A Filipino domestic worker was going about her chores in her employer’s house, perhaps finishing up laundry or preparing a meal. The employer sent her outside and then intentionally let his dogs loose on her. Meanwhile he grabbed his video camera. He filmed her attack, like someone who might take out a camcorder to record a child’s birthday party for later reflection. In another case, an employer sliced the right arm of a Filipino domestic, thinking she had stolen a grape. The worker reports throwing away the grape because it fell on the ground.
Adrian Bonifacio shared such stories this fall in a talk called “We are Workers, We are Not Slaves!” in which he told a Stanford audience of the Filipino domestic worker abuses he learned of during a human rights trip to Hong Kong. The talk, he said, was meant to put faces to a movement and words to an unjust system. Social norms and policy encourage domestic workers to leave their families, sell themselves to an established recruitment agency, which then sends the worker to an employer, in a way in which one could almost mail-order a product for home delivery.
Bonifacio heard these stories firsthand during his three months in Hong Kong when he worked for the Asian Pacific Mission for Migrants, which is a non-governmental organization that promotes and defends the rights of migrant workers. During his time with the organization, Bonifacio learned of the conditions of migrant workers. He said the agencies drive a labor export system that is interlaced with its own abuses.
For example, many of the Filipina women who passed through recruitment agencies tell of placement fees and overseas worker fees. The fees are meant to return money to those contributing, but are instead pocketed by the agency. The recruitment agencies are criticized for human trafficking, document confiscation, and acting as the middleman between worker and employer.
“I shared my life with Filipina domestic workers for just under three months this past summer—singing, learning, laughing, rallying, dancing, picketing, and of course, eating,” Bonifacio wrote in an article for Static, a student-run blog on activism and social issues. However, the majority of the time had with them, he concedes, was spent being humbled.
“Forced to leave their countries by a government busy shining the shoes of multinational corporations instead of developing the economy for the masses, these migrant workers left their lives behind to make sure their families can make it,” Bonifacio wrote. “But abuse runs rampant in this system of labor export.”
In his presentation, Bonifacio blamed the domestic policy of the Philippines coupled with China’s own policy for sustaining cash flow for feeding the beast. Under a previous dictatorship, work was funneled abroad.
Bonifacio spent most of his presentation discussing the new solidarity of domestic workers who are organizing to reclaim their right to a fair wage and to own land. For example, in Hong Kong the minimum wage of $3.60 per hour still does not apply to these domestic workers; they march against this.
“Workers told me that the government taught them not about their rights in Hong Kong, but only their ‘duty’ to contribute to the Philippine economy through remittances,” Bonifacio said.
At one point Bonifacio challenged his audience, asking the attendees to guess how much money was sent back in remittances last year. One male student guessed $100 million, while another approximated it coming closer to $2 billion. The crowd responded with surprise when Bonifacio revealed the first student was two orders of magnitude off of the actual number. Last year, $20 billion dollars of remittances was sent from the United States back to the Philippines.
Despite the uphill battle, these women are not helpless, he said. "After their employers are asleep and the lights are off, these women start dialing numbers on their cell phones and signing on Facebook,” Bonifacio said. “Not to chat, but to organize.”
As he showed pictures of the women and their rallies, his voice filled with warmth and resoluteness in describing the women and their determination to better their condition. Students who had brought homework and laptops stopped typing or punching numbers in their calculators to listen as Bonifacio recognized these women for what they had accomplished.
Some of the women come from college-educated backgrounds, such as nursing. They left behind professions to move to Hong Kong to make more money. Their grassroots movements produce fliers such as “cupboards are for plates, not domestic workers.” Migrant workers are spending their Sundays marching for their living conditions and against discriminatory policies such as the two-week rule, which requires a terminated worker to leave the country within two weeks of not finding new work.
Bonifacio described how he saw this fellowship as a good opportunity to experience the conditions facing migrant workers. Bonifacio used the Tagalog word “lubog” to better describe his fellowship, as something in which he was “submersed” or “immersed.” When asked why its important to immerse oneself before seeking change, Bonifacio replied he thinks it's acting against this whole notion of serving from a top-down approach. “We have to be accountable to the population we're trying to serve,” he said.
Students interested in learning more about the application process for this fellowship should contact Nadejda Marques. Bonifacio’s experience abroad was made possible by the human rights fellowship from the Program of Human Rights on the Center of Democracy and the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society. He received one of four annual fellowships offered by these groups to students looking to work for human rights-focused organizations, government agencies, NGOs, or international organizations.