Two months after I moved back to the Philippines from the United States, I received a welcome present when I met a woman who wanted to work as my kasambahay (household help). The idea enchanted me because I had long fantasized about living the life of a donya in retirement, freed from the drudgery of vacuuming the floor or folding laundry.
I decided to hire her to work on Saturdays; because she lives nearby, she would not be a “stay-in” but would go home for lunch. I made it plain that I did not like the idea of “advance”—a popular practice where workers ask for their salary before payday. I wanted her to learn to live within a budget, to refrain from buying on credit, and to save, especially because her husband had neither PhilHealth nor Social Security System benefits.
I suggested that she continue to use her husband’s income for their daily expenses and reserve her salary for emergencies. She agreed that saving for a rainy day, along the old-fashioned notion of kung may isinuksok, may titingalain (if you save something, you can fall back on it later), was an excellent idea. I didn’t hear anymore about “advance” and we got along well.
My kasambahay was scrawny, her 35 kilos loosely dispersed into a 5-foot frame. She is so thin that one morning when she came to work wearing a gauzy white blouse, I swore that I could almost see right through her chest. In fact, most of the workers in our subdivision are skinny; with at least four children to feed, the parents probably eat less so the children can have more. With fewer calories to fuel their muscles, some of the maintenance workers are so sluggish that a few subdivision residents accuse them of being lazy, echoing the colonials’ condescending label of the “indolent Filipino.”
Luckily, my kasambahay was the exception. Although skinny like the others, she was fast, thorough, and, like a juggler, could keep several balls in the air. It was not calories that stoked her efficiency but the far stronger motive of earning money to buy the week’s five kilos of rice. Occasionally, when her husband would lose his job, she depended only on her weekly salary for rice, ulam, and the children’s baon. Sometimes, when the money is used for medicines or the foolish school “field trip,” they eat only rice without any ulam.
Working in my house, she saw what the typical middle-class kitchen is like, where the refrigerator is regularly stocked and the rice container is seldom empty. When she and I went to the market, she saw that I spend in one hour what she earns in one week. Always, I felt a pang of guilt as I wondered how she made sense of the glaring inequality.
She proved to be a quick study, neat, efficient. I taught her new tasks so she became sort of a sous chef—preparing lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers for salad, slicing potatoes and onions for hash browns, etc. She was so dependable that she took over more household tasks, thus allowing me the precious luxury of more free time. I felt grateful and also wanted to help her, so after a year, I gave her a generous raise, much more than the Kasambahay Law now mandates for our first-class municipality.
Even with the increased hours, she enjoyed a very relaxed schedule because whenever we were out of town (which is often), she did not have to work. Also, I always dismissed her early, as soon as she completed her tasks for the day. This allowed her to work for another family and earn additional income.
The arrangement worked for both of us but I suspected that it would not last. I knew she was hurt each time I refused her request for an “advance.” I did give in occasionally, as when she had the chance to buy her own Meralco power meter at a discount. Having her own meter instead of sharing a neighbor’s would bring her electricity rates down considerably, so I relented. Afterwards, I noticed that the requests for an “advance” became more frequent—for a TV set, the daughter’s field trip, the son’s graduation, etc.—until it became a battle of wills between us.
The fateful day finally came after I refused her for the nth time. One morning after breakfast, she stood defiantly in the living room and, leaning on the sofa as if for support, announced that she was quitting. I was dumbfounded, but managed to be cool. How is she going to manage when the husband was currently unemployed? I muttered an absent-minded “Okay. Thank you” and she left.
Just like that, I was thrust back into boring household chores. But I refuse to concede defeat. Now I perform the chores as if they are strengthening exercises that seniors should do, anyway.
Violeta P. Hughes-Davis, 73, is a “balikbayan” who retired from The Ohio State University.