Your Ikea chair was made in Sweden. Your Coach bag was made in China. Or India, depending on which model you prefer.
We’re your nannies, and we come from the Philippines.
But we’re not a commodity.
We came to Canada with the intention of working our way to a better life. Not to sponge off the government (besides, our contracts won’t allow it) and not to sink our claws into your neighbour’s husband (besides, many of us have our own husbands, back home).
Unless you’re part of the Aboriginal population, you – or some brave soul in your lineage – were once in our shoes: optimistic, adventurous, and eager to start a new life in Canada.
Maybe our sister came here, years before we did. Maybe we agonized over the decision to join her, until our hunger for change triumphed over our fear of the unknown. And maybe we went to Live-In Caregiver Orientation at the Canadian Embassy in the Philippines, where the guest speaker, a former nanny herself, painted an overly rosy picture of life as a nanny.
“The weather is wonderful for your skin,” she said. “There won’t be much of a lifestyle gap between you and your employer. Eventually their hobbies will become your hobbies. If they golf, you will golf!”
So we signed up.
In some cases, our initial impressions were vastly different from our expectations.
But before we go into that – before we take the liberty to speak as boldly and candidly as we will soon do – let us tell you a bit about the Philippines.
The Philippines – A Very Basic Primer
Here’s what you should know.
The Philippines is made up of over 7,000 islands. It’s lush and mountainous. Sticky hot. Typhoons punctuate the months-long monsoon season, which is akin to being chased by a bat in the middle of a marathon. So we’re used to extreme weather, you see.
The main language is Filipino and English, but there are over 100 different languages and dialects, which serve as indicators of financial status or social standing. Ninety per cent of the population is Catholic.
The place was colonized by the Spanish for over 300 years, until it was liberated as a result of an uprising. That’s why many of us have Spanish names.
The educational system is intense. Teachers are not reprimanded for being too harsh on students. It’s pass or fail. There is not the coddling that you see in the Canadian system.
The job market is fiercely competitive. Once you’re working, you cling tightly to your job. There is an ever-looming threat of being replaced if you fail to perform. It’s entirely normal to be asked to submit a photo with your resume. The lighter your skin, the more attractive a candidate you are.
There are skin-lightening creams available at any pharmacy.
Saving face is important in the Philippines. You never correct someone in public and there’s a societal expectation to grant all requests that come your way. As a result, sometimes we say “yes” when really we mean “no.” What else? Well, if there’s no rice, then it’s not considered a meal. That’s important.
We’ve Been Meaning to Tell You Something Else, Too…
We’re not just taking care of your family.
Many of us are the breadwinners for our own families, back home. You hired us to care for your children while you work. We’re doing the exact same thing, except we’ve had to leave our children with relatives. We long to give our children everything that you’re able to give yours.
Imagine, if you will, what it takes to leave your child – your heart and soul – behind, in order to provide for them. We sacrifice the luxury of our children’s embraces, so that we can pay for their education. We take care of your elderly parents so that we can cover our grandmother’s healthcare costs.
Your child runs to us with a scraped knee. We apply a band-aid to the cut, aching with guilt that we aren’t dressing our own child’s wounds. This weighs heavily on our minds.
We know that you completely understand how this feels and your empathy is the greatest kindness you can bestow. $11 an hour plus room and board
It’s true that $11 an hour will go far in the Philippines. We’re living in Canada, though. Despite the proviso for room and board, the contract allows you to deduct from our hourly wage to cover this. Could you live without pizza for two years? Probably not. Likewise, we don’t want a life without puchero. Point is, we’re often paying additional money for food, so that we can enjoy adobo and lechon while you eat mashed potatoes and pot roast. When you break it down, we’re not able to send home nearly as much as we’d like to.
Would it be reasonable for your employer to ask you to work overtime for free?
We know that some circumstances are unavoidable. We’re professionals – we can accommodate. However, it’s only fair that we get compensated for our time.
If you’re late getting home, we can’t simply punch out. There’s no relief crew! So, until you get home, your children are still our responsibility.
Remember that we don’t get breaks. We can’t turn your children off while we take fifteen minutes to wind down. If they’re on, then so are we.
In your household, there are two types of vacations. Yours and ours.
We are delighted when you extend an invitation to join your family on holiday excursions. But, if your vacation means that we’re still watching your kids, then it’s not time off for us. It’s work, albeit among palm trees or casinos. We’re not technically on vacation unless we’re absolved from all work duties.
We hear you
Unfortunately, the language barrier belies our intelligence.
Many of us have degrees and worked in a professional capacity before coming to Canada. Some of us are as easily versed in molecular biology or international marketing as we are in diaper wipes.
Even if we don’t hold degrees, we’re still intelligent adults. You might have to speak more slowly, but you certainly don’t have to speak down. Sometimes we’re quiet.
We just don’t want to say the wrong thing!
Of course we have opinions and questions. However, because we were raised to be fairly subservient, we don’t want you to mistake any outspokenness or mere openness as a sign of disobedience or a quarrelsome attitude. We will go through great lengths not to cross you.
We have limited protection. It’s our word against yours. If you relinquish us from our contracts, we have to wait three months before working for someone else. This is an eternity in terms of lost wages.
Representation is improving, though, in the form of an organization called Foreign WINGSE (see inset).
It’s a tight-knit community, this society of nannies and live-in caregivers. It’s easy for your household to get unofficially blacklisted. That street goes two ways.
What the fine print doesn’t include
Our contracts stipulate working hours. After those hours are served, we’re free to do as we see fit. This means that we won’t accept a curfew.
Our contracts also stipulate wages. How we spend the money is up to our discretion.
Junior breaks the television, the kitchen sink clogs and the dog has an accident on
the carpet: financially, these are not our responsibilities.
We’re only obligated to take care of the charges listed on the contract. Your boyfriend is moving in with his two children? This is wonderful news for your family! However, I cannot be expected to mind these additional charges, without renegotiating my contract.
It’s only fair.
Foreign WINGSE Resource Centre
It’s not a typo. It’s “WINGSE” as in “Workers Information n’ Group Skills Enhancement”. Its mission is to “create activities and facilitate opportunities for live-in caregivers’ social and cultural inclusion, capacity building through volunteer work and continuing education.” The concept was designed to encourage foreign workers to integrate into their new community and learn more about life in Canada and Canadian culture. Founded by Reinalie Jorolan, the group also serves as a resource base and advocate for foreign workers, who are often underrepresented in terms of support.
For more information email: firstname.lastname@example.org