The not-so-simple issue of Philippine ‘slavery’

Published May 20, 2017

(First, a bit of an explanation: Besides my thrice-weekly column – of which this is one installment – I write anywhere from 15 to as many as 25 other articles on six different subjects during a normal work week at The Manila Times. Thus, I tend to get a little jaded; the sheer volume of work means that particular topics or what I might have to say about them rarely lingers in my thoughts. This one, however, which was written at the suggestion of Managing Editor Felipe Salvosa II, is an exception, and one I thought worthy of having its shelf life extended a bit.)

THE late journalist Alex Tizon’s moving and very personal account of “his family’s slave” – the domestic helper who served three generations of his family for 56 years – published in The Atlantic this week has set off a storm of debate, cultural recriminations, and, one would hope, a bit of national soul-searching on both the part of the Philippines, from where both Tizon and his utusan hailed, and the US, where they lived and worked.

The reactions to Tizon’s confession can be summed up in three ways. The US audience, for the most part, has responded with righteous indignation, much of directed at Tizon, but more directed at Filipino culture, wherein stories like that of Tizon’s “lola” are commonplace. The reaction from the Filipino audience has been mixed; some take offense to American judgment, others express some degree of agreement with it.

There are few issues in this country that are as potentially explosive as the role of servants in Philippine society and the economy. To the average American, the concept that anyone but the very wealthy would have servants is completely alien, even though the reality is they are quite common, even in middle-class American society. We think nothing of farming our preschool children out to daycare providers, or hiring assistants for our elderly relatives. Applying servants to normal domestic chores, however, is regarded as flaunting wealth; most of us are raised to have at least a basic ability to manage living functions like cleaning, cooking, and washing our clothes, and accept doing those things as part of normal everyday life.

The big difference, however, between servants in the US and servants here is that they are very much regarded as employees or service providers; our relationship with them is fundamentally transactional – there is a clear exchange of compensation for service. Here in the Philippines, not only is the servant expected to provide a vastly greater amount of service, the relationship between the servant and the served is much more complex.

That complexity is what makes sincere efforts in this country to transform the relationship into an objective employer-employee arrangement difficult at best, and perhaps ultimately futile. Sometimes kasambahays are strangers, hired according to reasonably specific terms, but just as often if not more so, they are beneficiaries; the poor distant cousin from the province with little education and no gainful prospects is almost a cliché. Even if they are not, most servants who stay with a family for any length of time come to be regarded as a part of the family; sometimes that relationship may be no better than the relationship between the household and the family dog or carabao, but often it is something much more.

And yes, it does amount to slavery in many cases. The reality is that many households with domestic helpers cannot really afford them according to the requirements of the law – which stipulates a minimum wage, a certain level of benefits, and standards for working periods and conditions – and it is certain that a great many servants are not being compensated or treated “fairly” according to the law, and some are not being compensated at all.

But it is not exactly appropriate to condemn a Filipino social phenomenon according to American social standards, because the American perspective will never understand just how complicated or how deeply ingrained in this culture the whole thing is. This society would immediately cease to function if the role of “domestic helper” suddenly vanished.

Yes, we – American or Filipino – can objectively say that if a person’s relationship to a household is primarily one of providing service, then that person should be provided clear terms of employment, fair and regular compensation, and appropriate working conditions, just as any worker has a right to. But in order to impose that and make it what it should be, a fundamental component of the culture, a couple of other fundamental components of Filipino culture – the expectation that everyone is obliged to take care of everyone else, and the consequent diminished importance of “self reliance” in a person’s character – need to be undone. Because as long as those parts of the Filipino culture persist, the relationship between household and servant will always be murky, and not easy to define as either “employee” or “family member.”

For the Philippines, doing away with those aspects of Filipino character would be nothing less than undergoing a cultural lobotomy; realizing that no matter how well I understand this culture, I will always have a transplanted Western perspective precludes me from sharing my own personal judgment about whether that is necessary.

Tizon defined his lola Eudocia’s role in his household as a slave, and telling her story was, as it turned out, his deathbed confession (he died in March) of his guilt for being a slaveholder. He was right, not necessarily because that is how one set of mores or another defines it, but because that is how he defined it.

As much as his last work has encouraged a much needed public debate, it is also a highly personal story, which reminds us that the issues of ingrained classism, entitlement, material poverty, and poverty of the spirit are personal, too; coming to terms with it, becoming better people, and making a better nation and world is not going to be easy, or solved with 140-character Twitter debates or “hearings in aid of legislation.”