When maids are kept like chattel
HONG KONG—Filipinos may or may not be surprised to learn that it’s not just Hong Kong Chinese who maltreat their servants. In the United States, Filipinos have been known to keep their own kind like chattel. Back in 2007, for example, news broke that a couple in Milwaukee surnamed Calimlim kept their maid hidden for nearly 20 years in their home, having taken her to the United States on false pretenses.
The victim was Erma Martinez, who hailed from an impoverished town in Camarines Sur. She was hired by the Calimlims, who promised her a US green card. They apparently managed to obtain a visa for her from the US Embassy in Manila by claiming that she needed medical attention.
Once in Milwaukee, Martinez had to do all the household work. She was hidden away in her basement room whenever visitors came to call. She did the grocery shopping and was allowed to go to church on Sundays, but was warned against speaking to anyone outside the house. She was eventually paid the equivalent of $400 a month, which was remitted to her parents and siblings. But she was never able to return home, and so missed important milestones like weddings and deaths, all the while awaiting the prized green card—which never materialized.
The beginning of the end of Martinez’s ordeal came when a Calimlim son married Cherry Bantug, a US-born Filipino who in time became curious about the stranger in her in-laws’ home. Shocked by what she learned about Martinez, she reported the matter to the immigration authorities, who acted swiftly and arrested the Calimlim couple. They were tried, made to pay back wages to Martinez (who was granted US residency), and jailed for four years for having violated trafficking laws.
Throughout the trial many of the Calimlims’ friends protested the arrest, pointing out that Filipino culture involves having servants who are glad to earn money to support their families back home. But none of that swayed the American authorities. (Meanwhile, Bantug divorced her husband, who had been complicit in keeping his parents’ secret.)
Strict laws against trafficking and slavery in the United States are such that recently, an official of the Indian Consulate in New York was arrested on charges that she had committed visa fraud to bring in a maid from India and made false statements to the US immigration department. The case of Devyani Khobragade generated a firestorm between New Delhi and Washington after she was deported. The fact that she was strip-searched by a female immigration official infuriated the Indians, who learned that no one breaking the law was immune from such treatment. Indeed, then World Bank head Dominique Strauss-Kahn suffered similar treatment after being arrested and removed from a plane for molesting a hotel maid not too long ago. That incident was said to have cost Strauss-Kahn the presidency of France. (Ironically the Manhattan attorney who issued the indictment against Khobragade, Preet Bharara, was of Indian descent.)
In Hong Kong, it’s not just female employers who inflict harm on their maids, but male employers, too. The case five years ago of popular pop star Jacky Cheung who called the police after his maid purloined some of his photographs was a minor cause célèbre. It was found that he and his wife had had over a dozen Filipino maids whom they fired after a few months for alleged unsatisfactory work. The maid who admitted taking the pictures was haled to court and charged before being deported. Protests from the local Pinoy community and expatriate sympathizers failed to sway the Hong Kong authorities.
The case of the young Indonesian who suffered months of beating and other torture from her female employer before she fled back home will be heard in court in March. The employer was arrested as she tried to sneak off to Thailand and posted bail of HK$1 million. Hong Kong officials traveled to Indonesia to gather evidence from the 23-year-old victim, who spent over a month in hospital recovering from her injuries.
The history of cases of battery and rape involving mainly Filipino maids in this Chinese city reads like a broken record. But Hongkongers like to claim that those are few isolated cases, as though that excuses any form of bad behavior on their part. Since mainly docile Indonesians have been brought to Hong Kong three years ago, and imports of Bangladeshi and Burmese girls have begun, local employers continue to engage in what, according to a British writer, “epitomizes Hong Kong Chinese society’s most loathsome, hypocritical and disgusting aspects.”
A friend of mine who has retired in Cebu after years of living in Canada has a plaque that reads: “I can do without a man, but I can’t live without a maid!” Hongkongers obviously share her attitude.
Isabel T. Escoda is a freelance journalist based in Hong Kong.
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