Roots

Manang Inday

By Marifi Jara

FOR a country that has for decades been exporting labor as domestic helpers overseas and a government that banners them, among other Filipino workers abroad, as heroes for contributing significantly to the economy, it is ironic that a law for domestic helpers within the Philippines has just now taken solid shape and passed final reading in Congress.

Domestic help, or kasambahay as the law puts it, is a complicated and deeply-rooted part of our culture. But it has actually only been in recent history that the word kasambahay evolved as the politically correct term for those widely referred to as katulong.  If not for the derogatory connotation attached to it, I do like the word katulong better than kasambahay. Katulong actually refers to “help”, which is the English translation for the word’s root, “tulong”. Kasambahay, on the other hand, is a combination of “kasama” (companion) and “bahay”, which means “house”. And therein lies the complication of the whole katulong set-up – that domestic help is a live-in job. (This model, of course, is not unique to the Philippines. It’s the same scenario in most undeveloped or developing countries where there are pronounced gaps between the rich, the middle class and the poor. But that would be another interesting social conversation.)

A katulong lives in the house of her (or less commonly, his) employer. That means the employee-employer relationship requires a more intimate level of trust than the usual blue or white-collar job. That is why even when there are now a good number of manpower companies that provide all sorts of domestic help (yaya, cook, gardener, all-around maid), people still usually hire a katulong from their hometown, with recommendation from someone in the extended family. Or in some cases, the preferred katulong is actually a distant relative. Now there’s your patronage mentality that is also prevalent in Philippine politics.

It is a bragging right for an employer to claim that the kasambahay – some variations of our terms of endearment for them is manang, ate, or inday – is treated like one of the family. That is well and good. But being “part of the family” also blurs the line on the professional relationship. And that is not well or good for both parties because it is open to abuse by one side or the other.

And unlike an 8-to-5 job, domestic work requires long, and sometimes unpredictable, hours – like getting up in the middle of the night to open the gate for the boss coming home late, and worse, might command for a cooked meal at that unholy hour.

In developed countries, there are those who, neither poor nor uneducated, do provide domestic help services and the arrangement is they come in for a specified number of hours within a week. They are paid decent wages and the job is as dignified as any.

Petro Gustavo, the mayor of Bogotá, Colombia (home country of the brilliant Gabriel Garcia Marquez) tweeted last week: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.” (He is quoting a former mayor of Bogota, Enrique Peñalosa, who started the public transport revolution in the city).

Adapting that, we can say a developed Philippines is not a country where everyone would be able to afford a kasambahay. It’s where the rich, the middle class and even the poor have kasambahay who is treated with professional respect, independence, and dignity.

The hard truth is we’re a long way away, but the Kasambahay Bill – with the required contract, minimum wage (even if the proposed rates are quite ridiculously low!), health care, leave benefits and a 13th month pay – is a step in the right direction.

Cheers to all the inday, manang and ate (or dodong, manong, kuya)!

* * * *

Balbaleg ya salamat Mr. Eduardo Pontaoe for passing on to me your precious copy of the book The Constant Gardener (and the trouble of sending it all the way to our office in Dagupan). I promise to pay the generosity and kindness forward.   

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