When Georgia Bacani, now 49, decided to become a foreign domestic worker in Singapore in the late 1990s, she had to leave her three children aged between 2 and 8 behind.
Bacani once did laundry by hand for her village in Nueva Vizcaya, the Philippines. But it was not enough to put food on the table and pay for her children’s education. “We were very, very poor and I wanted to give my children a better life,” she said. “Life was really hard and migration was the only option.”
After a few years in Singapore, Georgia took a job in Hong Kong in 1999. She was eventually joined by her eldest daughter, Xyza Cruz Bacani, and has remained in the city ever since.
What makes their story different from thousands of other families who go through the same ordeal is that Xyza was able to break the cycle and, against all odds, become a photographer.
Xyza launched a photography book on Friday about her mother’s life. It is titled We Are Like Air because, in her words, migrant domestic workers are often treated like air – invisible but essential – in cities such as Hong Kong, Singapore or Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
The book portrays the experience of millions of mothers and daughters whose lives have been disrupted by migration. As the book reads,“Not as victims but as champions who have overcome the many hardships life has tossed at them as they leave their families behind in their home country.”
Thousands of families from the Philippines are torn apart by migration every year. Little research has been done on the intergenerational migration of domestic workers, or on the number of those who were able to break out of the cycle, but by most accounts those cases are rare.
Despite promises by political leaders to create jobs at home, there is still a deeply rooted migration culture in the Philippines. More than 10 million Philippine citizens live abroad, a little less than 10 per cent of the population.
Overseas workers are a crucial part of the Philippine economy. Last year, their cash remittances rose by 4.3 per cent to US$28.1 billion.
Bacani’s migration journey – like many others – is a convoluted tale. When she got to Singapore, the employment agency she had paid had deceived her and hadn’t arranged the necessary paperwork.
For six months, she earned only about S$50 (about US$35) each month because of illegal fees. After that, her salary went up to S$350 (US$250) but she soon found out that it was not enough to support her family.
This scenario has been echoed by thousands of other families, and partly explains why the cycle of migration and remittance continues through generations.
“It’s not easy for one person to support everyone. Because of the high fees charged by employment agencies, the inflation and other factors, the amount of money a worker is able to send back home is often not enough. So a mother ends up being joined by a daughter or two, a sister or a cousin,” said Cynthia Abdon-Tellez, the general manager of the Hong Kong-based non-profit group Mission for Migrant Workers.
Abdon-Tellez said that once women – there are a few men, too – become foreign domestic workers it is difficult for them to choose another career path. “Some, if they are single, they go back to their home country to get married. But many end up migrating again.”
While the working conditions abroad may be far from ideal, Abdon-Tellez noted that the situation back in the Philippines is also not improving.
“Unfortunately, those who are in poverty remain there for a long time. The priority is to have their stomachs filled, and for many people migration is the best option. In fact, for many it may be the only option they have left.”
According to the United Nations, although significant gains have been achieved in reducing child mortality, increasing access to safe water and achieving universal primary education, progress in the Philippines has been uneven and unfair.
Mortality rates of children born in poor regions remain high, and many others have no access to formal education. About 1.2 million children between 5 and 15 are believed to be out of school.
“The perception I have is that parents go away because they want their children to have a different and better life,” said Lucy Jordan, a professor at the University of Hong Kong who focuses on social policy.
“But there is an intergenerational cycle, because perhaps there are many restrictions in terms of opportunities in the countries of origin for viable livelihoods. So being a domestic helper appears to be a more financially lucrative opportunity even though the parent went away and ensured better education opportunities.”
That is what happened with Bacani’s family. Xyza, who had been brought up mostly by her father, came to Hong Kong when she was in the second year of a nursing degree in the Philippines.
“I talked to my employer here in Hong Kong and she said she could hire her, too. My two other children needed to go to university, so Xyza could help me pay for the fees,” Bacani said.
Xyza said she was excited at the prospect of getting a job as a domestic worker in Hong Kong. “It happens to many families. The eldest child takes the responsibility … I thought that if I had that degree I could live abroad, but I did not want to be a nurse. That was my mother’s dream.”
Xyza needed a few months to get used to the new environment in Hong Kong. “Life here was so different … I was used to being a student and this was my first job,” she said.
It was in Hong Kong that she developed an interest for photography and eventually bought her first camera. “She asked me for money and I scolded her. I said that only rich people could have a camera like that,” Bacani said.
Xyza pursued photography as an hobby for about six years despite her daily duties as a domestic worker in the Mid-Levels area.
After working for nearly a decade in Hong Kong, the turning point came in 2015, when she was awarded the Magnum Foundation Human Rights Fellowship in New York.
While Xyza eventually became a professional photographer, her sister got married and her brother Aron was able to finish maritime school. Yet even after he graduated, the job opportunities in the Philippines were very few. Aron now works in Hong Kong as a domestic helper along with their mother.
“I am disappointed. Not at him, but with the system. We worked so hard to equip him with tools so he could have a different life. But it did not happen,” Xyza said. “Even with all those tools, he could not get a job and the cycle of migration has to continue. It is so hard to fight the system.”
Xyza added that the country’s labour export policy has impacted the way Filipinos think about their future.
“For Filipinos, working abroad means upward mobility for the whole family. Parents feel proud when their children work overseas,” she said. “In the ideal world, families should be together … No one wants to leave their children behind. But the reality is different.”
Jordan, the professor, has studied the impact of parental migration on children.
“One of the things we found in our work is – less in the Philippines and more in Indonesia – the young people, at least in terms of their aspirations, do not want to migrate. They want to stay closer to home, because immigration had an impact on their families and they want to have a different family life.”
But in adulthood, according to Jordan, other needs sometimes speak louder.
Bacani still has a vivid memory – more than 20 years later – of not being able to speak to her children or watch them grow up. After all, when she first migrated, mobile phones weren’t yet popular.
“The hardest part was really missing my children. We could only exchange letters … I was very home sick,” she said.
Even so, to see if her efforts have paid off, she looks at her daughter: “I am very proud of her.”