HONG KONG—Carmen Flores arranged a spread of packed Filipino viands on a marble bench in Central district’s Chater Garden.
It’s an area where hundreds of Filipino domestic workers lounge beneath shaded walkways on Sundays. They’d rather be there instead of trooping to the Philippine consular office to register as overseas voters for the upcoming midterm polls.
Flores, 64, has been working here as a house helper for nearly 3 decades. She has never bothered to cast a ballot, saying her weekend business selling home-cooked meals to Sunday picnickers is more important than exercising her right to suffrage.
Participating in overseas absentee voting will take an entire day, which means losing potential income, Flores told ABS-CBN News.
“Nakakahinayang ‘yung kita mo dito sa isang araw. Kapag na-miss mo, wala na,” she said.
(If you miss a day’s earnings here, you’ll never get that opportunity back. I don’t want to lose that.)
Flores’ makeshift eatery earns about 200 Hong Kong dollars (about P1,500) on a slow Sunday and as much as HKD700 (about P4,700) on a good weekend.
Of that business, she can take home between HKD 800 (about P5,300) and HKD 2,800 (about P18,500) in a month. That’s on top of a monthly income worth HKD 5,000 (P33,000) as a domestic helper.
“Pandagdag din ‘yun sa padala (You can add that to your remittance),” she said.
‘WE NEED MORE OF YOU TO VOTE’
Flores is one of the 1.1 million Filipino migrant workers who do not bother to participate in elections.
Of the 2.4 million OFWs around the world in 2015, only 1.37 million registered as overseas absentee voters for the 2016 presidential elections, data gathered by the ABS-CBN Investigative & Research Group from the Comelec’s Office for Overseas Voting showed.
Less than a third of that 1.37 million registered voters (434,347) actually participated in the last national polls, data showed.
The last midterm elections in 2013 recorded poorer numbers with only 115,318 out of nearly 800,000 registered absentee voters lodging their ballots.
The Department of Foreign Affairs has been urging OFWs to “go out and vote” in this year’s OAV, which will run from April 13 to May 13.
‘“We need more of you to vote,” Foreign Affairs Sec. Teodoro “Teddy” Locsin Jr. said in a 30-second video, aired on primetime television and uploaded on several online platforms a week before the OAV.
“The aim of overseas voting is to return electoral power to those who give their sweat and tears for the security of their families and the progress of our nation.
“Go out and vote. It is your right. It is your chance. It is for our country.”
Filipino migrant workers usually register for remote voting to fulfill “a sense of duty and a sense of obligation,” but factors such as ease of access, cost and occupation hinder them from actually casting ballots, said Michael Henry Yusingco, Ateneo Policy Center Senior Research Fellow.
“Registering as an overseas voter is a sense of duty and a sense of obligation, but obviously the matter of going out and really casting your votes, that will be a different case altogether.
“If you live 2 to 3 hours away from the consulate and you are required to go there to cast your vote, that could be prohibitive lalo na kung maulan or mainit masyado o ma-snow.”
In some countries, restrictive labor contracts or employers are also barriers to exercising the right to suffrage, said Susan Ople, president of Blas F. Ople Policy Center and Training Institute.
“Madali kasi mag-register kasi bago ka umalis ng bansa, you can actually already register, but once you are there (foreign country), you need to get the permission of your employer to go to the embassy kasi you can only vote within the embassy premises,” Ople said.
(It is easy to register because you can do it before you leave the country.)
“In the more vulnerable categories like a domestic worker, ’yun ngang mabigyan ka ng day off pahirapan na, what more if you ask to go to the embassy to vote? Baka isipin ng employer baka hindi iyon (voting) ang dahilan, baka magsusumbong ka lang.”
(In the more vulnerable categories like a domestic worker, asking for days off is more difficult, what more if you ask to go to the embassy to vote? Your employer might think you’re just using voting as an excuse to go to the embassy to report them.)
Filipino professionals and business owners based in democratic areas such as Hong Kong raise funds to bring more overseas absentee voters to polling centers, said Gilbert Legazpi, former chairman of the Philippine Association of Hong Kong.
The pooled sum is used to rent a bus that would chauffeur Filipino voters to and from the polling center in the upscale area of Kennedy Town, located in the western part of Hong Kong Island.
The bus would make 6 roundtrips from the Bayanihan Center to several pick-up points across Hong Kong every Sunday covered by the OAV, Legazpi said.
“The bus can only handle 70 to 80 people [per trip]. It’s not a big impact but it’s an effort to increase the voting turnout,” he said.
Despite these efforts, less than half of the 93,981 Filipino absentee voters in Hong Kong participated in the 2016 national elections, data showed.
“Siguro may ibang tao didn’t see any need [to vote]. It’s been a trend,” Legazpi said.
Flores, who has been toiling here for her children and grandchildren since 1996, said even she would rather spend her Sundays for herself.
“Ang Sundays dito, para na sa sarili,” she said, as she watched a Facebook video on her smartphone while waiting for her regular customers who crave the weekly sinigang and menudo she sells.
“Kahit bumoto ako o hindi, isa lang naman yung majority na lumalabas na boto. Matatangay ka na lang dun.”
(Whether I vote or not, it’s the majority that will prevail. You’ll have to go with what the majority says.)