You are here: Home / Updates / Philippines: Domestic workers face long road to labor rights at home and abroad
Philippines: Domestic workers face long road to labor rights at home and abroad

Philippines: Domestic workers face long road to labor rights at home and abroad

by IDWFED published Jan 07, 2016 12:00 AM
Contributors: Veronica Uy/
Read the special report of Remy Borlongan and Rex Varona on how migrant domestic workers face long road to labor rights at home and abroad.



Read the original article in full: SPECIAL REPORT | Domestic workers face long road to labor rights at home and abroad |


Photo: Remy Borlongan/Facebook
Remy Borlongan, 59, left the Philippines in April 1986, a couple of months after the Marcos dictatorship was toppled.

Her husband had met an accident while riding a motorcycle. Not only was he unable to earn a living for their family, debts were also piling up. So even if it meant she had to leave their infant son for her husband and her in-laws to raise, she followed her sisters to Hong Kong, where she was to clean house for a Chinese couple.

She had steeled herself for the hard work and the loneliness, but she wasn’t prepared for the abuse.

Her first employers did not speak English and she spoke neither Mandarin nor Cantonese, so there was always some misunderstanding about what they wanted her to do. The turning point came several months later, when her employers spent their vacation in Mainland China, leaving her locked for two weeks inside the apartment with hardly any food.

Naghihitsa ako ng sulat sa baba ng building pag may nagdadaan. Sabi ko sa sulat, kailangan ko ng tulong, pumunta ‘kako sila sa pulis at magsumbong sa embassy (I would hurl notes down the building for passersby. In my notes, I would ask for help, telling them to go to the police and to report my situation to the Philippine embassy),” she says.

At that time, a foreign domestic worker who was not able to complete the two-year work contract had to be sent back home; she could not simply find another employer. So after only five months in Hong Kong, Borlongan returned to the Philippines, where she again applied for a job, waited for another working visa, paid the processing fee, and bought her plane tickets.

She was luckier with her second employer. “Mabait sila at marunong mag-Inggles (They were kind and knew English),” she says.

She started socializing with her fellow foreign domestic workers who gathered at Victoria Park every Sunday, their day of rest. There were so many organizations in Hong Kong then -- church-based, regional, and community.

Merong mga Cagayanon, merong taga Cordillera, mula sa iba’t ibang probinsya. Maraming Pilipino, pero may mangilan-ngilan ding galing Thailand, Indonesia, India, at Nepal (There were organizations for Cagayanons and those from the Cordillera, from different provinces. There were many Filipinos, but there were some from Thailand, Indonesia, India, and Nepal),” she says.

An activist when she was an agriculture student at the Central Luzon State University, Borlongan saw the need to form a union to respond to the various problems faced by workers in a foreign land.

Maraming police cases, tulad ng rape at ‘yung tinutulak pero papalabasing suicide. Merong pinlantsa ang mukha (There were a lot of police cases like rapes and those pushed off to their death from the high-rises but would be reported as suicides. There were also those whose faces were burned with a hot iron),” she says.

Other common problems were underpayment of salaries, maltreatment, and debt. Many migrant workers would “pawn” or leave their passports as “collateral” with moneylenders in exchange for credit, she says.

Because the Philippines has been exporting workers since the 1970s, it had by that time a relatively advanced system for what it called labor deployment that included a halfway shelter for distressed migrant workers. This, however, was not the case for migrant workers of other nationalities.

Organizing the Filipinos into a union was difficult because of the Martial Law experience, she says. They feared they would be arrested for asserting their right to organize. For the other nationalities, language was a major obstacle.

In 1989, the Asian Domestic Workers’ Union was born, with Borlongan as its founding chair. She remembers how they had the meeting on New Year’s Day, a non-working holiday. They originally planned it for Christmas Day, but since many were observing the Christian holiday, they postponed it for the following week. “Meron kasi kaming mga (Among us were) Muslim, Buddhists,” she recalls.

The union started with 5,000 members. They immediately got to work and had their union registered with the Hong Kong government, then under British rule. Registration got them not only legitimacy, but also funding for an office, a shelter house, and labor education seminars and workshops.

Pioneering work

Photo: Rex Varona/Facebook
Despite the precariousness of both their livelihood and their organizing, members of the Asian Domestic Workers’ Union were true pioneers, says Rex Varona, who has worked with Borlongan organizing the union in Hong Kong.

The union allowed the heretofore invisible workers to gain recognition in the formal world of legal representation, says Varona, former executive director of the Hong Kong-based Asian Migrant Centre. “They know their rights. They know their duties. They pay their monthly union dues,” which represent not only the members’ discipline, but also the union’s accountability to its members.

As their work contracts last only two years, union members come and go. “Continuity of the organizing process is precarious work. Members would leave, along with the historical memory of the struggles,” says Varona.

Among the “objective limitations” of the union were having the members in separate workplaces so that they are able to meet only once a week, and lack of resources and skills, he says.

It could have been easy for the union to collapse. But it did not.

It evolved, giving birth to several nationality-based unions. The Filipinos had theirs, then the Indonesians, the Thais, and the Nepalese. This strategy was a response to the different migrant and labor policies of their home governments.

“Of course they have a community in relation to Hong Kong, and the federation of the nationality-based unions has been the means to respond to international-based agenda,” Varona says. “They are able to work together on wages and immigration policies.”

In 1992, migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong were able to negotiate for an increase in their monthly salary from HK$1,900 to HK$3,200. “Naipanalo namin ‘yun (It was a major victory),” Borlongan says.  The recognition of their domestic work’s contribution to the Hong Kong economy was also important for her. “Hindi nila dati kinikilala ang aming serbisyo (They didn’t use to recognize our service).”

But they did not only win the war for better wages and work conditions. They were also able to change discriminatory, unfair, and costly migration policies.

In 1987, the Hong Kong government implemented the National Conditions of Stay. Aimed at migrant domestic workers, the rules banned them from moving to another employer during their two-year work contract, kept them from signing a new contract with a new employer, and required them to leave Hong Kong within two weeks of the termination of the contract. This was the reason why Borlongan had to return to the Philippines after she left her first employers.

The unionized migrant domestic workers successfully campaigned to stop several anti-migrant policy proposals in early 2000s, as in ther emoval of the maternity protection for domestic workers (Editor's note: Corrected from earlier version where it says that the NCS has been revoked). “It was a political victory in two ways,” Varona says. First, it was able to prove that foreign workers were not stealing the jobs from local workers and second, the struggle and the victory paved the way for the workers to raise their concerns before international meetings on CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all Discrimination Against Women) and the ILO (International Labor Organization).

The politicization of the mostly women workers were also evident in the May Day rallies. “They always had the biggest contingent,” Varona says. “They were politically active. They had representation in dialogues with labor and immigration officials.”

In 2000, Varona says, the various migrant domestic workers’ unions in Hong Kong were federated and allied with a global trade union. The union and later the Federation of Asian Domestic Workers’ Union have been a force for the well-being of its members.

The evolution also moved in the direction of credit unions, as a response to the need for savings for their eventual return to their country and as a counterfoil to usurious moneylenders.

Source: Veronica Uy/

Story Type: Story

blog comments powered by Disqus