Cleaning, cooking, and a touch of homeTo call it Little Manila might be a stretch, but on a Sunday afternoon at northern Seoul’s Hyehwa-dong rotary, the language of choice is Tagalog, the vernacular of the Philippines.
Stay here all Sunday and you’d see a fair number of the several thousand Filipina “domestic helpers” in Korea enjoying their day off. It is perhaps the only place in the country where you’ll find a street stall offering steaming bowls of palabok and phone cards offering cut rates to Cebu. And where else to pick up the latest Sharon Cuneta CD?
The rotary takes a breather when the doors of the Catholic church close for the 1:30 p.m. Tagalog service, but when the service lets out at 3:15 p.m., the rotary is awash in Filipinas again.
Smaller meetings take place every day down the road at the Filipino Catholic Community Center, which serves as a support center and shelter for the 42,000-strong Filipino community in Korea.
Between acting as unofficial labor attache and advocate here, Father Glenn Jaron somehow manages to offer daily Mass and more.
On a recent Wednesday evening, Father Glenn and about 25 Filipinos were crowded in a room above a makeshift chapel. Two birthdays offer an excuse for celebration, and the room is full of food, laughter, the strumming of a guitar and singing.
Among the people in the room, you’ll find a few housekeepers, women who might by day be scrubbing floors in posh Seongbuk-dong houses or changing the diapers of foreign and Korean children alike.
When you see them like this, lit up in the glow of their own community, it is hard to believe that some of these women have not seen their own children for years.
Liddy (many of the names in this story have been changed), 48, is like a big sister to many Filipinas here. She has been in Korea since 1991. A former factory worker, she now works for a foreign diplomat, the only people the government allows to employ non-Korean domestic helpers ― at least legally.
“Coming here as a tourist was very easy then,” she says. It’s a very common way for any illegal immigrant to enter Korea.
She paid 1 million won ($870) to an agent who arranged her visa application and employment, and ended up working illegally at a T-shirt factory in Jamsil in southern Seoul.
Of the factory’s 80 or so workers, about 45 were Filipinos. In a familiar scenario,Liddy left her two children behind with her niece in the Phillipines. Her husband disappeared decades ago.
“Migration is not a solution for poverty,” she says. “When your children are hungry, you need to find a way to feed them. Our choice was to leave our children, to go out of our country.”
With the economy having deteriorated for some years, there are few new jobs available at home, especially for middle-aged women like her, Liddy says.
After she became more established, Liddy arranged for family members to work legally in Korea, including three sisters who work as housekeepers and two brothers who work in factories.
Gilda, 40, arrived in Korea in 1995. She works eight hours a day Monday to Friday as a housekeeper. Since her employer is a foreign businessperson, and not a diplomat, she is illegal. She is now paid 800,000 won ($690) per month, most of which she sends home to support her children and husband, who returned to the Philippines last year after six years at an embroidery factory.
Leah, 33, has been living in Korea for four years and now works for a Korean household six days a week. She lives with her husband, a factory worker, and her first child was born here. In a few months, she will give birth for the second time in Korea.
Before finding her current job, she looked after foreign children at a five-star hotel and worked at a leather-processing factory.
Compared with other countries, pay scales for Filipino housekeepers in Korea are attractive. When Leah worked in Saudi Arabia and Taiwan as a housekeeper, she was paid $200 to $360. During her three-year stay in Saudi Arabia, she was allowed outside only when accompanied by her employer. In the expat enclaves of Hong Kong and Singapore, Filipino housekeepers typically earn $400 to $600 a month.
Working conditions in Korea differ according to legal status and duties. Marisa, a 35-year-old housekeeper, was brought to Korea by her employer, a foreign diplomat. She is required to work eight hours a day, from Monday to Friday, and is provided with medical insurance and an annual one-month vacation as well as a round-trip plane ticket to Cebu, her hometown.
Wages also vary according to the size of the household and ability to cook. Marisa, and Carla, 39, another Filipino maid, are paid much more than most of their peers (1.5 million won a month) because they cook for their employers. They have also received raises every year.
Leah said her Korean employer, a doctor of oriental medicine, paid a 10 million won deposit to help her and her husband rent a room. She was hired so that the doctor’s children could learn English.
“The life of housekeepers is better than that of factory workers,” says Father Glenn. “They enjoy their work. Their employers can communicate with them and are usually very nice.”
Reydeluz Conferido, labor attache at the Philippine Embassy, concurs. “We have a help line set up to take in complaints and offer support to Filipino workers here, but we receive very few calls from domestic helpers.”
Filipina housekeepers usually head to their church, rather than their embassy, when they have a problem. Two years ago a housekeeper working for a Korean family complained to Father Glenn that her employer had hit her in the face with a rice scoop. She’s now working at a factory.
A more recent incident involved a foreign diplomat. “He got drunk and beat his housekeeper,” says Father Glenn, declining to identify the diplomat or his nationality. She was later transferred to the foreign diplomat’s embassy to work there.
One live-in housekeeper left her job with a foreign businessman because she was sexually harassed. Her church found her somewhere to stay until she could find a new employer.
Fortunately, such abuses (or at least the reporting of them) seem to be the exception in Korea, making it appear one of the better places in the region to work if you’re a maid.
Sparked by the number of high-profile maid abuse cases in Asia (such as the burning and beating of Indonesian Nirmala Bonat by her Malaysian employer), there is an increasing focus on the trafficking of women from poor Asian countries, including maids, and to the exploitation and abuse housekeepers sometimes encounter in middle-class Asian households.
Although Korea has sizeable communities of other migrant workers ― with 31,818 industrial trainees in 2002, most of them from South and Southeast Asia, according to the immigration office ― Filipinos are generally seen to be better off than those from other countries because they are well organized and have a number of support channels.
One Filipina, virtually under house arrest as a nanny at an ambassador’s residence here, fled within a few months of starting work, but quickly found a job and housing within the Filipina network. Her other Asian colleagues, though just as miserable, stayed through their contracts because they felt they did not have anywhere to go.
There are many reasons why Filipino workers are spread across the globe, not the least of which, as one foreign businessman puts it, “they are cursed by their English-language ability.” (Filipinos are taught English from primary school.)
Despite their proficiency in English, the Korean language presents an initial problem. “In supermarkets, I ask, ‘What is this?’ they only say ‘Mola (I don’t know),’” Carla says.
“When I’m running out of something in my house, I take the package with me to the supermarket and point at it so I can explain what I want,” adds Marisa.
Aside from having to get used to freezing winters, new arrivals also struggle to get used to Korean food.
“The first time I came here, I ate boiled bean sprouts in a soup one day for my lunch,” says Liddy, recalling her hardships in the early 1990s. “I cried and cried.”
She said her life in the Philippines was difficult, but even there she never had to eat such food. “For me, to see bean sprouts boiled was just strange.”
Such difficulties aside, most Filipino housekeepers here appear to appreciate Korea.
“I like it here,” says Marisa. “I have a lot of fun. I have found a lot of friends, and they are my family. I love my job, and I am not ashamed of being a housekeeper. That’s my blessing.” She dines with the family that employs her, she said.
Many migrants want to stay in Korea as long as possible, Liddy says. “They are happy in Korea. I feel that they don’t want to go back to the Philippines,” she says.
Sponsored positions, such as diplomat-backed visas, are the most coveted among housekeepers because while they often pay less than the “illegal” jobs, sponsored workers can travel back and forth between Korea and the Philippines.
For foreigners, the inability of regular businessmen to legally hire or bring their existing Filipina housekeepers is an ongoing gripe.
“It’s ridiculous,” says a British senior manager of a multinational here. “To get someone to look after our children who speaks English, we have to break the law. How can Korea ever be the Asian ‘hub’ of business if they don’t make it easier for foreigners to live here?”
Despite the illegal status of many Filipino housekeepers, they do not appear to be a target by immigration officials. It’s a different story for illegal factory workers.
“There was a crackdown once at the factory where I used to work,” says Liddy. “The president of the company said to us, ‘You go and hide.’ We all went up to the top floor of the building and Koreans covered us with fabrics.” Three workers who hid in the basement were caught and sent back to the Philippines.
In the past 10 years, Liddy says, Korean attitudes toward migrant workers have improved. “Some employers have changed a lot. They came to learn how to handle migrant workers,” she says. “Maybe because they know there is a community like this in Hyehwa-dong, and we also actively offer solutions to the problems.”
On an official level, Labor Attache Conferido and his precedessors have been working to improve the conditions of Filipino workers, and to avoid the exploitation and trafficking of foreign workers here by initiating a major campaign to stop the easy issue of E-6 “entertainer” visas, which are often used to bring in women who work as prostitutes.
Although his office lobbies for the human rights of undocumented workers, Mr. Conferido says he supports the Korean government’s recent initiatives to tighten up the controls, because, as he puts it, “it’s the illegal workers who are most likely to be violated.”
Mr. Conferido says the Korean government has realized that it needs foreign workers, not just trainees, and that this is central to its new employment permit system. He applauds the changes, saying that Korea’s new laws on migrant workers are among “the most progressive anywhere in the world.”
Stricter controls, are “good for everybody” he says, and the new rules “will ensure that foreign workers are given the same rights as Korean workers.”
Last summer, however, when the first phase of the new work permit system went into effect, mandating that all migrant workers who had stayed over four years leave the country, not all long-time Filipino residents would have agreed.
“It was very sad,” Liddy says. “The people who had stayed longer should have been given priority. They’ve helped the Korean economy.” Of course, many just refused to turn themselves in to authorities.
One such woman is 35-year-old Jackie, who’s been living and working in Korea illegally since 1996, when she left her job as a factory trainee because of the heavy physical labor involved.
“I didn’t want to turn myself in [last August], because I didn’t know if I could come back,” she said.
Now she’s working seven days a week to earn as much money as she can before she returns to the Philippines. She makes 1 million won a month working as a nanny for a foreign couple during the week, and sells phone cards in Hyewha-dong on weekends.
Before she came to Korea, she was making the equivalent of $100 a month as an office secretary, even with a bachelor’s degree in biology.
Jackie has an infectious laugh and a wide grin, but she is almost unrecognizably somber in the photo she carries around in her wallet. It is a picture of Jackie with her now 3-year-old son, Ben, taken when he was 11 months old, the day before a friend flew him back to live with Jackie’s parents in the Philippines. She hasn’t seen him since, but talks to him on the phone every night.
Ben doesn’t think it’s strange to have his mother living in a foreign country; it is all he has ever known.
Jackie says she was crying constantly in the months after she sent her son away, but finally managed to stop, she says, when she reminded herself why she was doing this.
“It’s hard now,” she says, “but I am sure it will give him a better future.”
Best & worst from maids
Some 28 domestic helpers at the Filipino Community Center in Seongbuk-dong responded to a written questionnaire asking about the best and worst parts of their jobs and to rate their employers by nationality and job category.
The survey was not a representative sample, but it does give some clue as to Filipino housekeepers’ working conditions.
The most popular employers are Americans and Canadians (earning the highest percentage of “very good” ratings and nothing worse than “OK”), followed by Australians and New Zealanders. With Europeans, it depends on the individual, rather than the nation. The same goes for other Asians.
The worst-rated employers are those from the Middle East (the six respondents rated them in the “not good” and “terrible” categories) and Koreans. Although they earned even more negative ticks (9 of 20) than the Middle East, Koreans also had a fair number of “very goods” (4) and “OKs” (7).
Diplomats emerged the clear winners in the job category, steaming ahead of foreign and Korean businessmen with 18 respondents.
The vast majority of respondents reported satisfaction with their job conditions.
There were few reports of abuse, but a surprising consistency in what emerged, quite literally, as pet peeves. Some specified a dislike of cats and dogs (3), with one impartial to “all kinds of animals.”
By Jennifer Nicholson-Breen
by Limb Jae-un
Jennifer Nicholson-Breen contributed to this article.