The families Filipino workers leave behind

LANA HART
Last updated 05:00 17/08/2014
Manuelito Lavador's family

GRATEFUL FOR SUPPORT: Manuelito Lavador's family outside their house in the Philippines.

Manuelito Lavador
STACY SQUIRES / Fairfax NZ
SACRIFICE: Manuelito Lavador is one of the many Filipino workmen who have left their families behind to help rebuild Christchurch and Canterbury.

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Manuelito Lavador drags a chair next to mine in the Christchurch construction company office.

With his high-vis jacket and work boots, the only visible difference between him and the thousands of other construction and trades workers in the city is his darker Filipino skin.

I lift the lid of my laptop to show him photos of his children, whom I have just visited in the Philippines.

There are six.

Euclid Jeff at 23 years, so responsible and smart, Lester Jay, Jeffrey, Hayacinth, almost a woman, Bryle, at 11, just starting to take on his father's features, and lovely Lyka who, at 9, was shy with a foreign stranger in her house.

Manuelito's eyes well up with tears.

I wonder what they're made of. Joy? Sadness? Pride? Then he smiles and I see that it is fatherly pride with a drop of longing.

The Canterbury Filipino migrant story is nearly always the same: married workers come to Christchurch for years without their families to earn higher wages that can support their children back in their own developing country.

The vast majority have left behind an enormous network of extended family and close-knit friends, and a colourful culture whose two main forces - family and religion - are hard to find in their adopted home.

Why do they do it? How could they leave all that behind? What about their kids? Aren't they better growing up with a present, poor dad than with an absent, financially supportive one?

Last month, I went to the Philippines to find out.

When I heard the Christchurch Filipino workers' stories of abundant children, pregnant wives, and the hope of eventually, somehow, saving enough money to bring their families to live with them in New Zealand, I wanted to learn more.

I wanted to see for myself who and what they left behind.

Perhaps then, I could begin to understand their motives for making what seems like a most incredible sacrifice.

What I found were powerful forces at play that encourage and support long-distance separation of Filipino families while also maintaining strong family and community cohesion.

These forces include a society based on the extended - not nuclear - family, Roman Catholic traditions, poverty, colonisation, consumerism and the pursuit of the American Dream.

Combined, they create an environment where so very many Filipinos have made the choice to leave their families in order to offer them a better life.

Two years ago, the Philippines trumped Great Britain as the top source country of migrants to Canterbury.

Filipinos have bolstered numbers in many parts of the labour force in our region's dairy and aged care sectors for years.

As the Canterbury rebuild's engines started to turn, the construction and trades sector identified this seemingly endless skilled labour pool as a good fix to their labour shortage problem.

Tagalog, which along with English is the Philippines' national language, is the fastest growing language in Canterbury, according to the 2013 Census.

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Last year, about 1600 temporary work visas were approved by Immigration New Zealand for Filipinos to work in Canterbury.

For the period June 30, 2013-14, it was more than 2000 (both these figures represent visa re-approvals as well as first-time visa approvals).

 

MAIN EXPORT MARKET IS PEOPLE

The Philippines' main export is its working people.

The export labour market is estimated to account for nearly 11 per cent of its GDP.

In 2013, Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) sent home US$23 billion.

There are an estimated 10 million OFWs - a whopping tenth of its population - at any given time.

While Dubai, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore host the largest numbers, the entire Western world is a destination for OFWs, and countries like Canada, the US and Australia are the most sought-after countries of employment.

Massive government institutions and private recruitment agencies have been established to handle the contracts, remittances, employment, and wellbeing of the Filipino workers on which this emerging economy now relies.

On the streets of the Philippines, the effects of the tremendous economic influence of overseas workers are visible.

Children from otherwise poor families tap on smartphones and wear private- school uniforms.

Overseas workers are idolised in ads, soap operas, songs, and even marital advice columns advise wives to stay loyal to their income-earning but absent husbands.

In hurricane-devastated Tacloban, only those houses with access to OFW remittances or government workforce loans have been rebuilt.

Street signs and posters in recruitment office windows offer big bucks for labouring work in Dubai, Saudi, Japan.

Indeed, the Overseas Filipino Worker, and their remittances, is part of the national narrative and identity.

It's no wonder the diaspora is widely recognised internationally as an ideal workforce.

Hard work is so ingrained into the Filipino value system by an almost universal agreement that it is the key to success, it has found its way into the Filipino DNA like DIY has found its way into ours.

They are loyal, duty-bound workers.

Adaptable and tolerant, Filipinos rarely judge what other cultures may regard as deviant or unacceptable lifestyles.

The world loves the Filipino workforce's commitment to service. Cheerfulness is the national disposition.

In New Zealand, these desirable attributes include English- speaking and - to some Kiwis - staunchly Christian behaviours.

Not many Filipinos show up on the worksite or dairy farm late, stoned, or hung-over.

Ask any Christchurch employer to describe one of their Filipino workers and you'll usually hear the word "lovely" or "nice" in the reply.

Rene Boy Quinones represents all of these classic Filipino features in good measures.

After earning a teaching degree and working in a high school, he enlisted in the Philippines navy.

His main role was to teach personnel and administration matters to other enlisted staff.

But in the 12 years that he earned a respectable government wage, it was hard to earn enough.

He said: "I still don't have enough money to support everything that my family needs, especially a house. Even with my wife also working as an enlisted woman, it cannot support us, especially for the quality education of our children."

With the attraction of wages for offshore work everywhere, Rene had occasionally applied for a job abroad since 2007. But it wasn't until after the Christchurch earthquakes that he met an old friend who suggested he apply to work in New Zealand.

Rene researched what life would be like for his family here, and liked what he learned: a good education system, a peaceful country, minimal corruption, and wages that sounded a whole lot higher than the Philippines.

With experience and qualifications in painting, he contacted a recruitment agency to apply for work with a company in Christchurch.

Like many Filipinos in New Zealand, Rene paid an extraordinary recruitment fee to the agency of US$10,000, an amount which is four times greater than what the actual immigration and transportation costs are.

This fee is inevitably borrowed by the applicant from a loan agent with a high interest rate; workers hope to pay it back within the first year or two of overseas employment.

For Rene, he made a plan to do that and much more.

"I know what I'm going to do first, step by step, to get my wife and three children to come. My wife is a very, very good saver, so we do not spend for things that we like, we spend for things we need.

"What we do is save money first. Whatever is the excess, we have to make sure that it is enough to survive before the next pay cheque."

Rene spent six months working as a painter before his wife Christine joined him to work in Christchurch.

Their three children, ages 3, 7, and 11, were left with Christine's family back in the Philippines.

Even with two New Zealand- based wages and lots of extra work hours, it was a further year before the family could afford to be reunited.

During this time, the Quinones talked to their children most nights on Skype.

But not having a direct role in their upbringing was difficult.

"The youngest one was becoming naughty and started to forget that we were his parents," he said

"We missed them so much. We wanted to be with them all the time. But you cannot hold them or be with them in the same way."

But at least there was a plan to reunite and, payday by payday, they worked toward that plan.

In March this year, the children arrived to begin their new life in Christchurch, and are now becoming well-settled, permanent residents at their school and in the community.

Was it worth it? All the money he paid to get here, the hard work, cold climate, and lonely years of separation?

For Rene, it's the wrong question.

"It is not for me any more, we are living in this country for our children. I'm sure that they will be having a better future compared to what we had before back in our country.

"It bothers me a bit that we can't be with our extended family . . . but it bothers me more if my children are not sure about what will happen in their future."

 

EXTENDED FAMILIES

The extended family in the Philippines mirrors many of the same characteristics as whanau in Maoridom - duties and affections reach far wider than the concise nuclear family of Western cultures like our own.

Aunties serve as mothers, cousins are raised as siblings, and whoever shows up for dinner, kin or not, is fed and cared for.

But the benefits of these relationships are not unilateral.

Children and younger family members are expected to show unquestioning respect, to contribute to the status of the family by being polite and obedient, and to support the livelihood and functionality of the greater family unit rather than focusing on their individual needs.

Older children, therefore, often care for young children from early ages while the parents work.

Young adults, if they are not attending university or training courses ("college"), would be expected to contribute to the family's income.

And no matter what your age or position in the family, duties to it run deep.

Take Raymond Valdez who, at the age of 25, was sent by his family from the Philippines to work in Dubai to help get his parents' farm out of debt after "a bit of bad luck".

Four years and whole lot of hard work later, he returned to the farm which had earned its way back to productivity thanks to his remittances.

How did he feel about surrendering four years at the prime of his life to the financial goals of his family?

"It was my duty," he said.

"It's what needed to happen in our family at that time. If I hadn't done it, our family may still be in debt even now. I was blessed that the opportunity of a good job arose, and that I could take it."

Commitment to the Filipino whanau is not just financial but extends to the care of family members and is one of the reasons the export labour market can work wonders for the collective whole; where individual family members head offshore to earn foreign wages, the rest of the family steps in to provide care for the children and emotional support to the spouse left at home.

Sometimes, these deeply imbedded responsibilities to the wider network can be burdensome, especially where there are family members who are demanding or selfish.

If foreign money is coming in, for example, which of the extended family's children are sent to college, and which are not?

 

FAMILY DEBT

Is family debt, a common feature of many Filipino households, paid off first, or should the money go directly to the younger family members' education so that they too might support the family one day?

Rene Boy Quinones says: "Filipinos have this culture where the extended family - even if nothing is wrong - if they ask us for something, it's hard for us to say no."

But for Manuelito, the 43-year- old Christchurch builder with six children left in the Philippines, extended family has been key to it all.

Estranged from his wife when his youngest daughter was a baby, Manuelito left for work in Japan while his parents and siblings took his children in.

He worked for three years without a holiday so that he could earn a certificate in building which, eventually, won him the prized job in New Zealand that he has now.

The years in between his work in Japan and New Zealand were tough, despite the fact that he then shared a home with his children in the Philippines.

"I worked in any job," he said.

As a labourer, helper in other people's houses, taxi driver and a builder, he earned in a day what he earns in an hour in New Zealand.

Even with his extended family's help, it was very hard to keep his children fed and housed on his Philippines' wages.

Manuelito also had dreams of sending at least one of his children to university.

"My problem is that Euclid Jeff [his eldest child] is a scholar, and I knew that he should go to college."

From a young age, Euclid Jeff could read and use numbers easily.

"Anything I told him," said Manuelito earnestly, "he would remember."

In the Philippines, I flew into the heart of Hurricane Haiyan's victim city Tacloban, squeezed into a crowded minivan over the winding hills of Leyte Island, and jumped on a motortrike in Ormoc City through a smattering of rice-field villages, ending up at the home of Manuelito's family.

Euclid Jeff politely introduced me to the rest of his large family - four of his siblings, two aunts, cousins, his aunt's husband, and various other relatives who share their strip of shelters and houses.

It was Manuelito's sister, Marivic, who caught my attention first.

She had virtually adopted her brother's six children, and yet had three of her own to raise.

Filipino families tend to live together well beyond early adulthood, so even Manuelito's twenty-somethings were still living with her.

Marivic did not convey the look of a busy mother-of-nine.

Instead, her quiet smile and youthful demeanour sent a loving calm throughout the damaged property.

Hayacinth, Manuelito's eldest daughter of 16, stayed near her, brushing her hair in long strokes when we talked and helping her with the serving of food. Without access to her own mother for several years, Hayacinth clearly cherished her aunt.

Euclid Jeff explained that their small family home's entire roof had collapsed during the hurricane.

Insurance and government assistance were virtually non- existent, but for this family, a new house was being built on the same section of roadside land.

In the stretch of makeshift shacks and salvaged buildings tormented by insubstantial repairs, this property stood out from the rest with its solid concrete foundation.

It was Manuelito's Christchurch wages which bought this luxury.

"We are blessed," said Euclid Jeff earnestly, "that my father can make a good wage in New Zealand. We miss him so much. But one day he will come back and have a new house to live in."

For Manuelito and tens of millions of other Filipino parents, a new house is only part of the dream that drives them to join the OFW workforce.

It is for the education of his children that Manuelito is working in Christchurch.

"I am very happy," Manuelito said.

"Because I know that I can send my children to school. Euclid Jeff and Lester had stopped college for two years because I didn't have enough money. When I found out that I got a job in New Zealand, I called them straight after the interview and said 'you can go to school now'. They were very happy."

There is little doubt that Euclid Jeff understands his father's commitment to his children's education.

"He wants us to achieve our dreams. If we do, it's enough to pay back for the sacrifice he's made for us.

"He cannot see us in New Zealand, he can only hear our voices now. But what he is thinking is for our goals to be achieved, he will make these sacrifices for us."

Back in Christchurch, I closed the lid on my laptop with the photos of Manuelito's family, watched him smile, and then asked what he wanted to happen in the longer term for his children.

Like most Filipinos living in New Zealand, he hopes to one day bring his children to live here, and he "wants to get Lyka [age 9] through college, then I am happy when I am old and they can move to a different life. Because it's too hard, too hard without an education. I can give that to them now. They are my everything".

- The Press

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