Today women represent around half of the total population of international migrants worldwide. They move, more and more, as independent workers, usually to more developed countries in search of a better life for themselves and for their families. Reproducing patterns of gender inequality, at destination they tend to find work in traditionally female-dominated occupations such as domestic work. Their vulnerabilities are often linked to precarious recruitment processes (including passport and contract substitution as well as charging of excessive fees), the absence of adapted assistance and protection mechanisms, the social and cultural isolation they can face at the destination due to language and cultural differences, lack of advance and accurate information on terms and conditions of employment, absence of labour law coverage and/or enforcement in the country of destination, and restrictions on freedom of movement and association, among other things.
Maryfe migrated from the Philippines to Hong Kong in the hopes of earning more money abroad to support her children. Maryfe took a job caring for her employer’s disabled child and bedridden father. She was subjected to violence and threats daily and eventually broke her contract to return to the Philippines. However, still needing to provide for her children, Maryfe travelled abroad again, this time to Dubai, taking a job as a nanny. Maryfe was forced to work long hours with little sleep and no time off. When the family she worked for moved to a different country she was forced to go with them. Though Maryfe was able to escape her employment, she is now stuck undocumented in a foreign country.
I have lived here for the last six years. I have worked as a nanny, a cleaner, a housekeeper, a baby-sitter and a carer for an elderly woman. I am “undocumented”; I do not have a permit to live and work in this country. This is my story.
I come from a poor family in the Philippines. I studied up to high school and then I quit my studies to work as a street seller. I got married very early, when I was 17, and quickly had four children. I needed to support my children and care for my sick father, and my husband was not much help. I learned that if I went abroad, I could earn more money for my children and my family. In 2004 I decided to look for work outside the Philippines.
On 2 October 2004 I went to Hong Kong, having had a video interview with a Hong Kong-based recruitment agency. When I got there I was given two jobs to do by my employer; I had to care for her disabled child in one house and in the other I had to look after her bedridden father. It was hard work, and my employer was always angry with me. She called me names. She even held a knife to my throat and threatened to kill me. One day I had enough and told her that I wanted to break my contract and return home. She got very angry and called the police and told them that I had stolen HK$ 400 from her. They searched my luggage and even strip searched me. I will never forget that. Even though they agreed with me that I hadn’t stolen anything the police told me that I would have to leave Hong Kong as I had broken my contract.
So, scared from this experience, I went back to the Philippines and started selling in the market again. But I made little money and my children were growing up; it is hard as a mother to see your children in need. So I decided I had to go abroad again.
On 9 March 2006 I went to Dubai to work as a nanny. The work was tough. I was on call most of the time. I only slept four hours a night as I would have to accompany my employer and her child out until late at night. The salary was low and I didn’t have a day off.
In August 2008 the family I was working for came to this country on holiday and brought me with them. Outside the hotel one day I got talking to a Filipina who told me that she would help me run away from my employer. That night I couldn’t sleep. I weighed up my duty as a mother to provide my children with a better life against the fact that it would be many years before I could see my children again. That night I called my family and told them I would not see them any more for many years. It was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made. I miss my children every day.
I have had a few jobs since then in this country. I have worked with a family looking after their three children and even though I loved the children, I found it hard to work there. I worked 12 hours a day for five and half days a week. My employer and I argued constantly. She wanted me to come with them on their holidays in another country so that I could look after the children. She didn’t understand that I did not have papers, I can’t leave this country and I can’t risk getting caught. I got acute hypertension. But I felt that I couldn’t leave the job because I needed the money. Finally it got too much and I quit.
For one month I was without steady work and I worried constantly about money. My children and my extended family rely on the money that I send them from here.
Everyone at home thinks that because I am working in this country that I should be able to send them back lots of money. They don’t know how expensive it is here, and how good work is difficult to find. Then, four years ago I found work with a family as a nanny and housekeeper, and this is where I am working today. I also work part-time during the evenings and weekends cleaning houses and looking after an elderly woman. I am happy at work, but I miss my children and family.
I worry too about my health. I have chronic hypertension and am on daily medication. I have regular appointments with the doctor through a special scheme set up by the public hospital here. My doctor writes on the prescription how much I can afford to pay – when I first started going I was told to pay 5 dollars, then they changed it to 10 dollars, and now I have been told to pay 20 dollars. I don’t know why it has increased, no one has explained this to me.
Recently I had an agonizing pain in my tooth and I didn’t know what to do. I have never been to the dentist in all the years I have been in this city. It is too expensive. I don’t have health insurance, and every time I need medical treatment I worry that I will not be able to afford to pay the bill. When I first arrived here I shared a small studio apartment with three other women and paid a share of the rent to the one woman who had a permit and was able to rent the apartment. Now I live with my boyfriend who is also a migrant but who has papers, and I pay him for the rent, food, internet and other expenses.
It is difficult living without papers. I feel scared every time I see the police, even if it is only the transport inspectors. When I first came here I thought that they could just catch you as you were walking on the street and send you back to your country. But now I know that they will only catch you if you get in trouble. So every month I buy a transport ticket, and make sure that I don’t get in trouble with the police. I never fight with anyone because I don’t want them to call the police.
A few years ago my friend was suddenly dismissed by her employer without any notice. When she went to her employer to ask for her remaining salary and a reasonable notice period she was threatened by her employer’s husband that he would call the police and tell them that she didn’t have papers. We all advised her to just keep quiet and look for another job. What would she gain by fighting or trying to get an expensive lawyer through the trade union?
It is not worth it to get into trouble when you are undocumented. You shouldn’t draw attention to yourself. This is the reality of my life.
Narrative provided by United Nations Human Rights report ‘Behind Closed Doors: Protecting and promoting the human rights of migrant domestic workers in an irregular situation’