A way out for ‘slaves’
The latest issue of The Atlantic Magazine has a simple, almost forlorn, photograph of a Filipino woman, Eudocia Tomas Pulido, the subject of a story by Filipino-American writer Alex Tizon. Taken from an impoverished family in Tarlac, “Lola,” as the family members called her, was a “gift” from the author’s grandfather to his mother. Lola served Tizon’s family (including his own, after his marriage) for 56 years, 21 in the Philippines and the rest in the United States. Only in her last 12 years of service did she receive a salary.
Lola was their sole domestic helper, cleaning, cooking and laundering, and caring for the five Tizon siblings. She was able to enter the United States because Tizon’s father was assigned to the embassy there. The family stayed on after the consular assignment, even as Lola’s own travel papers expired, making her “TNT” (tago ng tago), an illegal immigrant.
Tizon was a respected journalist, having received a Pulitzer, and the story of Lola was his last. He died in March, before his story saw print. I listened to his widow being interviewed on BBC, and she said her husband grappled for years with this dark family secret, captured in the story’s title: “My Family’s Slave.”
It’s the word “slave” that has caused so much furor in social media. We don’t have slaves, we declare. We think of slaves as people bought and sold and kept in chains and, indeed, there are a few places in the world that still have them. We like to think we are a civilized people and what we have in our homes are not even servants or maids but helpers, domestics, housekeepers, katulong or kasambahay.
Our present system of domestic helpers may seem modern, even governed by a law prescribing a minimum wage, SSS, Pag-Ibig and Philhealth coverage. But in practice, it still carries vestiges of the precolonial alipin and the Spanish colonial hacienda serf or tenant system.
The alipin system was different from, and not as brutal as the chattel slavery of the Greeks and Romans, and from the slavery in the United States. A more proper term was debt servitude, where someone or an entire family had to pay off their debt by working in the household of the debtor.
Spanish colonialism introduced feudalism and haciendas, where hundreds of families might work for one landlord family. The term alipin was not used, but the tenants were indentured, too, in an uneasy patron-client relationship with the landlords who provided for the minimum needs of tenants, womb to tomb, and expected total loyalty, which many tenants did give.
Unfortunately, we still retain many vestiges of these old systems. In exchange for food, shelter, a minimal salary and benefits, employers have a strong sense of entitlement, with helpers expected to be at their beck and call 24/7.
Helpers are also expected to be loyal, without question. We certainly see that in Lola, fiercely loyal to Tizon’s mother, despite the latter’s abuse. There’s an account in the article of Lola intervening once when her employer was having an argument with her (Tizon’s mother) second husband. Imagine a tiny woman, 4’11, stepping in between her Filipino employer and a burly 250-pound man: “Ivan,” she calls out his name, and he backs down.
We argue, too, that most of our helpers are not subjected to physical abuse and, indeed, Tizon’s story of Lola paints a relatively mild picture compared to the many stories we have of Filipino women-helpers, here and overseas, of mauling, battery, rape. Lola’s abuse was more often verbal, and psychological, although there was one horrendous account in the story where Lola, a young girl at that time, had to take a whipping in place of her mistress.
Amid all that loyalty, Lola had no salary, and few concessions when she needed them. When Lola had dental problems she was told to better take care of her teeth. Both times when Lola’s parents died and she wanted to return home for their funerals, she was admonished for even asking, and that there was no money, no time for her to return home.
Tizon’s article made me look up an earlier case involving a Filipino-American couple in Milwaukee, both physicians, who in 2006 were convicted of “conspiracy to obtain labor and services by threats of harm and physical restraint.” Their victim, also Filipino, was kept in virtual slavery for 19 years, paid $100 a month the first 10 years, then $400 a month. Her only contact with her family back home was through two letters a month, sent in an envelope without a return address.
The two physicians, already in their 60s, were sentenced to four years’ imprisonment, later increased to six years, and ordered to indemnify the helper an amount close to $1 million. They were deported back to the Philippines after serving their sentence.
The case is now cited in American books on law and social work as an example of trafficking, and one where conviction occurred even though there was no violence against the victim. Note, too, that the victim was paid a salary, although it was way below the minimum prescribed salary of $824 a month.
We need to raise the bar higher, addressing the issue of neglect in all its forms. Enslavement exists when there’s no way out, when there are no options. I’ve seen households where the helpers are third-generation, meaning their lola was the first to work for the family, then her daughter, then her granddaughter. They may be treated very well, but you still have to ask why, after three generations, they are still working as helpers.
Thousands of Filipino women with degrees in midwifery and education leave each year to work overseas because they feel that they are at least exploring an option, of a larger salary that can be remitted home, allowing their children to get to college.
We continue to have armies of domestic helpers because of grinding poverty. Like the Tizon family, the lolas in our lives allow us to pursue our careers, make our child-rearing so much easier. Beyond the minimum wage and food and shelter, we owe our helpers a way out, and I think it’s worth looking into how we might help them find options, a way out of poverty. One obvious place to start would be with their education, or their children’s education, giving a better fighting chance for social mobility.
(Tizon’s full article is available on The Atlantic site with links to other articles that have appeared in response to the story. Do read through, and I would suggest having it read and discussed with kids at home and in school, too. Don’t limit the discussion to helpers. Our modern-day “slaves” often include yayas, houseboys, drivers, even caregivers.)
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