Filipinas in the Global Care Industry
Nursing the World
The yaya sisterhood

A nation of nannies

INDISPENSABLE. The yaya is a fixture in many Filipino homes where she is surrogate mother, reliable servant, and pillar of domestic harmony. [photo by Vinia M. Datinguinoo]

SOME MONTHS ago, a Danish couple living in Australia created a tempest of sorts when they posted this message on the website, an online forum for Filipinos Down Under:

Danish family is looking for a part time (3 days a week) amah in Jindalee…live out. Must be 100% trust worthy, independent, love our 2 chinese kids / 9 year old retriever and master of cleaning. Prefer non-smoker and QLD drivers licence.
Start late Jan 2005.
Email Sten & Ella

Sten and Ella didn’t realize that their innocent posting for a Filipina yaya or nanny in December 2004 would unleash an avalanche of emotional responses. They had unknowingly hit on the rawest nerve of the Pinoy community in Australia and probably elsewhere as well. An irate member of the Web forum, whose email identity was Ronkers, reacted with a virtual scream: “Sten & Ella, You are in the wrong forum! Don’t you know that you are insulting people here in the forum? Judging by the posts here, I can assure that these people are well educated. So pissed [sic] off!”

The couple promptly apologized, but the discussion didn’t end there. Bagoong, another forum member, attempted a sober defense of his countrymen: “Working as a maid does not equate to being uneducated. Most of our compatriots abroad working as nurses and nannies in Asia, Europe, and Middle East are highly educated. They are tertiary qualified graduates who are forced to leave as there are no jobs for them in the country. I guess that the connotation of a ‘maid’ as a second-class citizen remains in our psyche.”

Many others wrote back, among them TruBlu, who included memories of her own childhood, “I still have a lot of affection for my yaya, who looked after me and my siblings…definitely, I do not consider our yaya as a second-class citizen.” Roobie had his own observations on nannies and social class: “The idea of a domestic helper being a lowly commoner is largely due to the attitudes of the rich that span back in some cases, hundreds of years.” This view was seconded by Richard who said, “I’ve noticed there is a very clear class distinction among the Philippine people.”

This email exchange provides a window as good as any to how conflicted Filipinos are when it comes to overseas migration. This ambivalence — on one hand, embarrassment, if not shame, at being known as a nation of nannies, and on the other hand, a grudging acceptance that the yaya sisterhood keeps families and indeed, the economy, back home alive — haunts Filipinos everywhere. Whether in their country or overseas, Filipinos are forced to confront the reality that millions of their countrymen, or more precisely, countrywomen, are toiling in homes, hotels, and hospitals across the planet and however homesick and miserable they are there, millions more at home are dying to be in their shoes.

The issue of OFWs — overseas Filipino workers — is an emotional one because it reflects our torment, or at the very least, our unease about the migration of so many of our citizens. Nearly eight million or one in every 10 Filipinos is abroad. The economic benefits of such large-scale migration (we are second only to Mexico in terms of the number of migrants) are well known: in 2003, OFWs plowed back $7.6 billion in remittances through formal channels; if money sent through informal channels is included, the figure could reach $9.5 billion. Either way, overseas work is the country’s main source of foreign exchange and is a major driver of the local economy.

The social cost of this in terms of separated families, especially a whole generation of children growing up without their mothers, is also well known; it has even been immortalized in popular culture through films like the heart-rending Anak (Child). The loneliness and homesickness that migrants suffer, not to mention the discrimination and prejudice they often encounter, cannot be quantified in monetary terms. Neither can anyone convert in any currency the pain, longing, and neglect that scar motherless children.

We are a nation that is centered on family, and for sure, the Filipino family has borne the brunt of the costs of migration, although it, too, has reaped the benefits. This is why the ambivalence about migration resides in the very heart of the family itself. Migration, therefore, cannot be anything but an emotional issue in this country. No other concern can cause so much grief, as many officials have found when they were forced to deal with the public outcry over the government’s indifference to abused OFWs. No other issue can rake the coals of so much collective guilt — after all, if our society were better able to provide, there would be no need for mothers to leave in droves. Moreover, as the heated exchange in so vividly illustrates, no other issue can stir up all the Pinoy hang-ups about race, gender, and social class.

I GREW UP in Quezon City, with five other siblings, cared for by a succession of yayas. The most memorable among them was Soling, a bubbly Igorota from Kiangan, deep in the Cordillera, who was raised in mission schools and so could speak English far better than Tagalog. I remember her as being so good humored that when she had to bathe my two youngest brothers (I have four) and they put up a fight, she merrily ran after and fought mock battles with them just to get them to the shower. Soling said she came from a village that was a three-day walk from the nearest highway. Her stories always had a landscape in them — rivers, trees, and mountains. It is only now that I realize how foreign the suburbs of QC must have been to her.

The yaya phenomenon — women leaving their families to care for the children of others — has been with us a long time. Since at least the 19th century, Filipino women have ventured outside their native villages to go to towns and cities to work as servants for the more affluent. They were often compelled to do so by poverty, a lack of other opportunities, and a desire to help their families. There was, of course, also the lure of the big town or city.

The reality is that a lot of Filipino women have been able to pursue careers, fight causes, even become presidents or flaming feminists (or, for that matter, investigative journalists), because there were other women who took care of the children, cooked the meals, and cleaned the toilets. Because millions of Filipinas have been working as helpers or literally katulong in the homes of others for a long time, generations of Filipino children have been reared by yayas. This is why katulong characters populate popular culture. In films and TV programs, they are portrayed as comic figures with laughable accents and ignorant about the city and modernity. Sometimes, they are also cast in tragic mode, as innocent women seduced by their male employers or treated cruelly by jealous mistresses. Every soap opera worth its name has a katulong character, either to provide comic relief or to act as confidante to the virtuous and weepy woman in the lead role. Commercials abound with maids, so that even Sharon Cuneta’s yaya, although not quite the megastar that her mistress is, has now also become a TV icon.

Popular culture reflects the reality that the yaya is a central figure in the Filipino home. As surrogate mother, reliable servant, and pillar of domestic harmony, she is indispensable. The yaya is a fixture not just in the mansions of the wealthy, but also in middle- and lower-middle-class homes where mothers work and so rely on yaya for child care. Indeed, the yaya represents one archetype of Filipina femininity: self-sacrificing, loyal, with lots of EQ, even if sometimes lacking in IQ.

The same factors that have forced women to find employment as yaya for decades are the same ones that compel millions of Filipinas today to go overseas to work. A 2004 Asian Development Bank study estimated that 65 percent of OFWs are women, most of them working in the service industry, providing various forms of nurturing and caregiving, whether as domestic helpers, nannies, chambermaids, nurses, hospital attendants, or even as entertainers and bar companions. The numbers are so high (200,000 Pinay maids in Hong Kong; 150,000 in Singapore; 100,000 in Taiwan; close to a million in the Gulf; and perhaps over half a million in Europe) that in many of these countries, the stereotype of the Filipina is that of a nanny.

Some years ago, when the Oxford English Dictionary listed among the many definitions of the word “Filipina,” one that said nanny or maid, Filipinos were in an uproar, accusing the venerable OED of casting a slur on the national dignity. The problem was that there was, everyone knew, an element of truth in what the OED had printed. That was why it hurt so much. With our collective ego already so bruised, to be called a nation of nannies was so psychologically devastating, the only way to salvage our dignity was to put up a fight to defend not so much the honor of nannies, but that of a psychologically battered nation.

BRUISED EGOS aside, a certain double standard appears to be at work. Filipinos raise a howl when a domestic helper is abused in Kuwait or Singapore, but the protests are muted when the abuse takes place in Makati or Alabang. Maids here are paid a pittance even in affluent homes and often work long hours and take no days off. Compare that to the US$500 a month with one day off a week that domestic helpers are guaranteed in Hong Kong. In Canada, caregivers are paid even more — from US$240 to $400 for each 44-hour workweek — and are entitled to two weeks paid vacation every year. Little wonder that trained Filipino teachers and nurses are only to willing to give tip relatively high-status, if poorly paid, careers here to work abroad as domestic helpers.

Commercials abound with maids, so that even Sharon Cuneta’s yaya, although not quite the megastar that her mistress is, has now also become a TV icon.

Apart from the financial rewards, work overseas can be liberating for many Filipinas who find themselves freed from the confines of unhappy marriages and demanding families where they as expected to be dutiful wives, mothers, or daughters. Overseas, on their own, they enjoy a certain autonomy and independence they could never have at home. Working abroad, despite the foreign culture and the harsh winters, can be an adventure: the stimulation and mind expansion that Filipinas experience, despite the drudgery of domestic labor, should certainly be factored in among the benefits of overseas work. There is also the rise in self-esteem and social status. Now their families’ main breadwinners, Filipinas overseas not only become more confident of themselves, but also start asserting their power in the family, vis-a-vis parents, husbands, and children. The shift in gender roles, with men staying behind to care for children, is also bringing about a power shift in the Filipino family.

But these changes are fraught with grief. Every mother forced to live apart from her children so she can feed, clothe, and school them while caring for the offspring of others knows the anguish of separation. These moms make up for their absence by showering their children with material things, to compensate for the motherly attention the kids do not get. Pinay mothers send back balikbayan boxes filled with everyday necessities like toothpaste, Spam, cooking oil, even Q-tips. It is as if they were still doing the groceries at home. They call, text, or email to keep up the virtual mothering. But the tears and the anxiety — on both sides of the ocean — are real.

Studies ranging from the technocratese-filled tomes churned out by multilateral institutions to the earnest research conducted by NGOs warn that overseas mothering gives rise to families who indulge in consumption funded by remittances. The result: a crippling dependency on overseas income.

That observation may also be true for the nation as a whole. As the ADB noted in a 2004 study: “Migration is also said to have been perpetuated a culture of dependence on remittances not only on the part of beneficiary families but also the sending country which may conveniently postpone needed structural reforms to put the macroeconomic house in order.” The study says that overseas money presents amoral hazard, as recipients may tend not to engage in economically productive work if assured of income from abroad.

In many families, the Ate (older sister), Tita (aunt), or Nanay (mama) who is abroad ends up carrying the financial burden for the entire clan. Afterall, from childhood, Filipinas are raised to be responsible and to take care of others. Ate helps out in the kitchen or in the laundry, while Kuya (older brother) and the other boys are out playing.

My own family, raised by a Kapampangan mother, was certainly like that. While I was made to watch the kare-kare simmer, my brothers never had to stand up from the dining table during meals, not even to fetch a pitcher of water, not even when they were already dying of thirst. While my mother, despite her Kapampangan genes, never insisted that I learn how to cook, it was expected that the girls run errands and help out with the household chores and the care of younger siblings. As for the boys, well, they were boys.

This sense of responsibility is so deeply ingrained that the Filipina’s measure of self-worth, as noted by sociologists and psychologists, often comes from how well she takes care of her husband, children, and indeed, the rest of the clan. Noted clinical psychologist Lourdes Arellano-Carandang says the Filipina is brought up to be tagasalo, literally the catcher, meaning the one who props up the others and ensures they do not fall. Every Filipina has an inner Ate or Nanay that compels her to take the responsibility for others. Filipino men, meanwhile, are perfectly comfortable in the role of nagpapasalo or the ones taken care of and propped up. Thus, the stereotype of the Filipina as a natural caregiver, having been taught since childhood to take care of others.

The combination of nature and nurture, together with the pull factor of an expanding global service industry and the push factors of a stagnant economy and constricting job opportunities at home, set the stage for large-scale Filipina migration for years to come. Writer Jessica Zafra says, tongue in cheek, that the Philippine strategy for world domination is to take over the kitchens and nurseries of the world.

There may be a kernel of truth in that. For isn’t it true that the hand that rocks the cradle also rules the world? In the 1980s, when Cory Aquino went on a state visit to Italy, her host, the prime minister, had one concern at the top of his mind: the passport woes of his Filipina maid. Princess Diana herself had a trusted Pinay maid, as do various other members of the global glitterati and political aristocracy. While the class and race divides in these instances are clear, the relationships between master/mistress and maid are complex. The rich and superbusy turn over the running of their domestic affairs to their household help, without whom, they are, well, helpless. Just look at the novels, films, and plays that probe the master-servant relationship. All of them reverse the power equation: in the end, they all reveal that the wiser, more humane, and indeed, more powerful characters are not the masters but their servants.

Ultimately, though, this only means that the Filipina is caregiver not only to millions of families abroad who cannot do without her but also to the families left behind here and to a motherless and rudderless nation that needs constant propping. Let’s face it, overseas migration has not only brought us money, it has bought us time. It is a safety valve. By providing an outlet for the frustrated aspirations of the poor and the middle class, it has snatched us from the jaws of class rebellion. We have the Yaya Sisterhood to thank — or to blame — for that.