“I thought my story was the only one”
For me, the main difficulty in my childhood was growing up without a mother, because she died of a heart-attack when I was just two years old. Instead, we grew up with our two grandmothers. They fought over who would take me and my sister. One of my grandmothers was rich and the other one was poor. We grew up on the poorer side – on my father’s side. We lived in a remote area and life was very simple. There was no electricity. We went to school and we came back for lunch. We would cook for ourselves – even though we were very small there was no one else who could do it for us because our grandparents were working in the farm, we had lost our mother and it seemed like we had lost our father too because he was always away.
Our childhood was not easy but I think we were also quite happy in some way. We had freedom and we could play outside. Sometimes our other grandmother would visit us and take us back to her place for a week or so. But we didn’t like it there. They made us sleep separately and we had always slept together. My other grandmother – the one we lived with most of the time – she would tell us that we only had each other, that no one else would help us and that we had to be close to one another. At the rich grandmother’s house, we had a nanny. They would tell us not to play with the ‘dirty’ children – maybe they didn’t realise that back home, we were the dirty children!
Our childhood was not easy but I think we were also quite happy in some way…
I would always try to get my rich grandmother to send us back home when we were visiting her. I would cry all night and they would have no choice but to send us back. That’s how we grew up in a remote area of the Philippines. But for secondary school, my father came and took us to Manilla. We didn’t have much of a relationship with our father but we knew he was kind. It was hard to live with our step mother. She may also have been kind but she was a stranger to us and we didn’t fight her but we were silent around her and we would disobey her. I think it was hard for her too, because we didn’t accept her and we didn’t say it but by our actions she could feel it. It was really hard losing our mother – if we had had a mother maybe it would have been different. A mother does everything for her child.
I became a mother at 19 years old in Manila. I had my first daughter at 20. Having them, I didn’t know how to be a mother – I hadn’t had a mother of my own – but I had had a grandmother who did everything for us. After having two children, I went to the doctor to be sterilised. The father of my children was irresponsible and not doing things properly to support us financially, just drinking with his friends. I wanted to make sure my children were okay. I wanted them to have a different life. But it’s hard in the Philippines. When you have a partner, you can’t just say ‘no’ to sex because you don’t want to become pregnant or you’re just tired. It’s not classed as rape but for me it is rape. That’s why I decided to get sterilized – I knew I couldn’t say no and I didn’t want to get pregnant again. I didn’t want to bring up children I couldn’t care for properly.
I became a mother at 19 years old. I had my first daughter at 20. Having them, I didn’t know how to be a mother…
But when I went to the doctor, he refused me. He saw that I only had two children and in the Philippines, you have to have three children before you qualify for sterilization. So I became pregnant with the third and then I was sterilized.
I needed to be able to work to support my children, I couldn’t get pregnant again. I could see them crying and I couldn’t give them anything. I couldn’t give them a future, I couldn’t pay if they got sick. If you’re poor, the hospitals would ignore you at the door – that’s the Philippines. My children were sleeping on the floor and I didn’t want that life for them. I had to do something and that’s why I decided to work abroad.
I needed to be able to work to support my children, I couldn’t get pregnant again. I could see them crying and I couldn’t give them anything…
My partner and I had talked about marriage but ultimately I didn’t want to be tied to an irresponsible man. I wanted to do everything I could for my children. It was the most difficult decision I had to make. I had to leave them, it was a matter of choice between death by starvation or sickness, or this possibility of something else. It was only a possibility because I didn’t know what was going to happen abroad. I just had this beautiful dream that my children would be in private school, have decent clothes, have food and not have to beg. There are so many street children in the Philippines, and I didn’t want that for my children. It actually pushed me to have the courage to work abroad, that dream of giving them the decent future they deserved.
The children were 1, 2 and 3 when I first left. I left them with their father. I went to Singapore in 1994 – I felt like it was a safer country than Middle Eastern countries. It’s a gamble. Like a soldier, you don’t know if you are going to die or survive. And when you first arrive, are a complete stranger to the people, the environment, the language. And every moment you are away from them, you hear your children crying – it’s like that sound follows you, in your heart.
I remember telling myself not to cry in front of my employer because it might be bad for the children – I had to hold it in, even though I missed my children so much.
Eating was difficult. I’d have one bite of bread and use water to swallow it down. I kept thinking of my children – if I die, they die. I had to survive for them.
Every moment you are away from them, you hear your children crying – it’s like that sound follows you, in your heart…
The family I worked for in Singapore was okay. But I had to work for two families – not what was on my contract. It wasn’t exactly what I expected and I couldn’t have one day off in six months. I would always spent that day off writing to my children. There was no social media back then so it would take months to get to them.
It was like that for two years and then I finished my contract and went home. I was looking forward to going home so much. But I hadn’t prepared for the pain of my children not knowing me after two years separation, of them pushing me away. I had originally left them with their father but when I realised he had been taking the money I had been sending, I stopped sending it to him and asked my sister to take my children. I told him that if he didn’t want the children, I did, so he was free to do whatever he wanted but I just asked him to leave us alone. I haven’t had contact with him since that day.
I was looking forward to going home so much. But I hadn’t prepared for the pain of my children not knowing me after two years separation…
I asked my sister to take them so she became their mother. It made me sad but also happy because I could see how much my sister cared for them like they were her own. For the month I was home, they almost became close to me. But then I had to leave again.
After Singapore, I decided to work in Hong Kong. But it was the same situation again – I was forced to work in the parent’s house as well as my employer’s house. You’re a domestic for one family but that also involves the extended family, their office, their workplace. It happens like that because we are very dependant on employers’ support and living conditions. Somehow we find ourselves in a situation where we can’t say no. We could have our contract terminated and then what would happen for our own family?
But it was the same situation again – I was forced to work in the parent’s house as well as my employer’s house. You’re a domestic for one family but that also involves the extended family, their office, their workplace…
In Hong Kong I had a better salary than in Singapore and so I could bring my children to Manilla. But I also faced more abuse there. I had a German employer in Hong Kong and he asked me to give him reflexology. I was supposed to massage his feet but then one day I went to give him a massage and he was naked. I wasn’t expecting a naked man in the bed, a very big man. It was very isolated – if I had screamed no one would have heard me. I didn’t know know what to do in this situation with a naked man – what if he forced me? There was nothing I could have done. I think I was quick to think of ways to protect myself. I was angry. I just wanted money in exchange for my work and I didn’t want to be a sex object. I didn’t apply to be sexually involved with my clients. I was angry, really very angry.
I thumped him really hard at one point during the massage and he asked me to leave the room. I ran to the kitchen and got a bread knife. In the morning, I saw him and I stood there with the knife and I said: ‘You can’t do this again’. He apologized and I gave him my letter of resignation. I told him I was resigning because he was a sex maniac. He said: ‘What is this Marissa?’ And I said: ‘This is shameless and not acceptable. This is what you have done to my fellow domestic workers, this is why people have not stayed with you, you rape them and then let them go. What you are doing is a crime. Give me everything, give me my salary and let me go’. And he gave me everything.
I looked for another employer and the one I found brought me to the UK, in 2004. I looked after her child – I was a nanny. But she kept accusing me of slapping her child. Eventually, I had enough and I told her she could go to the doctor and ask him if I’d physically harmed her child. I shouted. She shouted. I was totally prepared for my contract to be terminated at that point but I also felt sad about leaving the child behind. When you look after a child, you love that child and this child held on to my leg, he would not let me go. She told me to go and rest and told me that I could take some time off in the Philippines and that she wouldn’t cancel my work permit. She said I could come back in a month. I didn’t say yes, I didn’t say no. I just put the child to sleep and then left.
I needed to work still. I came back to the Philippines and worked as a bookkeeper to help provide for my children still. I didn’t see my children. I went to the market to sell food, and then by the time I was back, they had left for school. So I could see them sleeping but I couldn’t communicate with them really. I was working 22 hours a day, 7 days a week.
So eventually I went back to my employer – I came back to the UK. And I found out from my fellow domestic workers that I had workers’ rights. When I joined ‘Unite the Union’, there was only eight of us. Listening to their stories, I felt very sad and very angry – until today we are still in a very unequal and unjust situation as domestic workers. I have seen cases of rape, it’s quite common amongst domestic workers and other horrific abuse.
I thought my story was already the worst but listening to my fellow workers, I realised that it wasn’t, it was common. I realised then that we had to do something. My difference really was that I was able to fight and had courage. I bought that courage to ensure that this abuse doesn’t happen for others. If we don’t speak out, it will continue. So we formed the organization ‘Voice of Domestic Workers’ and we’ve been fighting for domestic workers’ rights in the UK ever since.