The treatment of household help or katulong by Filipino families has been put under the international spotlight thanks to the essay “My Family’s Slave” written by the late Filipino-American award winning journalist Alex Tizon. His article was recently published by the American publication, The Atlantic two months after his death.
Many readers were moved to tears upon reading the story of Eudocia Tomas Pulido who the writer fondly calls “Lola”. My own problems became too trivial compared to the decades of torment Pulido experienced in the hands of her “masters”. The article was widely praised, but also drew some negative reactions. Some readers commended Tizon’s efforts to give Pulido the freedom she deserves in her twilight years, but some condemned the writer for what they claim was complicity to the continued enslavement of Pulido for years even after Tizon was mature enough to do something about her situation. Some say his actions were a bit too late.
I can understand some Westerners who think Tizon was also partly to blame for Pulido’s predicament. At some point Tizon came across as contradicting himself in his article. While it appeared he felt sorry for Lola, the one who raised him and his siblings and the one who did all the chores in the house without getting compensated when his parents were juggling odd jobs and were building their careers in America where they migrated in the 1960s, he also benefited a lot in having her around. Meaning, he and his entire family were spared from doing the menial jobs at home at the expense of another human being. This is what is probably what Westerners can’t seem to fathom. Most Westerners have to do the chores themselves even while juggling jobs or building their careers and while caring for their children. What was so special about the Tizons that they had to be spared the same thing and maintain a slave when it is illegal to own one?
Some Westerners had a point when they asked why Tizon didn’t do anything when he was in his 20s or 30s to help Pulido escape the clutches of his cruel mother’s hands. Why did he wait until the passing of Pulido and when he was himself near death to write about how cruel his family treated her since the 1950s? Had he exposed the cruelty she experienced, she could have received compensation for her decades of not being paid and the perpetrators pay for their crimes.
In his article, Tizon came across to me like he was also scared of losing Pulido once he reported the situation to authorities since she played more of the mother to him than his own mother did. He also justified Pulido’s continued stay in their lives by assuming that Pulido would have lived in poverty in the Philippines anyway or suffered the same fate as her siblings – with a wretched existence. But certainly, Pulido’s fate – not having the freedom of choice or not even having the freedom to go out of the house and do as she pleased – was worse than a life of poverty itself.
Surprisingly, some Filipinos in the Philippines were offended by the way Westerners were quick to criticise Tizon’s seeming lack of action to give justice to Pulido. They insisted that Westerners did not have the right to judge since “this is a local narrative” Filipinos have to deal with. They came in defence of the age-old tradition of having a maid clean up after their masters. These Filipinos say Westerners do not understand the context with which Tizon was coming from. They said most Filipinos were raised not to question authority in the house. That may be true, but Tizon was an adult already when Pulido was still being maltreated by his mother.
Some Filipinos also cited that it was the Western colonisers who introduced the concept of slavery to Filipinos in the first place. This last defence shows a lack of accountability. It doesn’t matter if slavery was introduced by a foreign entity; what matters is that Filipinos should have, by now, recognised it is wrong and should have stopped the practice of treating their household help like a slave a long time ago. After all, Western civilization has already abolished slavery and consider it inhumane. Filipinos can’t keep using that as an excuse for today’s bad behaviour.
One can’t help but feel that some Filipinos are not ready to face their demons. They see themselves as above doing household chores and would rather someone else do it for them – someone they can pay with less than minimum wage, zero benefits and should be on call 24 hours a day. A lot of Filipinos are not ready to give their household help the same employment benefits they get from their own employers. There are still a lot of household help who do not get sickness and social security benefits. Their employers take advantage of of their desperation.
Filipinos are indeed, full of contradictions. Most prefer their homes neat and tidy, but they don’t want to do the cleaning themselves. They are used to someone else keeping things spotless for them. It is the reason why a lot of Filipinos think it is okay to toss garbage off indiscriminately when they are in public. They think someone else should do the cleaning up for them.
Some of these Filipinos – most of them members of the elite – are offended by criticism Philippine society is receiving from the West due to Tizon’s article because their way of life is threatened. Their lifestyle is at stake. It is a status symbol to employ a lot of household help or maids in the Philippines. Highlighting the appalling working and living conditions of the household help in the Philippines can mean someone might force them to improve the situation through legislation. After all, the stuff that Tizon mentioned in his essay is still happening to a lot of household help now – lack of decent sleeping quarters, insufficient food supply, and verbal and physical abuse, among other things. As long as there are Filipinos who think they are above their employees, they will continue to treat the latter with little respect.
It might have been late for Pulido, but at least Tizon helped start a dialogue in Philippine society on how conditions suffered the by household help or maids should change. Filipinos should start treating the very people who take care of their most valuable assets – their homes and their children – as equals. Only then can a real egalitarian society be achieved in the Philippines.