Mexico City looks almost the same as Manila in the Philippines, Shiela Tebia-Bonifacio said, describing the streets, bridges, houses, and surroundings. She had spent nearly 27 hours by plane and bus to get here, but the similarity didn’t dampen her excitement.
One of three representatives of United Filipinos in Hong Kong at the 2018 World Social Forum on Migration in Mexico City, Tebia-Bonifacio is also the chairperson of Gabriela Hong Kong, an allied organization of United Filipinos in Hong Kong. She is attending the forum as part of the working committee conducting workshops.
The trip to Mexico is the third time she has been outside of the Philippines, where she is from. The first time was 11 years ago when she came to Hong Kong to work as a domestic helper and the second was Macau where she went to activate her visa.
Tebia-Bonifacio is one of 370,000 foreign domestic helpers (according to the Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department) in Hong Kong describing herself as “more active in political issues regarding the rights and welfare of Filipinos and Migrants.”
Tebia-Bonifacio has a degree in secondary education and taught high-school science in the Philippines, but she didn’t earn enough to make a living. “Even you’re a professional if your salary is not enough to provide your family needs, then what’s the use of being a professional,” she said, shrugging her shoulders.
In 2007, at her 24, she came to Hong Kong to earn money for her sick father and young siblings.
Halfway through her first contract, she decided to break it because of the unbearable repeated humiliation from her employer. “My employer kept humiliating me in public treating me like a nobody, and her son always punched me, so I have many bruises on my arms,” she said.
“That gave me a shot,” said Tebia-Bonifacio, was realizing there is a lot of migrant worker in Hong Kong that may be experiencing something like what she experienced. That was the moment she started to think that being a social worker her could be her lifelong career.
After helping her siblings to finish university alongside the passing of her father, she is now working for her sixth employer, an Australian bachelor, who hired her to mostly take care of a dog and offers her an extra day off for her volunteer works in United Filipinos and Gabriela.
“Working as a volunteer taught me a lot of things. It taught me how to deal with different people, it taught me also how to do the public teaching. And it also molded me as a leader of the alliance,” said Tebia-Bonifacio. She was elected as the chairperson of Gabriela Hong Kong in 2015, which advocates fighting for the rights and welfare of Filipino women migrants.
Usually, Gabriela deals with cases regarding the employment of migrant workers, raise issues in Hong Kong, and collaborates with other organizations to do mass education. As the chairperson of the Gabriela Hong Kong, Tebia-Bonifacio gives speeches, does propaganda, and directs dramas.
Minimum wage, working hours, and living arrangement are three main problems migrant domestic helpers are facing, according to Tebia-Bonifacio. As a result of the partial unreasonable arrangement, the standard of living of migrant domestic helpers cannot be a safeguard, especially their health.
“If only a few are criticizing, there’s no change at all,” she took a deep breath, “but if all migrant workers unite against the discrimination of the Hong Kong policy for the migrant workers, I think it would change something for the better of migrant workers situation.”
“Shiela is a person with a big heart. She is so kind that I often wonder where she gets all this much kindness from,” said Allan Bonifacio, who works as a community organizer in the Philippines and first met Tebia-Bonifacio in a conference in 2011. They got married last year.
Tebia-Bonifacio is passionate about her work with migrant workers, which makes her snub her husband sometimes.
“She really takes her tasks very seriously and passionately, because the essence of doing is to help or to serve the people,” he added.
Bonifacio lives in the Philippines, and the two try to talk every day. “I don’t even say hi to him throughout the whole day, and the same thing with him, he’s also a busy person,” said Tebia-Bonifacio.
Part of their marital relationship is their shared sense of social responsibility, Bonifacio told that their work is sort of a mission, given the fact that the Philippines is producing cheap labor locally and abroad, due to the crisis of being backward for so many decades.
“As a leader, she made leaps and bounds,” Bonifacio said, “and I am very proud of her.”
“Common dreams of migrant workers are to be reunited with the loved ones,” said Tebia-Bonifacio. She and her husband keep the option open as long as they end up living together. “We can also work together in the community,” she smiled.
“There’s a lot of problems in the Philippines, especially for the ordinary people,” she drew out the ending of the word ordinary, “so I’m not planning to go back in teaching, I’m planning to go at the side of the poor masses.”
Chen Yuyang, Nov. 18, 2018
The audio is a Podcast story named Shiela Tebia-Bonifacio: “My passion is go at the side of the poor masses”. In the two-people group project, I was responsible for the interview and editing.