The secret lives of the ‘kasambahay’
Perhaps because the topic is too close to home for many of us, and their voices are rarely heard in public discourse, little has been written about the lived experiences of the “kasambahay”—particularly those living and working in the Philippines. Of course, they occupy a special place in the “teleserye” (e.g. Judy Ann Santos’ iconic role in Mara Clara)— but, beyond stereotypes, we actually know little about their lives and their struggles.
I realized this when I had the chance to interview Edna, a kasambahay who works in an exclusive village in Metro Manila. Since there’s no public transport inside, she would walk 30 minutes just to reach their village’s main gate: a predicament shared by many of her peers.
Most of the kasambahay (Edna uses the term “katulong”) have their own quarters, and they rarely fraternize with their “amo.” Instead, the kasambahay form their own society, chatting with each other whenever possible, not just on the streets but also by SMS and on Facebook. (Incidentally, online interactions have also allowed them to connect with their families, making their lives easier, but some are not given the much-coveted Wi-Fi password).
Anthropologists have long recognized the role of gossip in society, and we can observe this among the kasambahay. They boost their social capital by trading secrets with various households, even feeding their amo with information that the latter would appreciate — including homeowners’ complaints about each other, as well as how much the staff gets. Gossip, thus, forms a check and balance in exclusive villages just as it does in rural ones.
An “informal economy” also exists among the kasambahay: Some of them would sell phone load, lingerie, cosmetics, even food to each other. Some others organize informal “hulugan” schemes that allow them to loan and save money. If there are employment opportunities abroad, these would also be passed around.
Needless to say, there are also relationships, both casual and long-term, formed within and beyond the village. After all, there are also male staff in many households (the “houseboy” deserves a separate discussion) and, as in the teleserye, affairs do happen with the employers.
On a positive note, there are stories of kasambahay being elevated to trusted steward and part of the family (“bahagi na ng pamilya”), sent to high school or college by their employers, and receiving an informal “pension” beyond their tenure. Proudly, Edna shares that she was able to raise her daughter in the village, and the latter is now a college graduate.
However, as in the past, the kasambahay are faced with grave challenges. Many are not given the benefits they are due (Republic Act No. 10361, the Batas Kasambahay, provides for, among others, 13th month pay and Pag-Ibig membership), partly because, as a recent Inquirer report by Karl Ocampo (10/21/2018) showed, many are not aware of the law’s provisions. As “internal migrant workers,” kasambahay also experience a “heavy personal burden” (De Guzman, 2014), given their distance from their own families, online connections notwithstanding.
Another concern is the occupational hazard of living in a household with grossly asymmetric power relations. President Duterte’s recent lurid boast about sexually harassing a housemaid as a teenager points to the fact that many kasambahay (85 percent, according to an old study) experience some form of abuse, and are oftentimes powerless to resist it. Edna herself recalls that, when she left her home in Bicol to work as a kasambahay for the first time, she was resigned to the fact that she might be sexually abused — and was greatly relieved it did not happen.
In 2011, it was estimated that kasambahay accounted for 5.3 percent of total employment in the country. While the labor environment is fast changing, the kasambahay remain a significant part of our workforce, not to mention our everyday lives. Surely, many employers have complaints as well, but given the predicaments the kasambahay are facing, their narratives need to be more urgently heard. What would the #MeToo movement look like, if all the kasambahay were to tell their tales?
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