Employers help their domestic helpers in times of need
Domestic helpers make many sacrifices to work in Hong Kong, and some employers are happy to support them in their hour of need, writes Mabel Sieh
For Jacqueline Sun, Zenaida Cabello is much more than just the Filipino helper who took care of her from the age of four. "She is part of my history and my family," she says.
"When I was a child, Zenaida took me to school, piano lessons and grocery shopping. We had lunch together; we played together in her room. She was there when I learned to ride my bike, and when I got married. She's a comforting figure and a part of my life," says Sun, who has two daughters of her own.
Her parents were busy civil servants, so Cabello looked after Sun and her brother until they left for boarding school overseas as teenagers. Now, she looks after Sun's children - which means she has worked for the family for almost 30 years.
Cabello remembers the joyful day Sun got married. "She bought me a nice dress and sat me in the front row. Watching her [wed], I was overwhelmed with emotion. She is very special to me, and I know I am special to her," the 61-year-old says.
Sadly, some helpers have had dreadful work experiences and Sun is aghast at the reports of abuse, such as the case of Indonesian maid Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, who was allegedly beaten by her employer.
"Even when I was a student, we learned about compassion and how to put ourselves in other people's shoes. These helpers have to leave their families and children behind to take care of ours. It's not easy for them, and I do feel for them."
That sense of compassion has helped to forge a warm relationship with Cabello. It also prompted her to come to the assistance of her second helper, Gina Ladrera.
In November last year, Ladrera was frantic when she heard her hometown near the city of Tacloban was devastated by Super Typhoon Haiyan. She had no idea whether her husband and two children, then 10 and 11 years old, had survived.
"I told ma'am I was very worried about their safety. I was afraid," the 40-year-old Filipino says. Sun immediately went online to search for Ladrera's family, and left messages and photos on various websites. A few days passed but there was no news. That's when Ladrera told Sun she wanted to go home.
Although it may not have been wise to enter a disaster zone when everyone else was leaving, Sun tried to see the other woman's point of view.
"She has two children - like me - and she needed to make sure they were OK. [I thought] if that's what she wanted, then I must help her to get home safely," Sun recalls.
She bought airline tickets and prepared some emergency funds. Her brother bought a backpack and stuffed it with survival essentials such as water, a tent, sleeping bag, torch, and some dried and canned food.
The night before the flight, Sun's parents and brother visited to offer their support. Ladrera was touched.
"I remember how they spoke to me, telling me to keep safe and wishing my family well," the helper says. Ladrera found her family alive amid the ruins of their home. They had survived the storm by clinging to the electricity cables on the roof.
"When my children saw me, they cried. We all cried. They couldn't believe I went home for them. My family was saved by my ma'am in Hong Kong and her family. I'm so grateful for their kindness," Ladrera says.
Winnie (who prefers not to disclose her surname) is another Hongkonger who came to the assistance of her helper the Filipina was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago.
"It was stage three already. She was so frightened," the lawyer says.
Winnie's Filipino maid Amy (not her real name) has been working for her since 1991. "The doctors told us she needed surgery and chemotherapy. I was prepared to pay for that, but it's not just money I was thinking about.
"I thought she'd also need someone to be with her and take care of her. So I flew her husband to Hong Kong and rented him an apartment. He could take care of Amy, while I went to work and took care of my two children myself."
It took Amy a year to recover, after which she returned to the Philippines. A few years later, she came back to work for Winnie.
The 57-year-old helper still gets emotional when she speaks of the experience. "I felt so loved by my ma'am. She gave me everything I needed then. And she gave me a second life," Amy says, teary-eyed. "If it weren't for her, I wouldn't be here now."
In February, another working mum, Katherine Pinfold, launched a campaign to raise funds for her helper, Jane, who had been diagnosed with stage-4 ovarian peritoneal cancer.
She set up a Facebook page called "Helping Jane" to share details of her condition and solicit donations.
"Jane has a rare and very aggressive cancer; the chemotherapy she's receiving is palliative only," says the New Zealander, who has two children. Her Filipino helper has been working for the family since last August.
"Jane came to us when we needed her most. Despite having two wonderful kids herself, she has chosen to help us raise ours and support my wish to work," she says.
"Her kind spirit, happy nature and hard work have made a difference to us and brought us closer as a family. Now the tables have turned and we have committed to help her through her journey - whatever it takes."
Pinfold and her husband are paying for their helper's medical care, but she is worried about Jane's future. "She's 54. She has no savings and is the primary source of financial support for her two children at home. She will need some savings, when she goes home eventually."
Between February 20 and March 10, her campaign raised US$3,530, exceeding the original goal of US$2,000. All the money has been given to Jane.
Pinfold hopes the fundraising campaign has also shown others that many employers genuinely care for their helpers.
"We read so much about the negative relationship between employers and helpers. But my family and many people I know adore our helpers. We need to understand the huge sacrifice these helpers have made for us," she says.