Thrifty Christmas for Filipinos as dollar slumps against peso

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 December, 2007, 12:00am

Filipino domestic worker Emily is counting her money as never before, in what she feels will be a thrifty Christmas.

She has been remitting most of her salary each month as soon as she gets it. But in the past 10 months, her HK$3,480 pay has not gone as far as it used to.

'There is nothing left of my salary,' said the college drop-out, 26, who has worked as a domestic helper for four years. 'My family has been asking me to send more money because it is planting season and they have no other source of income.'

Last Thursday, she sent her mother, husband and niece a total of 13,000 pesos - the equivalent of HK$2,500. That same amount in pesos took just HK$1,850 in October last year, she said.

Left with only HK$980 to spend over the rest of the month, she said: 'I'll have to tighten my belt; I'll skip lunch when I'm off and eat dinner when I go back to my employer's home.'

Emily is not alone in feeling the pinch of a record-high peso.

Dolores Balladares-Pelaez, chairwoman of United Filipinos in Hong Kong, said the group would lead a march on December 16 to the Central Government Offices to press for an increase in the minimum wage for foreign domestic helpers as it had become 'a matter of urgency'.

'We've calculated we are losing 5,000 pesos a month. Late last year, the Hong Kong dollar was worth 7 Philippine pesos,' she said.

The newly married union leader said the 8,000 pesos that she sent regularly to her parents and a niece cost her an extra HK$200 to HK$300.

'I save on phone cards by using [free computer-phone websites] Chikka or Skype,' she said. 'For food during my days off on Sundays, I look for the cheapest breakfast. I can no longer buy things at 'sap man, sap man' [HK$10 shops].'

For Filipinos working in Hong Kong, the strengthening peso had dealt them 'a double whammy', said Rodelo Landicho, operations officer at the privately owned Philippine National Bank remittance centre.

Mr Landicho, who had been with the bank in Hong Kong for 20 years, recalled that the exchange rate in the 1980s was 3.3 pesos to the Hong Kong dollar, but basic commodities in the Philippines were a lot cheaper. 'I don't think prices would go back to that level at this time,' he said.

The cost of living in Hong Kong, meanwhile, has been rising this year.

Cynthia Tellez, executive director of the Mission for Filipino Migrant Workers, doubted that the strengthening peso was benefiting the people in Manila, or workers in Hong Kong.

'This Christmas would be the worst for workers here,' she said. 'Everyone back home expects us to send a little bit more for Christmas celebrations. Now they tell their loved ones to cut back on Christmas holiday meals. Those who are going home for the holidays will bring just a few chocolate bars and would rather bring pesos home.'