising foragers dig for buried trash items they can sell: copper wires, old cell phones, even a frozen swordfish thrown out by a restaurant. It’s grubby and exhausting work, and some of the foragers live on the site (at least at the time of Power’s visit). The descriptions are as precise as the site filthy:
The ground underneath our boots is spongy, and as we climb, black rivulets of leachate flow down the access road. A black puddle releases methane, bubbles like a primordial swamp, and the ground itself shakes when a loaded truck rumbles by.
Yes, the description is memorably graphic, but the story goes well beyond capturing the gross-out factor. Power instead brings the workers on this trash mountain to life, not only showing Filipino foragers in action but also in rare moments of leisure: singing karaoke, enjoying the cockfights, even planting gardens. The piece is ultimately a paean to work ethic and labor even in supposedly menial jobs that appear simple and straightforward. The work, like the people who perform it, is complex and worthy of our admiration:
A kalahig slits open a bag as if it were a fish, garbage entrails spilling out, and with a series of rapid, economical movements, anything useful is speared and flicked into a sack to be sorted later. The ability to discern value at a glimpse, to sift the useful out of the rejected with as little expenditure of energy as possible, is the great talent of the scavenger.
I appreciate that Power goes beyond “studying” his subjects through the lens of first-world superiority and instead gives us reason to respect their immense work ethic and love of family. Sadly, like Tizon, Power died long before his time, in 2014.
Amy DePaul is a college journalism instructor at the University of California, Irvine. She reports on public health, immigrant communities, and labor. You can find her boogie-boarding at Crystal Cove.