“My Way” comes up in the Karaoke machine and Evelyn Calugay rushes to grab her microphone.
“Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention,” she belts out, reading the cue line. “I did what I had to do and saw it through without exemption,” she continues by heart.
Karaoke (reportedly a Filipino invention) is of one of the Philippines’ most popular pastimes, and at this birthday party that Evelyn has organized at Montreal’s Immigrant Workers Centre (IWC), close to thirty Filipina caregivers are dancing, posing for photos, and playing; they are also eating pork-roast, rice, fruit and cake in honour of all the birthday celebrants of the past two months.
One of them picks “Billy Jean” as the next song and Evelyn crosses the room holding her crotch, mimicking Michael Jackson’s iconic dance step. She is laughing hard and trying to make eye contact to make sure that the others laugh too.
“My guilt feeling is gone, my life was so heavy!”, says the director of Pinay Quebec, an organization whose mandate is to empower and organize Filipino women, particularly Filipino domestic workers. “My biggest satisfaction was to liberate myself; even my mind. My feelings got liberated. I don’t feel guilty anymore”, she insists when prompted to talk about her own life.
Guilty of what, one wonders – especially one who has seen her in action.
“Listen to me – tell your employer you need to have your cash first!”
“Tell your employer, ‘I am off now.’ Come back Monday morning. If you have to start 8:30, be back at 8:30. Don’t stay there, or they’ll think they own you.”
“If you have a mouth, you speak. You cannot just take everything. You are intelligent, use your brain!”
“Do you go to church? Your God will be mad at you for not using the gift that he gave you. If you believe in that, use it. What a waste of time, you guys! Don’t be afraid!”
Evelyn runs around. She informs caregivers about their rights, helps them fill out their paperwork, files legal complaints on their behalf when necessary, and takes them home on occasion. It was with the same determination that she adopted Richard, the child of Mica Salvador, who was laid off from work when her employers found out that she was pregnant. Mica died of cancer a few years later.
Lola (grandmother in Tagalog), or “mammy”, as many of these women call Evelyn, came to Montreal as a nurse in 1976. When she was almost fifty, her children pushed her to join a women’s organization to get out more. She did volunteer work, interacted with other people and eventually chose to focus on the cause of the women who have been coming to Canada under the Living Caregivers Program for the past thirty years. These women, who often trained as nurses, doctors or engineers, , nevertheless arrive as caregivers, ever since the market for Filipina nurses became saturated.
She is convinced that the program was designed to answer the needs of the Philippines’ export labour policy, a policy under which more than 12 million Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) send over 20 billion dollars back to the Philippines every year in remittances.
Now, Canada is the only country in the world that grants the “golden opportunity” of obtaining permanent residence status to Filipino caregivers after two years of work. In those twenty-four months, however, their work permit includes not only their occupation, but the name of their employer. And it requires them to live in their employer’s home, a requirement that contravenes the International Labour Organization’s convention stipulating that accommodation has to be negotiated between the employer and the employee.
As much as Evelyn dreams of Filipinos staying in their home country, she is aware that she might not see the end of emigration from the Philippines in her lifetime. Instead, she focuses on aspects that she can set her sights on and fix. She wishes the “receiving countries” as well as the “sending country” – whose representatives have reportedly described OFW as the Philippines’ modern heroes – were aware of the human collateral damage resulting from their decisions. She wishes they remembered that every human being has a face.
In Quebec, lobbying has achieved relevant changes such as the elimination of a clause limiting admittance to single women only, and the introduction of pay for overtime. Evelyn also is hoping to obtain a more equitable balance of power: if not automatic permanent residence status for the workers, then a work permit that doesn’t have the employer’s name on it. Removing the name will mean the workers are not bound to a work setting that is their employer’s private home, often with limited access to food, and a room that is supposed to be locked but is not. “At least you don’t become a commodity, if you are not ‘sold’ to an employer.”
Not everyone sees things as clearly. And Evelyn is disappointed she hasn’t been able to change the thinking of many people, including her extended family, and even her sister who put up with employers who had installed a camera next to the fridge in order to record every time someone opened it.
“Why can’t you leave that place that’s not human? Who cares about food?” she would rail at her sister, exasperated.
It is what she does – a lot.
Evelyn received her visa to come to Canada as a nurse when she was breastfeeding her youngest son. She couldn’t turn her back on an opportunity to leave behind the economic and political turmoil that was the Philippines during Marcos’ dictatorship. Her husband, a naval officer, stayed home with their three boys for close to a year longer.
“Mummy moon”, was all her youngest son could say, after he saw Evelyn’s plane take off. He was so convinced that the moon was her new home, he didn’t want her to get anywhere near him when they met in Canada.
“Reuniting” is the coined term for those moments when families get together again, often with the sort of experiences under their belts that makes it impossible for them to recognize the person they once knew.
Husbands frequently become suspicious of what the women did when they were alone. It is difficult for them to get rid of their sense of wounded pride.
“You know how it is for them”, she says.
“My husband immediately told me, ‘The way you speak, the way you act, your behaviour, you look like you have adopted the behaviour or the thinking of the women here.’ He was very mad.”
Evelyn realized that during the time she was alone, she had been observing women talking about their relationships with their husbands, observing the way they treated each other, wishing that it was like that in the Philippines.
Once in Canada, having left a successful career as a military officer in the Navy, her husband took some exams to be able to work on board a ship once more, but in the end he chose not to be away from his family again. He didn’t trust Evelyn anymore. Instead, he applied for a job in the hospital, where he was hired in the housekeeping department.
Their middle son, Joey, who was around six years old, rarely spoke English. He would drag his oldest brother along to translate. He was bullied too, in particular by a pair of twins who continuously wanted to fight him because they thought he was Bruce Lee.
But the truly unbearable violence was happening at home – verbal and psychological for sure, but also physical.
“The children hated the situation. They didn’t want to end up like their father.” recalls Evelyn, who felt responsible for tolerating the abuse. “If they hadn’t opened my eyes, I wouldn’t have opened to life. I needed that.”
Joey remembers how one day the three kids decided to intervene; how they ganged up on their father. It was the first time he realized that there is power in numbers; that it is possible to turn things around. Today he is the Coordinator of the Immigrant Workers Centre in Montreal.
“If you don’t want to divorce, this is what we are going to do,” said Evelyn eventually, who did not have the money to hire a lawyer.
She relocated to the basement and he stayed upstairs.
After the kids moved out, she was left with a house with three bedrooms and a basement for her and her husband: “Too much space, that people don’t [normally] have, that can be used”. Ever since, whenever there is a Filipina caregiver who has problem, she takes her in.
“Today there are ten of us in the house!”
Isolation may be the issue Evelyn is most sensitive about, probably even more so than the long days and the abuses to which live-in caregivers are subject.
Her heartfelt understanding of these women’s hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute challenges is what makes her exceptional among activists. She is not there for political change alone.
Talking about the case of a caregiver who shook a baby who eventually died, Evelyn says, “I don’t condone it, but it could have been prevented. Caregivers are isolated, and they have emotions, they have brains… if you use them as a machine of course it will happen.”
She believes that not everybody has the same tolerance for stress and anxiety. Being constantly watched and bossed around can drive anyone to do something like that. Attention should be given to these employees because they are taking care of people.
“Who is not going to go crazy if you are not strong enough?”
In the Philippines, both Evelyn and her husband worked, and they didn’t have services like in Canada – no daycare where they could go and leave their kids.
She looked for a helper, but couldn’t find anybody who was mature enough. She had to rely on her cousins who had just finished high school; they were about thirteen years old. There were two of them, so at least they could help each other, she thought.
Her daughter died one night. She was at work, on the night shift.
They called her at the hospital. Her husband was in the navy, assigned to another location.
Evelyn did not allow the police to do an autopsy.
“I didn’t want to blame them, I felt so bad for them. They were so afraid. The neighbour called, ‘You have to come, something happened to the baby.’ My only daughter!”
She laughs, tucking her sorrow away somewhere.
“It is difficult because I did not know how she died. She was not sick.”
Evelyn was angry at her workplace because she was not originally scheduled to work at that time. She was asked to replace a woman who was having a baby.
“We tried to have another one, then Joey came along!”
Joey’s birth name was actually Joy. He changed it after his schoolmates started calling him Miss Joy. Probably not the same ones who thought he was Bruce Lee.
“I am not scared of my life. I am old. I have served my country and my whatever. You want it? Take it!” She laughs again.
The karaoke lyrics don’t do her justice. “The record shows I took the blows, and did it my way”. Evelyn has it down to an art.
Editor’s note: A documentary film about Evelyn was made by Ghazal Sotoudeh at l’institut national de l’image et du son; it was produced by Philippe Miquel as part of the 2012 documentary film program. The film title is “Lola” and more information can be found here.