Editor’s note: In this article, the author assigned pseudonyms to the household workers to protect them.
ROME (WOMENSENEWS)–Rome draws millions of tourists from around the world to gawk at its history and archeology. But for more than 100,000 Filipinas, the attraction of the Eternal City is a thriving domestic service industry. Here, and in many parts of Europe, the word “Filipina” has become synonymous with “maid.”
Now, organizations such as Babaylan, the Philippine Women’s Network in Europe, are working to secure fair labor practices and to end exploitation. Babaylan is the name given to Filipina priestesses in precolonial times.
From Oct. 18 to 20, Babaylan will hold its sixth conference since 1991. The countries sending representatives are Austria, Britain, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland–nations where Filipinas work. Babaylan is a network of more than 20 Filipina migrant organizations from nine European countries, and the conference aims to teach women the means to economic empowerment.
Malu Padilla, a former chairperson of Babaylan and among the organizers of this year’s conference, said it will be an opportunity for Filipinas to come together to formulate new strategies. “It makes a community where we find warmth, comfort, support and inspiration.”
Italy, like many countries in southern Europe, has turned to the Philippines for inexpensive labor–much of it female. Falling birth rates, a growing elderly population and lack of facilities for children and seniors have created a need for migrant labor. Service sector jobs, especially domestic work for women, are plentiful.
A Filipina can earn up to five times the amount she earned as an accountant in Manila if she works as a maid in Rome. So prevalent is the stereotype of the Filipina as a domestic that the Italian word for Filipina, “Filippine,” means “maid.”
But the phenomenon is not limited to Italy. In Greece, “eho Filipineza” (I have a Filipina) is understood to mean “I have a maid,” while in Hong Kong, “banmui” (Philippine girl) is also synonymous with “maid” or “servant.”
Migration helps balance the national budget of the Philippines. Migrant workers are required to send at least 50 percent of their salary back to the Philippines in remittances. Initiated by President Ferdinand Marcos in 1974 as an emergency measure to bring in foreign capital and solve underemployment, remittances sent in by migrants totaled $8 billion in 2000.
Many Are College Educated, but Consigned to Work as Domestics
Filipinas, many of whom are college-educated, seek work as domestics in cities such as Rome, where they are in demand. Many Filipinas joke that they are the “Mercedes Benz” of domestics. However, Filipinas tend to be excluded from other types of jobs as Italy itself has a high unemployment rate and strict language requirements.
Ana, a 31-year-old part-time domestic with four employers, has a degree in social work. Ana left the Philippines to work in Cyprus in the 1990s and began working in Rome as a domestic in 1994.
Despite the relatively high position Filipinas occupy compared to other domestics, their work is difficult. Many complain that they are only seen as machines. Days off for a live-in domestic are Thursday afternoons and Sundays and many are isolated from friends and relatives during the rest of the week.
Clara, 25, has worked as a live-in domestic in Rome since 1989. Clara cooks and cleans for a young Italian couple and cares for their two children. Each month she sends the majority of her earnings, about $500, to the Philippines. Clara has supported relatives through school and paid for the recovery of her ailing mother. But she has been unable to save enough to pay for her own education.
Clara has seen her self-esteem plummet. “We are treated well in Italy, but we cannot work in other jobs,” she said. “We cannot grow as a person. We do not have the freedom.”
Caritas di Roma, a Catholic social service agency that works with migrants, estimates that there are about 61,004 documented Filipinos in Italy, 40,477 of whom are Filipinas. However, this figure does not account for undocumented migrants. Officials at the Philippine Embassy in Rome, as well as various nongovernment workers, estimate the population to be closer to 150,000.
Although some Filipinas are single, many are wives and mothers enduring years of separation from their families. The long-term effects of migrating mothers are just beginning to be recognized.
Most Are Mothers Who Left Their Own Children Behind
In the documentary “The Care Chain,” produced by a Dutch organization, sociologist Rhacel Parrenas studied Filipina domestic workers and discovered that most of the women she interviewed were women working outside their home who hired other women to care for their children. Parrenas found that Filipina domestic workers make it possible for the women in postindustrial countries to succeed in their careers–at the expense of the Filipinas’ own families. Many have left their children behind and, even though Italy has family reunification laws, the task of bringing their spouses and children to Italy remains daunting.
Yet, Ana is optimistic that organizations like Babaylan are a sign that higher status and more economic freedom will soon come to the Filipina community. She is committed to changing the nature of Philippine migration.
“It’s a reality that we are here because of poverty, and that this is a forced migration,” Ana said. “Someday, I hope migration won’t be forced, but instead, be an option.”
Margarat Magat is a free-lance writer and a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is working on a dissertation on Filipina migrants in Italy. Her areas of interest include Asian cultural studies.
For more information, visit:
Babaylan, the Philippine Women’s Network in Europe:
Isis International Manila:
Kakammpi (Filipino migrant rights organization):
Philippine European Solidarity Centre: