Migrants’ Stories: Migration Made Me a Strong Woman

By Gina Escobar* (not her real name)

Posted at Jan 02 2013 01:49 AM | Updated as of Jan 02 2013 09:49 AM

Editors Note: The story is from the book “Migrants’ Stories, Migrants’ Voices 4" published by the Philippine Migrants Rights Watch (PMRW) with the support from CEI (Conferenza Episcopale Italiana) or the Italian Bishops' Conference. The book contains a collection of 10 stories of the realities of migration as faced by Filipinos abroad and their family members in the Philippines. abs-cbnNEWS.com obtained permission from PMRW to publish the stories online.

There were many reasons that led me to work overseas. First was the disappointment of not being able to make use of my academic knowledge.

After five long years of so-called “burning my eyebrows,” I could not find a decent job commensurate to my degree. Then, there was gender discrimination, and the requirement of a long experience in the field of study, which I did not have. After many years of working some odd - jobs in the country, I found it very unsubstantial for my family.

Then, there was the sad truth that my husband had an affair with another woman. It was late when I found out that he had another family.

These dilemmas pushed me to try applying for work overseas, hopeful to earn much more than I was getting here and to get away from the pain of losing my husband. Only my younger sister knew of my plans. It was my sister, to whom I entrusted my 2 daughters, aged five and two years old.

It took me almost four months applying for the post of a factory worker before I was finally hired: from the agency’s local interview, to the processing of pertinent documents like passport, NBI and police clearance, medical examination, trade test, and others. I almost spent the whole separation pay of my sister for all the fees and still needed to borrow more for the placement fee, amounting to PhP80,000 or almost US$2,000.

As the agency was collecting in advance such amount even before the working visa is processed, I was fortunate to have been selected in the 2nd batch of workers for Taiwan, as there were hundreds of applicants lined up in that single day of interview by the owner of an electronics company! My heart was almost torn into pieces for some girls who paid in full but were not selected. I found out that the money they gave to the agency was loaned by their parents. “Nagsangla kami ng lupa, nagbenta ng mga kalabaw,” they said. (We mortgaged our land, sold the carabaos).

Securing pertinent requirements from our government agencies was also disappointing as the process of application was unsystematic. To add to our woes, there were the unexpected and frequent brown- outs that delayed our business with them. We had no choice but to return the following day.

With regards to the Pre-departure orientation seminar (PDOS) conducted, I could not remember any significant topic discussed. All I can recall is the discussion on the requirements in applying for an automated teller machine (ATM) card both for the worker and for the family left behind, and the “house and lot” advertisement and how to avail of discounts.

Finally, when it was time for me to depart for Taiwan, the mother’s heart in me was torn into pieces. I could not bear to see my two little girls crying as I disengaged myself away from their embraces. As I was walking away from them, I could hear them crying. Yet, there was nothing I could do. I had to be strong and determined to go.

As the sound of the plane’s engine started to roar, my heart was pounding loud and hard. I felt as if my heart was about to burst because of the sadness I felt inside. But that feeling was disturbed when a companion of mine said “Ate, balik na tayo ng airport,” (Let us go back to the airport). I told him to shut up and calm down as the plane started to take off. I had to act strong and brave, as my companions all seemed a mess as well, leaving their families behind.

We reached the airport of Taipei, Taiwan and were herded off to the company dormitory. They gave us dinner, which consisted of an almost uncooked chicken with hot sauce, submerged in rice. We hardly ate the stuff! It was indeed a hard adjustment during the first months in a foreign land. We had to bathe with warm water, which is not common in the Philippines. We had to wear clothes which were not iron- pressed. And we had to learn how to appreciate noodles, as they are always present on the dining table.

My first month in Taiwan was really terrible because we were not briefed nor advised on what we had to do at work. We were just thrown in front of the machines, with a non-English speaking supervisor who was telling us how to operate the machine and what other things to do, in sign language!

Discrimination was indeed present everywhere in that factory. For instance, in our specific area, there were 3 Taiwanese ladies, 2 Indonesian girls, 5 male Thais, 4 Taiwanese male workers, 4 Filipino males and I was the only Filipina for the morning schedule. The Taiwanese workers would always give us extra work loads. When our supervisor found out about it later, the Taiwanese were slightly reprimanded.

The working hours at the factory are from 8am to 8pm. But often, we were asked to work until 12 midnight! That schedule went on for 6 months and we did not have any day off! But when I finished paying all my debts at home, I demanded for a Sunday day off which made the management raise their eyebrows.

Even though I was not yet aware of my rights as a migrant worker at that time, I insisted to be given a day off on Sundays. I discussed it daringly with my superiors and supervisors telling them that even machines need to be shut off or they shall explode from overheat. I was fortunate that they relented to my request, although some supervisors of other departments disagreed and even told me that I have to leave my faith in God in the Philippines and not to bring it to Taiwan.

Our house quarters were not fully ventilated because the air conditioned rooms were reserved for the Thai workers and for some Filipino-Chinese workers. This is not right so I confronted our supervisor. I told him, “How do you expect me to perform well at work if I could not sleep and rest well because of the dismal conditions of our rooms?” I demanded the keys to the air conditioned rooms, reserved for Thai workers.

Fortunately, my supervisor gave in, as he well understood the point I was trying to make. A few of my fellow Filipino women workers did not agree with me because they were afraid. “Baka kami pag- initan ng mga supervisors” (Our supervisors may get back at us). But when I got the key, they also followed and so we had a good room for the rest of the contract!

Working overseas not only demands of one to work in harmony with other races. The most difficult part is how to adjust to one another, especially to fellow Filipinos. Being supportive of each other is very necessary. One has to understand the weaknesses, as well as the strong points, of the other. From time to time, we need a shoulder to cry on, and ears to listen to our grief and homesickness. Thus, I suggested that we could gather at least once a week and do some activities together to unwind. We invited fellow Filipino workers in other departments and formed a group. We would often meet just to enjoy each other’s company by eating out at Kentucky Restaurant or at McDonald’s.

There, we would share stories, read our letters from our families in the Philippines, cry over one another’s burden or despairs, and listen to the word of God by reading the Bible. We also invited other migrant workers from Taichung and Kaoshiung to join us. The group grew big and later on, we were able to participate in Taichung’s events. We were invited to perform a pantomime dance-drama during the Chinese New year celebrations.

That did not come easy as we faced and experienced some opposition from the management. They thought we were gathering as union workers and I was told that I will be sent home if found guilty. But I told the supervisors that I am open to any investigation they would like to conduct. I even dared them to join us in one of our activities to which the nephew of the company owner obliged to join. He enjoyed the program as well!

One of the difficult moments I had in Taiwan was being told that one of my good friends in the factory, Amy, was to be sent home. It was almost 2:00 am and the broker was to fetch her so that she can pack her things. I gathered my nerves to pray and passed prayer request to other Filipino workers during our night shift schedule. The boys went to the toilet to pray, some occupied the corner of the laboratory rooms, while I found myself praying out loud in tears in front of my machine since I could not hide behind my laboratory gown with mask. My partner in the machine was a Taiwanese lady and she sensed my sobs, and asked me about it. I told her in half-Mandarin, half-English about my friend’s situation. I asked God for a miracle to use my new acquaintance, the nephew of the company owner to intervene so that my friend Amy will not be sent home. After 30 minutes, two Filipina ladies told me that nobody will be sent home at that moment because the company owner’s nephew came and asked that Amy be transferred to his department instead. It was as if my heart would blast in joy! I could hardly breathe for 30 minutes while crying and praying. God is indeed good!

There was another time, when some supervisors advised all Filipina workers in the factory not to befriend me nor greet me within the company premises. A couple of half-Chinese and half- Filipino workers wanted me to be sent home. They went and told my immediate superior, who was half Chinese and half-Australian, to review my performance and my overtime hours. They even branded me as an ineffective worker. As they passed by my working section, I said hello to them and to my surprise, they went off in haste after a short minute of discussion with my department heads. They were scolded and told to mind their own business. My supervisors know how hard I worked and how I made use of every minute of my overtime.

Even if I demanded a Sunday day off, I perform quality work and have good rapport with fellow workers. I show respect to my supervisors and friendship to people of other races, whether Asians or not.

But the most painful lesson I got from migration was being absent by the deathbed of my eldest daughter. She was only seven years old at that time. It happened when I was almost to finish my two-year contract!

When my co-workers found out about my situation, the whole production department mourned with me. While management was securing my ticket home, my supervisors assigned and paid a fellow Filipina worker to be with me the whole day, to console me and to cry with me! Workers from other departments, including the Filipinos, Taiwanese, Indonesians, and Thais, dropped by my room to express their sympathies. They consoled me with their words of comfort and these somehow eased the heaviness I had in my heart. The workers also contributed some amount to give me. This is not common to their practice and culture.

The loss of my child while working overseas opened so many pictures of life’s realities in me. But life must go on. I had to move on even if my marriage had been shattered and became worse after I lost my daughter as well. What a journey I had!

Honestly, I self- pitied and blamed myself for everything that happened. I was angry with myself but I struggled to overcome the pain. With God’s help, I managed to come out from a long period of incubation and made use of the small savings I had from overseas work.

Later on, I found myself involved with an NGO, enabling me to assist or extend help to some distressed Filipina workers working overseas. I can relate with their emotional trauma while working abroad and being away from their families, the source of their strength and joy amidst the hardship abroad. I understand their need to be aware of their rights, to know the culture of foreign lands in order to equip oneself as an overseas worker.

Later on, I realized that I have become a strong woman. I also found myself employed in a soap/ detergent manufacturing company, and finally making use of the degree I acquired from the university in my golden age. I can truly say that when it rains, it pours!

My message to those aspiring to work overseas is contemplate deeper on your decision and to equip yourself with the necessary tools, not only with the education and trainings that you mastered at the centers. One has to be emotionally matured, spiritually filled-up, and technically equipped!

And one has to learn the value of saving! You will not be forever working overseas. You have to be wise enough with every dollar you earn. If only our present government can provide us with good paying jobs, then there would be no need to go overseas for work as there is so much to nourish and enjoy here in our own country where our families are. As the Department of Tourism slogan says, it is more fun in the Philippines!

To the families left behind, kindly do the favor of being supportive to any member of your family working overseas. Value every single peso sent, make yourselves present in different ways by communicating with them. Simple greetings of hi and hello can mean so much to them. Stay loyal and united for one another and for mothers, please stay with your children. Life is short and precious and you are whom your children need most.

I suppose that there is no greater legacy you can give to your children but for them to inherit your uncompromising dignity.