December 26, 2016 9:20 pm JST

Asia's women migrant workers turn adversity into advantage

Fighting spirit helps some discover new skills or use their experience to launch new careers

JOHN KRICH, Contributing writer

Indonesian author Author Arista Devi (who uses her pen name) exploring books at a Hong Kong library (Photo by Terenia Puspita)

Yully is the published author of numerous essays and books, including a recent compendium of short stories, but she often has to furtively scrawl her thoughts on bits of toilet paper.

Each night, after her household chores are done, the Indonesian domestic worker must hide under a blanket to shield the light from the cellphone on which she painstakingly taps out her stories. Despite laws to the contrary, she is provided no "room of her own" in her employer's Hong Kong household, and sleeps beside her boss's grandmother. She must use a pen name to protect her identity and keep her job. For inspiration, she calls herself Arista Devi, which means "woman warrior goddess" in her language.

It can take the foresight and persistence of a goddess to break free of the cycle of debt and poverty in which many Asian migrant workers are trapped. Among the estimated 14 million workers in Southeast Asia who are forced to find employment overseas, only a handful find an escape route out of a trap of low wages, high-interest debts to loan sharks, and endless obligations to support numerous dependents.

Remitting $50 billion dollars in earnings per year back to the struggling economies of their home countries, only a few can become financially independent. This is particularly the case among women migrant workers

"How to define success for a migrant domestic worker?" asks Elizabeth Tang, general secretary of the International Domestic Workers Federation in Hong Kong. "Kids finish college, have a new house, own a piece of land . . . for those so bold to make the sacrifice . . . working hundreds of miles away from loved ones, what is most common in our eyes are these huge victories."

Yet for the estimated 300,000 foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong, the precious upside of migration's constraints is a wide range of opportunities. On their weekly Sundays off work in Hong Kong, many migrant domestic workers do not just socialize on crowded sidewalks but organize a wide array of charitable initiatives and cultural troupes. Some can be found recording songs they have written, or perfecting clothes and handicrafts for sale, taking classes in everything from gourmet cooking to civic responsibility to business start-ups, or as in Yully's case, writing.

"I love Hong Kong, where I learned so much about myself," said one former domestic helper of a dozen years, Mercy Tolentino of the Philippines. "In my journey, I gained confidence, absorbed many things and became a better person."

Freed from oppressive roles and rules back home, some find that new challenges foster the strength to turn group victimization into personal empowerment.

Xyza Cruz Bacani, meawhile, worked 10 years as a domestic helper in the house of a wealthy Hong Kong employer who helped buy her a Nikon camera. Documenting street life on her days off, she showed a talent that won her a Human Rights Fellowship from New York-based Magnum, the world's top agency for photojournalists. That award launched her new career.

One of 11 siblings, Rebecca Bustamante grew up in poverty before migrating at 19 to Singapore to become a domestic helper. But she studied accounting by night, and then, while working as a nanny in Canada, she earned a graduate degree in marketing. The founder of an Asian recruitment firm, she also leads the Asia CEO Forum, the largest business networking group in the Philippines, and gives inspirational speeches with titles such as: "Maid to Multinational."

Software activist

There is also the rags-to-software success saga of Myrna Padilla, 56, one of six children of a fisherman in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. The family was so poor, she recalls, that "when seas were rough, we had nothing to eat." At age 10, she would go diving alone for seaweed to sell in the market, all the while "dreaming to become a lawyer and businesswoman." After working as a domestic helper in Singapore and Taiwan, her big break came when her wealthy British employer in Hong Kong asked her to supervise his eight-year-old's nightly homework on his computer.

"I knew nothing about technology and was so intimidated," she recounted. "When the boy showed me how to move the cursor with a mouse, I told him that in the Philippines, I never saw a mouse - only rats." With her young ward as her mentor, she eventually learned how to type, and went on to master computing skills.

In 2006, grasping the potential in "virtual employment and outsourcing," she returned to her home region of Davao and founded Mynd Tech Management Services. She has since won numerous entrepreneurial awards and been named an ambassador for Microsoft and government digital literary campaigns. Employing some 30 women, mostly ex-migrants, she has expanded into "bug testing," quality control and programming.

"It's not about making money, but, with each woman I employ, I know I am saving a family," she told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Her latest initiative has been the launch of an "app" called OFW Watch, which relies on the widespread use of mobile phones and social media by Overseas Filipina Workers to report abuse and human trafficking, while spreading information about human rights.

For other migrant workers, becoming an activist can lead to higher education. Dina Nuriyati, 38, an Indonesian who arrived in Hong Kong without a high school degree, used her four years there as a springboard to buy a truck to start local transport services and fund her studies. As chair of the Federation of Indonesian Migrant Workers, she won a scholarship to a German university to complete a master's degree in labor policy and now works as a consultant on migration issues.

"Without going overseas, I wouldn't have learned about human rights and I would probably be back in the village, married," she said.

Remarkably, it is in Thailand, where migrant workers are more unregulated, that migrants from Myanmar have been able to take advantage of educational opportunities they could never find back home. At DEAR, a special Sunday school run in Bangkok, Burmese women learn the basics of three languages - and many alumni of the school have gone on to matriculate from Thai universities.

Examining unexamined lives

While some women are busy studying with books, Yully is writing them. When she first came to Hong Kong, she started scribbling notes to combat depression and because she felt that "no one knows nor cares what happens to domestic workers."

She has since described her fellow workers as "the happy and unhappy, lucky and unlucky," in her story anthology, "Four Seasons of Purple Bauhinia." The title refers to the national flower of Hong Kong. She has published many other tales in Indonesia, sending them via the free internet connections available at Hong Kong public libraries.

A Hong Kong TV station is planning to make a short film based on "Violent Witness," which recounts the true story of an Indonesian maid, a friend of Yully's, who fell to her death after being forced to clean apartment windows on a high floor.

"I heard her husband was looking for her diary. So I imagined what that diary would have said," Yully explained, noting: "No one believes [such a thing] could happen."

Some of her tales have happier endings, like the one in which a loving old Chinese grandma leaves money in her will to her maid. In real life, Yully is sometimes paid 200 Hong Kong dollars ($25) for a story. That hardly supplements a monthly wage just raised by 2.4% to $550.

"Without coming to Hong Kong and all the things I have seen, I might never have found my inspiration," she added. "Now I think maybe I won't have to always be a domestic worker but can become a traveling writer."

Padilla looks forward to many "projects in the pipeline" as she considers new ways her OFW Watch software can save more women from further exploitation.

But she noted that "migration will continue because everyone still thinks there are greener pastures abroad. But that only comes true if you gain the knowledge to take action and never stop learning new skills."

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