Feliza Guy Benitez, 58, first came to Hong Kong in 1993 as a domestic worker. She was to be paid a monthly salary at 3,200 Hong Kong dollars ($413). She thought a contract of two years would be enough to help her family back home. But the family faced a series of financial problems, coaxing her to sign a new contract after another.
“I didn’t plan to stay here longer,” says Feliza Guy Benitez, 58, pushing a stroller in Kowloon with the one-year-old daughter of her fifth employer. Sturdy but short, the stroller’s handles come up to her chest.
Over 22 years, her salary has increased a total of HK$810, from HK$3,200 to HK$4,110 this year.
“Almost all of my salary went to my family,” she recalls, citing the hospitalization of her mother, who died in 2005. “When my mother died, I had no choice but to re-loan because I needed a huge amount for all the expenses.”
Then her grieving father’s health worsened, leading to another round of expenses for medication and a caregiver, until he finally died in 2011.
After supporting her family during their trying times, Benitez can now start saving up for herself. But she has to renew her contract one last time to access the state pension.
Benitez was among 105,410 Filipino domestic workers that arrived here in 1993, as recorded by the Hong Kong Immigration Department. In 2012, their population stood at nearly 156,000, about 98 percent of them women, according to the Mission for Migrant Workers.
Before they can leave the Philippines, overseas Filipino workers had to pay up to Php150,000 ($3,400) in fees imposed by the government and recruitment agencies, says Dolores Balladarez-Pelaez, chairwoman of the United Filipinos in Hong Kong (UNIFIL).
Some 200 Filipino domestic workers, representing at least 100 organizations, called for “unnecessary” state-imposed fees to be eliminated, at a national consultation held here on March 29. The meeting was organized by the UNIFIL and the alliance of Filipino migrant workers, Migrante Hong Kong chapter.
Different government agencies earn a total of about Php21 billion (or more than $470 million) a year from the 5,500 Filipinos who leave the country each day to work overseas, notes Balladarez-Pelaez.
Fees are paid for police clearances, the National Bureau of Investigation, electronic passports, membership with the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), a terminal fee, Philippine Health Insurance, pre-departure orientation seminar (PDOS), Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA), and Home Development Mutual Fund or Pag-IBIG Fund, among other things.
While in Hong Kong, Filipino domestic workers face more fees, such as annual renewal of the OWWA membership, contract authentication and verification, and overseas employment certificate.
Workers want the Philippine government to offer lifetime membership with the OWWA, to scrap the POEA processing fee, and to relax PDOS rules. They also want to remove the mandatory insurance, as the Hong Kong government already requires employers to pay insurance for their domestic workers.
To give strength to their demands, the meeting participants established the Network of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) Opposed to Excessive Government Fees, or NO FEE.
It is a revival of the Coalition Against Government Exaction (CAGE) in 1998, which was able to end some state fees through series of protest actions, says Eman Villanueva, secretary general of UNIFIL-Migrante Hong Kong.
CAGE was successful in its campaigns, Villanueva recalls, to reduce the passport fee from HK$510 to HK$435 and the processing fee from HK$500 to HK$87; to open the Philippine Consulate General office on Sundays; and to lighten the OWWA fee regulations. The coalition was also able to require officials, staff and personnel to wear identification cards at work, he added.
Currently the chairwoman of Filipino Migrant Workers Union, Benitez has taken an active part in campaigns of OFWs in Hong Kong throughout her years here.
Had her salaries been higher, she would not be signing more contracts before she could actually save money for herself, she says.
Hong Kong has more than 360,000 domestic workers, representing 15 percent of the city’s women workforce, according to MFMW.
They are also drivers of the economy, Villanueva says, but they have been excluded from society.
Each foreign domestic worker has two years of employment under the standard contract established by the Immigration Department in 1974, providing also a minimum wage for all domestic workers.
Their minimum allowable wage, which was set by the Hong Kong government to exclude foreign domestic workers from the statutory minimum wage, was lowered in both 1999 and 2003 due to the decline of the city’s economy.
“As the economy recovered throughout the 2000’s, increases in the MAW did not correspond with this new prosperity,” the MFMW, along with Asia Pacific Mission for Migrant Workers, said in its October 2013 study.
Most foreign domestic workers opted to stay longer by finding new employers or renewing their contracts, as they had not finished paying their debts or their obligations with their families.
Like most of them, Benitez wanted to go home and finally be with her family for good.
“But I don’t want to leave empty-handed,” she said, wiping away tears with her wrinkled, calloused hand.
Lorie Ann Cascaro is a journalist from the Philippines.