Not a Typical Migrant Domestic Worker
The following narrative was constructed by Chan Yuk Wah, based on an interview that she conducted with Eman C. Villanueva, a Filipino migrant activist based in Taipei.
Eman C. Villanueva (EV), a Filipino, is not a typical foreign domestic worker (FDW). First, he is male; second, he has been working in Hong Kong (HK) for 31 years, and serving the same employer for the past 24 years. He met his wife, also a domestic worker, in HK, and now they have a 4-year-old daughter. Unlike other male domestic workers, who are mainly drivers and gardeners, EV cooks, washes, and cleans the toilets. What is most atypical about him is the fact that he is one of the most outspoken migrant worker activists and has been active for over 20 years. Not only is he a spokesperson for the Asian Migrant Coordinating Body (AMCB), he has also led the campaign to help workers participate in Filipino electoral politics.
Transnational politics among FDW in Hong Kong
Two months before the 2022 Philippine presidential election (9 May 2022), EV and the supporters of his group had gathered together every Sunday at Cadogan Garden in Kennedy Town, HK. The garden is close to the voting centre (Bayanihan Kennedy Town Centre) on Victoria Street. Besides EV and his group, there were many other groups represented by different colors supporting different presidential candidates. The pre-election rallies effectively turned the garden into a flowing political tapestry. Against the green background of the garden, there were people clothed in T-shirts of different colors – blue, red, pink, and white – distributing campaign materials, singing rally songs, dancing free-style, cheering for solidarity, and taking group photos or selfies. Competition (for support) was tense, but the atmosphere was cheerful and lively. Not only was there a pleasant and colorful scene to look at, it was also full of traditional and flavorful prepared dishes from fried fish, fried rice, spicy chicken wings, and chicken adobo.
EV told me that he represented an organized group, which has a clear platform and position:
Our group supports candidates based on their (policy) platform: whether it is with a people’s agenda, concerning issues of the basic sectors – overseas workers, youth and students, indigenous people, women, etc. We check their platforms, we also check their past records – whether they have violated human rights, misused public funds, been charged with corruption, or involved in scandals.
Thirdly, we also need to know whether they really want our support and are willing to work with us. We know that there were no perfect candidates. We try our best to maneuver through the space …
Overseas Filipino workers and the pandemic
EV criticized Philippine governance under the Duterte regime, that did little to support overseas workers.
This current government has basically abandoned overseas Filipino workers during the pandemic. It did not offer them any support. In the Philippines, the government excluded our families from its financial aid programme.
Its thinking is: ‘They have relatives overseas – they must have money, why would the government give them subsidies?’ It’s a pretty crazy policy but they did it. The government assumed these families have money. But the main reason for us to be working overseas is because our families are poor – otherwise why would we go overseas?
That’s why we must check those candidates’ pandemic policy on Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW). How are they going to deliver their services to migrant workers? Will they deliver that on site, and are the funds here? Often when we need help and go to the Consulate, they will say ‘we are not able to respond because the funds are in Manila.’
FDW and the pandemic in HK
In HK, during the Omicron pandemic, EV and other migrant worker organizations helped overseas domestic workers in dire distress. During this outbreak, the so-called fifth wave of the pandemic, HK’s medical and emergency system was overwhelmed by the number of cases. The government had to finally admit that it could no longer hospitalize every infected patient and, thus, allowed those with light symptoms to stay home in self-quarantine. However, many who were rushed to the hospitals, especially the old and weak, could not find a bed space or receive adequate care, and subsequently died in the corridors of the hospitals.
Millions of HK citizens who were infected had stayed home with their family. However, migrant domestic workers do not really have a family in HK. They were not treated like other family members who caught the virus. A number of them were abandoned by their employers after they were found positive, while others were not given proper care even if they could stay inside their room.
EV said that it was the NGOs and labour groups which rushed to take care of these deserted workers. EV and members of other groups came together and joined hands to set up a joint emergency response.
They raised funds and collected medicines and other donations for the workers. Besides the care bags that were distributed, many sick workers also needed shelter. Bethune House, Christian Action, and Mercy HK all provided temporary shelters for COVID-positive workers.
EV stressed that without the emergency responses from the NGOs, the crisis would have been much more serious:
In a crisis situation like that, migrant domestic workers were left alone and abandoned. It should be the government’s role to address such crises, but it responded only 2 weeks after NGOs started to help. If it was not for the quick responses of the migrant NGOs, there could have been many more sick workers sleeping on the streets of HK. The NGOs’ work has prevented a human catastrophe.
For EV and other activists, the experience of providing emergency care for sick workers during the pandemic has enabled them to learn good methods of coordination and how to quickly react to situations of crises situations. These skills will greatly help their other future work.
A role model
At the age of 18, the only man in a family of four, EV took onto his shoulders the responsibility to take care of his mother and two sisters. He earned wages abroad to support his family’s livelihood and his sisters’ education. EV is not a typical migrant domestic worker (as he is a male); nor is he playing a typical male role in a family full of women (as it is usually females in the family to sacrifice one’s own interests in order to serve men’s interests). For this, EV can be a role model for both genders.
Dr Yuk Wah Chan is Associate Professor in the Department of Public and International Affairs at City University of Hong Kong. Her research interests cover international migration, borderland studies, identity and food. She is a Series Editor of the Routledge Series on Asian Migration. Her recent publications include a Special Issue on “The politics of sanitization: Pandemic crisis, migration and development in Asia-Pacific” (Asian and Pacific Migration Journal) and the article, “Diseasescape and immobility governance: COVID-19 and its aftermaths” (Mobilities). In the process of researching into the work life, leisure life and life plans of overseas domestic workers, she found that workers, activist and non-activist alike, have fascinating stories to tell. These micro stories of their life struggle add to the literature of labour migration and are important for advancing our knowledge of the human world.