Monday, December 22, 2003

December 26, 2004

At thirty five years of age, Erma Geolamin took her first step. Erma has been walking non-stop for 5,000 days and she is tired. She wonders if someday someone will ever tell her where the finish line is.

Erma is a Filipina migrant worker, a foreign domestic help for 14 years.

Erma left her country to work overseas in 1990, the year Nora Aunor swept Philippine film awards for best actress for the movie Andrea, Paano Ba ang Maging Isang Ina?

The same La Aunor who would play Flor Contemplacion five years later in a film about the tragic life of the Filipina domestic worker hanged in Singapore whose death “came to symbolize the millions of Filipinos driven by poverty to leave their families and take their chances abroad.” (1)

Erma comes from the Philippines, a curious country that rewards those it calls heroes -- Filipino migrant workers whose remittances alone keep the country’s economy afloat -- with a guarantee that their children will suffer the same fate they have suffered.

Each year, Filipinos working abroad remit billions of dollars to the Philippines. And each year, the Philippine government dutifully sets aside a third of the national budget to pay off gargantuan debts most of which had been incurred by crooks and thieving corporations and have done little to improve the public’s plight except to line the pockets of robber-banks and corrupt officials.

Of the 8 million overseas Filipino workers today, 130,000 are in Hong Kong working as domestic help. Erma Geolamin is one of them.

Erma’s youngest son Romir was still an infant when she left for Malaysia, her first overseas stint.

It was hard work but the pay, which was a pittance compared to her toil, was nonetheless far more than what she would have made if she had chosen to eke out a living in her hometown of Guimbal, Iloilo. Yet the costs that Erma had been made to shoulder were inestimable.

By the time Erma had saved enough to return to the Philippines after her first overseas job -- by the time she got to see her youngest son again, Erma was 39 and Romir was already four years old. And within weeks, Erma was already flying to Hong Kong where the pay for domestic help was said to be higher. And in Hong Kong she has stayed.

I met Erma at the majestic 7th floor Hong Kong residence she was tending on Conduit Road. We had tea and a lively exchange; Erma is very articulate in English and Filipino but her face communicated more. Wry and stoic expressions when she talked about the scars that marked the souls of domestic help working in Hong Kong; glittering eyes when talk shifted to her family.

For all the 14 years that Erma has spent as a domestic help, she has only seen her family eight times in periods lasting no more than two weeks. She would rather save the airfare for her kids, she said. A familiar story.

In 1999 she went home unannounced and caught her husband with another woman and discovered that he had squandered the earnings she had been sending home. Another familiar story.

“It’s like the relationship between overseas Filipino workers and the Philippine government,” I mumbled to myself. Erma nodded, her expression alert.

“I wept that day. And days after I still wept, but quietly. It was hard but I had to control my anger,” she said, her rage overpowered only by a sadness that would wash over her again and again. Erma prayed for strength as she wept and helped her children -- and herself -- make sense of decisions that had to be made. It was a measure of the stoutness of Erma’s spirit that she permitted her husband to accompany her to the airport. Before she boarded the plane bound for Hong Kong, holding back welling melancholy, she told him gently, “This is the last time we will see each other like this. From now on, you can no longer call me wife. You are no longer my husband.”

Her eyes had drifted far away as she finished recounting the episode but she sensed that I had noticed this and with a tilt of her head a smile radiated from her face. Erma’s eyes are like La Aunor’s -- they are beautiful and they speak.

Unlike the kitchens and bedrooms and toilets she has cleaned each day in Hong Kong for 10 years, Erma had jurisdiction over her heartaches. A college graduate with a degree in business administration, her body has been ravaged by backbreaking, mind-numbing domestic work. Erma said she thanks the Lord for blessing her with discipline, for keeping her strong despite her advancing age so that she could continue working for a few more years.

“I have to keep myself healthy, you know. I want all my children to finish school. I think of them every day,” said Erma, who will be turning 50 soon.

She has been walking for 14 years and has spent almost a third of her life in a perverse race that has no prize save for crossing the finishing line. Some nights, before she nods off to sleep, Erma tries to imagine what the finish line would look like.

Someday, she said, she hopes someone will point it to her.

At the back of her mind, she keeps at bay the fear that some of her children may yet join the wicked marathon that she had no choice but to accept. And so Erma is already thinking, at 50 years of age, of one more two-year contract, perhaps a second contract, or a third.

For the government, she is one among many modern-day serfs “to be deployed.” But for some, she is Erma Geolamin, the mother of all our children.

And yet that is only half of her story.
* * *
COMMENTS welcome at redcosmo(at)gmail(dot)com

1. “A death in the family,” Asiaweek, December 29, 1995.

No comments: