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Helping our helpers help themselves

Human rights pioneer: Cecilia Flores-Oebanda (center), president and executive director of the Visayan Forum, with Legal HD hosts Atty. Karen Jimeno and author Rod Nepomuceno

Recently, I was in Hong Kong and read a news article about an upcoming football match between the Philippine team and the Hong Kong team that was going to be held there.  As I was browsing through the article, I was bothered by what I read.  The football authorities of each country were working out a way to avoid a situation where there would be hurtful and derogatory chants shouted during the match by insensitive fans.  One of the derogatory chants that was trying to be addressed by the authorities was the jeers thrown by some Hong Kong fans who were calling the Philippine players “slaves.”  This, of course, was in reference to a good number of Filipinos who are making the ultimate sacrifice of being away from their families to serve as domestic helpers to Hong Kong-based employers.  Personally, I found that quite ironic.  How can you insult the very people who serve your meals, wash your clothes, clean your bathrooms, and watch over your children while you make a decent living running a business?

Needless to say, I was appalled by this bit of news.  I couldn’t believe that in this day and age of globalization, free markets, and universal acceptance of human equality, there are still some idiots who think that calling people “slaves” — even in jest — is all right and acceptable.  For me, before you can even call yourself a good businessman or a good manager, you have to be a good employer in your own household.  And the first step that you need to take is to treat your household help with dignity and respect. This particular issue cuts deep into my heart, as well as my wife’s, since we are both very sensitive when it comes to the plight of domestic helpers. We’ve talked about it lots of times and we’ve always wanted to do something concrete, not just for our own helpers but also Filipino helpers here and around the world. 

A few days ago, I think I finally found a way to help.  During a taping for my show Legal HD (Help Desk) on the Solar News Channel, I met human rights pioneer Cecilia Flores-Oebanda.  Oebanda was recently featured in a two-hour CNN documentary entitled, The Fighters, which chronicles Philippine human rights and her journey to protect children from the sex trade and how she convinced the Philippines’ biggest star, Manny Pacquiao, to join her as a fighter in the battle against modern-day slavery.

CNN spent two years investigating and researching Oebanda’s work. It’s estimated that more than 100,000 children work in the sex trade in the Philippines. Since founding her anti-trafficking organization, Visayan Forum, in 1991, Cecilia Flores-Oebanda has helped more than 70,000 victims or potential victims of human trafficking.  She believes if Pacquiao, an elected congressman in the Philippines and the country’s biggest star, champions her cause, it could mean a turning point. “The Fighters  represents the very core of the CNN Freedom Project, namely a desire to shine a spotlight into the darkness of human trafficking and to champion those who have dedicated their lives to ending it.”

Needless to say, I was honored to meet Miss Oebanda.  Apart from her very commendable work in trying to end human trafficking, she is also the main proponent of “The Kasambahay Law” that was recently passed by Congress.  For those not familiar, “The Kasambahay Law” is the long-overdue legislation that provides mandatory benefits for household helpers.

“I lobbied for The Kasambahay Law as early a 1994,” said Oebanda, whose foundation, Visayan Forum, fought hard to get the law passed.  “It took close to 20 years, but the wait is worth it.  Coming from the Visayas myself, I was fully aware of the plight of young women from the provinces trying to get a decent job in Manila.  A lot of them end up being maids in households because of the lack of other jobs available.  And unfortunately, the Labor Code doesn’t provide any protection for them.  In fact, the Labor Code provisions are very oppressive.  The minimum salary for household help, as provided by the Labor Code, is only P1,000 a month. And we all know that P1,000 a month can hardly buy you anything.”

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Oebanda said that under the Kasambahay Law, the mandatory minimum compensation now for household help is P2,500 a month.  Plus, the employer is now required to have a signed contract with the household help, and is required to cover the helper’s SSS, Philhealth and Pag-Ibig contributions, which amount to a little over P400 (or around three cappuccinos in your favorite coffee shop).  The law also provides the helper mandatory rest periods per day (at least eight hours), vacation leave benefits (at least five days a year), and one day off (24 hours) every week.

Oebanda said she felt compelled to fight for household helpers’ rights because they are almost like family.  “Our household helpers are involved in our most intimate activities at home, and whether we like it or not, they are part of our daily lives.  So I think it’s only right that we give them more importance in terms of the benefits they are entitled to.”

Personally, I think this law is way overdue.  But then again, better late than never.  If there is one law that I truly commend Congress for, it’s this law. Our household help are not just “extras” in our home.  They are the backbone of our daily lives.  Without our household help, it would be a major challenge for all of us to pursue our careers and dreams.  We would need to be home to watch over our kids, secure our homes, prepare our food, and do our chores.  But with the benefit of our household help, we can delegate all of that, and go ahead and do what we need to do to make a living.  So really, our household help have a direct contribution to our professional growth.

Thanks to people like Cecilia Oebanda, we are now in a better position to help the people who help us the most.

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Thanks for your letters!  You may e-mail me at rodnepo@yahoo.com.

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