The posthumous publication of Pulitzer Prize-winning Filipino-American journalist Alex Tizon’s “My Family’s Slave” has provoked much discussion and some controversy. Many readers were moved by the plight of Lola Eudocia Tomas Pulido, who was eighteen years old in 1943 when the author’s grandfather “gave” her to the author’s mother as a “gift” and who worked for the author’s family for fifty-six years.
Tizon provided harrowing details of how Lola Eudocia was subject to frequent scolding, forced to work long hours well beyond physical exhaustion and sleep amid piles of laundry, beaten in place of the author’s mother when the author’s mother misbehaved, promised but never actually given an “allowance.”
The essay also recounted Tizon’s own efforts to make amends: standing up to his mother in defense of Lola Eudocia; bringing Lola to live with him in her old age and helping her obtain U.S. citizenship; giving Lola $200 a week to send to relatives, and later paying her airfare to visit relatives back in the Philippines; taking her on family vacations; and bringing her ashes back to her birthplace.
The internet being what it is, Tizon’s article has generated its share of commentaries both thoughtful and thoughtless, knee-jerk and nuanced. While some were quick to condemn Tizon for not doing enough, and sooner, to redress fifty years of suffering and exploitation (a point that should get one thinking in turn of how long the United States and its people have taken, and are still taking, to redress the trauma and long-term immeasurable human cost of slavery), a number of commentators have called for better historical and cultural understanding of slavery and the utusan/kasambahay/katulong system in the Philippines that made such suffering and exploitation possible in the first place.
The conversation has not been confined to one among Americans (including, of course, Filipino Americans, many of whom have learned about the situations of “maids” from their grand/parents or from their own visits to the Philippines), but has reached across the Pacific and the world to encompass middle- and upper-class Filipinos living in the Philippines and other parts of the world.
I say “middle- and upper-class Filipinos” because, so far, we have yet to see mainstream media solicit and present the reactions and opinions of actual katulong/kasambahay back home. In the case of Overseas Filipino Workers (numbering some 2.4 million in 2015, 51% of them female, and more than half of female workers being classified as “laborers and unskilled workers,” a category that includes domestic helpers [more about “unskilled” later]), it is also difficult to track the discussion among them because: 1) they are not likely to have the time to browse, let alone post comments in, English-language media; and 2) the internet discussion has been mainly in English (and there is no translation of the article into Filipino and other Philippine languages).
In short, it’s important to ask who is part of this discussion and who is not.
Moreover, reading through the comments, one can’t help wondering at what is missing or, more important, what is silenced or erased when people—particularly those who identify as Filipino by nationality or by heritage—attempt to explain the context of slavery and the utusan system in the Philippines.
The most obvious context here is that household work in general is devalued and for that reason poorly remunerated. Economists do not factor unpaid “household production” or “own-production”—the work done by and within a family for its own use (cooking, cleaning, child care, etc.)—in their statistics. There are now calls among some economists to come up with a way to measure household production, but the challenges of measuring the “quality” of such production remain.
In the Philippines, the labor (both muscle and emotion) needed for household production is sub-contracted by families (including some poor ones) to their katulong. Even when paid housework is included in national statistics (a country’s GDP, for instance), it is still viewed as “unimportant” and classified as “unskilled,” as though the quality of caring for home and children (the future generation, the human resources) doesn’t count for much.
Then there is the oft-repeated remark that since Eudocia Pulido was called “Lola” (Filipino term for grandmother), this meant that she was considered “part of the family.” This so-called explanation is actually a non-explanation, since it says nothing about the exploitation that happens within families. The cultural practice among Filipinos of calling their kasambahay “lola” in no way mitigates, let alone justifies, the exploitation of Lola Eudocia. Generations of feminists have detailed the abuse and exploitation that can be found in the most intimate, private sphere of the family, in the relationships between spouses, between parents and children, between heads of households and dependents.
In a posthumously published commentary called “Strange Hierarchies” (Philippine Studies: Historiographical and Ethnographic Viewpoints vol. 64, issue 1, 2016), the scholar Benedict Anderson argued that “maids are an interesting site to study the cross-effects of class inequality and intra-gender inequality.” He trenchantly observed that Southeast Asian middle-class children often “learn the ropes” of inequality from—and practice being “unequalizers” on—their own “yayas” (a Binisaya term that originally means “aunt” but is now synonymous with kasambahay who care for children).
In his comments, Vince Rafael rightly points out that Filipino “slavery” has its own specific history and system of social arrangements and relations. (Slavery in different forms, as well as other forms of indentured, conscripted, and unremunerated labor, exist in many regions of the world across centuries.) Rafael examines how the concepts of mutuality, reciprocity, utang na loob (a concept more complex than simple “debt of gratitude”), awa (pity), and hiya (shame) underpin the historical system of slavery in the Philippines, and inform present-day relations between katulong and their so-called “amo.”
The thing about these so-called “Filipino values” is that they work in a double-edged way: as much as they are often the only means by which the oppressed are able to assert their agency and human dignity against their oppressors (as Vince eloquently shows), the language of reciprocity has also functioned historically to mask and enable the power dynamics of inequality and subordination.
In fact, one of the thorny issues in the agrarian and tenancy disputes of the past century in the Philippines has been tenants and sharecroppers’ resentment of the way the landlords, who already benefit from a rigged system that keeps their tenants and workers perpetually indebted to them, still expect or demand personal services from them–services ranging from cutting firewood to repairing houses and, worse, offering their children as household servants–for free.
This is why the issue of wages has been an important component of the political struggles of workers around the world, as wages set some limits on how much mutual obligations people—particularly those in power vis-à-vis the powerless—can exact from each other.
Another running thread of the internet commentary on the Tizon article is the unconscious paternalism exhibited by some commentators who claim that one is doing a good thing–the right thing, even a favor–by giving the poor food and shelter in exchange for having them do house work for very little pay, or no pay. The middle classes, behaving just like the landlords (and, if you want to think farther afield, slave-owners and colonizers), like to invoke this brand of self-congratulatory paternalism when they say that they “take care” of their servants even as they relentlessly exploit them.
There are, it must be said, examples of good employers who do their best to ensure the welfare of their servants. But a comment such as this one–“i feel like many filipinos don’t have so much so i wouldn’t be surprised if some took people in as help…even when they weren’t paid, feels like a way for them to take care of each other”—does not help clarify things. Its vague talk of mutual help runs the danger of shading off into the patronizing rhetoric of hiring-maids-as-a-favor-to-the poor, because both beg the question of who is making more use of whom. After all, the cost of providing food and shelter is far less than having someone be at one’s beck and call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Just for comparison, let’s look at contemporary Japan, where servants were commonplace until the end of World War II. Nowadays, the cost of hiring a professional nanny to take care of one’s child is about 2000 Japanese yen an hour, plus transport and other expenses. If you multiply this by eight hours, that’s already 16,000 yen for one day’s work–and the nanny cannot be asked to do any other housework (for cleaning, you have to ask another company to provide that labor, and you’ll also be charged per hour). A stay-in nanny who works eight hours a day, seven days a week for a month will cost you 480,000 yen. Compare this to the median family income in Japan, which is about seven million yen a year, or around 583,000 yen a month. Which is to say that Japanese middle-classes cannot afford live-in nannies or even hourly-pay nannies. Companies like Duskin are hiring Filipino workers and paying them the equivalent of USD 1500 or 66,000 pesos a month to do house-cleaning for Duskin clients. Their pay is roughly comparable to the minimum hourly wages in Japan. (Compare this to the 2500 Philippine pesos that the Kasambahay Law mandates for domestic helpers in Metro Manila as against 9000 pesos per month for non-agricultural labor in the National Capital Region.)
The “culture” of the utusan system is deeply connected to politics, economics, and institutions. Alex Tizon is right to use the term “slave” because, in the twentieth century, if someone doesn’t get paid for doing work that she ought to get paid for (regardless of whether she consents to an unpaid arrangement or not), then she is a slave by our twentieth-century definition. It is possible to speak of a wife, a widow, a sister, a grandmother, an aunt, or a daughter (and their male counterparts) as working like a slave, even when the work they do is considered part of their “familial” obligation.
The point is that we are no longer talking about sixteenth-century or even nineteenth-century slavery. The national liberation struggles, the abolitionist and Civil Rights movements, the workers’ movements, the feminist and other social and political movements from all over the world since then have helped create a world where what happened to Lola Eudocia and the oppression of so many other people all over the world can no longer be condoned, and what is needed is not just understanding and individual initiatives to redress the situation–laudable as Alex Tizon’s efforts to make amends to Lola Eudocia had been–but larger systemic and structural changes such as better enforcement of laws and regulations and better protection of the vulnerable and the poor.
What exactly are the politics and economics of the utusan question and why is the utusan system so pernicous and long-lasting, despite the progress in our political and social values? What are the specific problems and challenges that we middle-class Filipinos need to grapple with?
If it is a question of housework, most Filipino middle-class families can save up for a washing machine, and assign the chores of cooking and cleaning among themselves (husbands and children included, not exempted). But the factors that account for the persistence and longevity of the maid system are deeply political and economic, and involve a series of institutional problems. Here are just a few of them:
- the erosion of the standards of the Philippine public school system: as recent as the postwar era, the public school was of sufficient high quality that people were proud to go to public school. The great historian Resil Mojares, for example, talks about his pride in being a public school student (as opposed to private school) in one of his essays in House of Memory. Washington Sycip and Kerima Polotan, two prominent Filipinos, went to public schools. The point about public schools is that they would have been within walking distance of the houses in a district. But the erosion through inadequate funding and bureaucratic corruption of the public school system has given rise to the middle-class preference to send their children to private schools, and because private schools are often located at a distance from their homes, they have to rely on maids to ferry their kids to and from school, or keep house for them as they ferry their own children back and forth.
- concerns (real and imagined) about law and order: while most children of working-class families have no choice but to walk or commute to school by themselves, most middle-class parents worry about the safety of their kids, fearing that the kids will be robbed, molested, or kidnapped. Some middle-class children are so coddled by their parents that they have never taken a bus or a jeepney in their lives. (We haven’t begun talking about how cocooning children from the world outside their airconditioned car windows and middle-class homes engenders a narrow, blinkered view of that world.)
- the repeated failures of industrial policy: had the country’s elites been able to formulate and implement better industrial policies, the employment opportunities that would have opened up for women in factories, offices, and other better-paid workplaces would have encouraged more women to take jobs other than household service. Middle-class families often worry about the precariousness of their finances because they know the wages they themselves earn are not enough for them to pay their DHs well.
- the lack of support system for childcare: there are kindergartens, but only for those who can afford them, and there are not many government-subsidized and employer-provided childcare facilities that will allow working mothers to entrust their small children to adequately compensated, professional caregivers.
- the failure of imagination and mindset: while there are enlightened men who are willing to share the housework with their spouses, the onus is still on the women to do the bulk of the housework. Worse, because the middle- and upper-classes are already so dependent on their maids, they tend to breed in their own children a similar “señorito/a” complex that views housework as something only maids–other people–do. This kind of mentality explains the cluelessness of those who, having gone abroad or migrated to First World countries, complain about having to do the housework themselves and wax nostalgic about having katulong back home to make their beds for them (as Anderson mentioned in his essay). It also explains the annoying predilection of middle- and upper-class matrons to complain about the “laziness,” “slowness,” “untrainability,” and “untrustworthiness” of their maids (an NHK documentary shown in Japan actually recorded one such conversation involving one of the Philippines’ elite families–had this documentary been shown in the Philippines, it would have ignited a firestorm of controversy). If the work done by the maids are not up to the standards of the matrons, why don’t the matrons do the housework themselves?
What “My Family’s Slave” has done is to bring up a subject that is often left unsaid and left unthought and unexamined, a subject that, far from being just a problem of Philippine poverty and corruption and lack of state capacity “out there”, implicates all of us who have ever had yayas bring us up and keep house for us. We have to render ourselves accountable for–and live with the guilt and consequences of–all the things we have allowed to happen and all the things we could and should have done but failed, for whatever reason, to do.