How photography is empowering Pinoy HSWs in London

By Ryan Chua, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 18 2014 07:51 AM | Updated as of May 20 2014 12:35 AM

Filipino domestic workers in London attend a workshop on digital storytelling. Organizers say this is to empower them to tell their own stories and make a strong case for enacting policies that would protect their rights.

LONDON - When Cherilyn Labio worked for an employer who did not pay her a salary, gave her no days off, locked her up in the house whenever they were away, and did not allow her to communicate with her family in the Philippines, all she did was suffer in silence.

She managed to escape after three months, unable to tell her story to anyone until she found help from fellow domestic workers.

Now working for another employer, and with her application to stay in the UK pending at the Home Office, Labio is also busy learning new skills.

On Sunday, she joined other Filipino domestic workers in a workshop on digital photography.

Using point-and-shoot cameras, Labio and nine other participants were taught how to use the power of images to tell their own stories, especially if they are experiencing abuse.

“Maybe I can build self-confidence to be able to share my stories around the world,” she told ABS-CBN News. “Maybe if the government will know about the stories of domestic workers, I think they will wake up and make a step.”

The participants were sent out to the streets to take pictures of various subjects.

“Sometimes as domestic workers we cannot really express ourselves by voice. So through photographs, it can help me express myself,” said Ninfa Cabalida, a domestic worker.

Kanlungan-UK, a registered charity composed of six Filipino community groups and the activity’s organizer, is actively pushing for a policy that would allow migrant domestic workers to change employers while retaining their work visas, among other goals.

A policy implemented in 2012 tied migrant workers’ visas to their employers, which means they would automatically become undocumented if they leave. Pro-migrant campaigners are asking parliament to repeal this rule, saying it makes domestic workers vulnerable to abuse.

A draft modern slavery bill, which includes protection for migrant workers’ rights, is pending at the House of Commons.

Giving domestic workers new skills is a crucial part of Kanlungan’s campaign, according to Jamima Fagta Balageo, a project worker for the organization.

"We felt that digital storytelling, creative photography, or other aspects of our work would empower them so that they could voice out their issues,” she said. "We can use this as evidence that exploitation and abuse is still happening to migrant domestic workers."

Kate Watson, a filmmaker and photographer who facilitated Sunday’s activity, said learning photography is more than just a technical skill for migrant domestic workers.

"We’re not talking all about technique. It’s a lot to do with them feeling empowered and having a tool," she said. "It’s very important for them to communicate their personal experiences. I think it’s essential in the campaign, which is largely political but needs a human aspect to it."

In a statement, the Home Office said abuse of domestic workers from abroad is "unacceptable" and that current policies actually aim to prevent it.

"We believe the best way to prevent it is by testing the validity of the working relationship before a visa is issued," it said.

"Overseas domestic workers must have been employed for 12 months before a visa will be granted and must have a signed statement of terms of conditions of employment in line with National Minimum Wage legislation. They have access to protections under UK employment laws and are provided with a letter informing them of their rights in the UK and where to get help if needed."