For Filipino domestic workers, being “part of the family” can be a blessing and a curse

Sharing a meal.
Sharing a meal.
Image: Therese Reyes
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Antipolo, Philippines

At age 12, Fidelina Geraldez, now 49, was already working at her uncle’s store, poultry farm, and piggery. She said working for relatives is common in her hometown of Cebu, a province in Visayas island.

Utang na loob—or “debt of gratitude”—is a value that runs deep in Philippine society. It is a currency held in higher regard than monetary payment, even in poor communities. It is the driving force behind the hospitality Filipinos are known for and the reason why many are ready to lend a helping hand for nothing in return. They take comfort in the hope that the favor will be returned in the future.

Utang na loob has normalized the practice of working as a maid for one’s family members, recently highlighted by Alex Tizon’s controversial essay in the Atlantic, My Family’s Slave. Like Eudocia Pulido, or “Lola,” who served Tizon’s family for more than 50 years and received nothing in return, many Filipinos work as helpers for wealthier relatives. Some volunteer their services in exchange for education, shelter, food, or a small allowance, while others are forced into service by their parents or the employers themselves.

But this gratitude is also easily abused. While there are many people who are fair and aid poorer relatives while treating them as equals, some take advantage of the situation and see them as free labor. Many find it difficult to raise demands out of fear of seeming ungrateful.

Even when there is a typhoon you have to work

Geraldez does not like talking to big crowds. “I only like sharing stories with people one on one. When it comes to talking to a lot of people, you can’t rely on me. I tremble.”

But her fear was not obvious when she stood in front of 16 female domestic workers one recent afternoon in a hotel conference room in Antipolo, a city in the outskirts of Manila, to participate in a workshop about how to organize.

Geraldez is the vice president for internal affairs for the labor union United Domestic Workers of the Philippines (United), the first domestic-workers’ union in the country. That day, she led a discussion about how much each member is willing to pay for organizational dues, and during a post-lunch sharing session, Geraldez opened up to a group of five other women about working for family. 

“Relatives are stingy when it comes to wages… They will curse at you. You will feel like you are their property,” she said. The other women all nodded their heads in agreement. “If it were not for United, I would not have the inner strength to talk to people,” added Geraldez.

united domestic workers of the philippines workshop
Organizations for domestic workers.
Image: Therese Reyes

When she is not at United events, most of Geraldez’s days are spent working on multiple jobs. She cooks and sells packed lunches, works in a factory, and takes care of her cousin’s for-rent condominium units in Manila.

This cousin sporadically pays her about $80 to prepare units for new tenants, clean rooms, and run errands like pay the electric bill. She said her cousin is good to her but often takes her husband’s side even when he has unreasonable demands. “The man gives no consideration when giving orders. Even when there is a typhoon, he will make an excuse so you can go [to work],” Geraldez said. Whenever she confronts her cousin’s husband about being paid late or requests for additional transportation allowance, he talks his way out of paying her.

Member of the United Domestic Workers of the Philippines after a workshop in Antipolo, Philippines
The women of United.
Image: Therese Reyes

When they are not related to you, they have more qualms about giving orders

One of the most common challenges domestic workers face is long working hours coupled with low pay. Right now, in the Philippines, minimum wage for domestic workers is $30-$50 (pdf) per month; the per capita GDP comes to about $240 a month. 

According to Himaya Montenegro, a program coordinator for the Labor Education and Research Network’s domestic helpers program, the workers’ goal isn’t to achieve equal payment with office workers but to simply increase the minimum wage to around $81 to $91 per month. She understands that most employers don’t have high salaries either, but said they should be giving the required benefits like a small pension, home financing funds and health insurance.

Again, if stay-in workers save on the expenses of rent, food, and transportation, it also means they are working longer hours than usual. According to the International Labour Office (pdf), one in five Philippine domestic workers labors for 11 hours or more a day, but the share rises to one in three for live-in female workers. And relatives can be worse about this than other employers.

“Because when they are not related to you, they have qualms about giving you orders… but your relatives, they will abuse your services because they know where you came from, they know who you are,” said Evelyn Magtibay, 44.

Magtibay worked as an all-around helper for her second cousin for 9 years. When she started in 1990, she was paid $5 every month with no benefits. Like Geraldez, her cousin was amicable and not directly cruel to her; the abuse came from his wife’s relatives. She said they would force her to do their laundry and other household chores, even though working for them was not part of the job she agreed to do. “They were jealous of me because of our relationship. Of course: we are related. When my boss is not there, they are mean to me,” Magtibay said. Today, Magtibay runs her own business but still works part-time as a live-out helper. 

Honorary family member

A Filipino domestic worker's t-shirt with domestic workers rights
Domestic workers’ rights.
Image: Therese Reyes

Sitting next to Magtibay was 57-year-old Lyn Signo. She is the second of 19 children and as the eldest girl, she had no choice but to take on the role of caretaker. She is from Aklan, a province in Visayas. Big families are common in rural parts of the Philippines where there is little to do, no electricity, and many people are not educated on family planning. 

“I told them, ‘If you don’t stop [having children], I will run away and drop out of school,” Signo said. She left her hometown at 12 years old in the early 1970s after growing tired of attending to her siblings.

Her voice relaxed when she looked back on the first family she worked for and stayed with for at least 20 years. She attended the same public school as one of her employer’s children and felt like she fit right in. “They did not let me go to school if I was not properly dressed. They would reach out to me and say ‘Change. Here, I have a lot of clothes,’ you know, those things. It was like we were siblings,” Signo said.

Still, as good as Signo’s experience was, she was still a working minor, with a monthly salary of about two dollars back then. Now she continues to look after the same family—but as a live-out worker.

Even at its best, being “part of the family” is not all it is cracked up to be, said Montenegro, the labor activist. “When you are treated as a relative, when they say you are related, that’s where the struggle lies.”

The family you make

The women of United are a close bunch. They are familiar with each other’s stories and have met some of each other’s employers. Some women even brought their children along for the trip to Antipolo.

“Sometimes, we meet up with each other to relieve our stress. Sometimes [we relieve stress] in school. It’s like that’s where our weariness lessens,” said the president of United, 38-year-old Novelita Palisoc.

The organization started to form in 2012 and quickly grew through word of mouth. Members encouraged fellow domestic helpers in the area where they lived or worked and once a neighborhood gathered a substantial amount of people, they formed a new chapter. In 2015, it officially became the first domestic worker union in the Philippines, and now has 24 chapters.

Palisoc said domestic workers today are more empowered and are more vocal about their concerns. “Domestic workers today are smarter. They don’t accept a 3,000 [peso salary, about $60] anymore,” she said. They have also learned to bring up their rights like a weekly day off and a written contract.

But, as important as the pay is, money is not always the main priority for women, union president Palisoc said: “I would rather work somewhere with little pay but I am treated as a person.”