`You Put Your Fate In God's Hands'

I was in Singapore the day they hanged Flor Contemplacion. The Philippine domestic helper went to the gallows at Changi Prison for the murder of another Philippine housekeeper and a 4-year-old boy in the other woman's care. I was more focused on my 10-year-old son's gymnastics competition, my reason for going to Singapore. Local newspapers buried the story, so it wasn't until I returned to Hong Kong that the full impact of the case hit me.

Flor Contemplacion was the talk of Hong Kong's Philippine community. There are as many as 139,000 overseas contract workers (OCWs) from the Philippines here, almost all working as live-in servants. My housekeeper, Eufrosina "Inday" Baldivia, who doesn't usually keep up with current events, was as familiar with the details of the Contemplacion case as Americans are with the O.J. Simpson trial. In Manila Mail, a tabloid for overseas Filipinos, the headline screamed "Paalam [Good-bye] Flor," and the maids were full of outrage--both at the Singapore authorities for not granting a stay of execution to examine new evidence and at their own government for not protecting Contemplacion.

Was Contemplacion innocent? I'm not convinced. According to Singapore authorities, she confessed to the crimes after her arrest, and in nine consultations with Philippine officials she never changed her story. As her execution date neared, some Filipinos claimed to know she had been framed. Instead of staying the execution, rigid Singapore went ahead, certain of her guilt. But among Filipinos in Hong Kong, there was no real debate. To a community constantly under verbal and sometimes physical assault by employers, Contemplacion's innocence was a given.

Rightly or wrongly, Flor Contemplacion has became a symbol of the hardships facing Filipinos working abroad. She is seen as the ultimate scapegoat: a poor woman alone in a strange land, trying to make a living, who finds herself confronting harsh--and false--allegations. "My heart is crying for this mother of four," says Inday, a mother of four herself. "It's a lesson--that all Filipinos must wake up now."

To understand this outpouring of emotion is to understand the travails of Philippine OCWs. Although the Philippine economy is picking up under President Fidel V. Ramos, nearly half the population still languishes in poverty. As a result, many women leave families back home in search af higher wages overseas. "For a mother, it's a very tough decision," says Linda Layosa, a domestic helper turned editor-in-chief of Tinig Filipino, an OCW magazine sold mainly in Hong Kong. "You put your fate in God's hands." More than 6 million of the Philippines' 70 million people now work abroad--in 138 countries. In 1993, 55% of Filipinos who went overseas to work were women--and that figure is rising.

GUILT TRIP. In 1994, they remitted $3 billion to the Philippines through legal banking channels, excluding cash and consumer goods brought home on visits. For the government, this is a major source of foreign exchange. Philippine migrant-worker groups estimate that OCWs support nearly one-fourth of all families in the Philippines. So when a woman such as Contemplacion is hanged overseas, the collective sense of guilt back home is intense: Families take the money but fail to protect the sacrificing wage earner.

For many, Hong Kong is a preferred destination. The Philippine Consulate authenticates for approval an average 300 applications a day. A domestic helper --amah in Cantonese--takes home three times what a schoolteacher makes back home. An estimated 25% of these workers hold university degrees. As a rule, these women work six days a week for a base salary of $485 a month. (In Singapore, wages are much lower.) The biggest worry is whether Philippine amahs will be allowed to keep working in Hong Kong after 1997--or whether China will decide to import mainland labor instead. "There's apprehension about 1997," says Joy S. De Guzman, executive director of Asia Pacific Mission for Migrant Filipinos. "It's not easy to look to the hearts and minds of the Chinese government now."

These women often leave behind husbands, who become the primary care-givers for their young children. With mothers gone for extended periods, families sometimes break up. For Inday, the situation isn't that bleak. She left the Philippines in 1986, after a flood ruined her crops and devastated her modest house. Her husband wanted her to stay, but she was determined to go overseas to ensure that her four children got a university education and a better life than she had. Ten years later, she has put two children through college. The third is studying at a university, and the youngest is finishing high school. "I fight feeling homesick by keeping my children's future in mind," she says.

LONG HOURS. Domestic workers are generally treated better in Hong Kong than in Singapore, but life isn't easy for them here, either. According to the Mission for Filipino Migrant Workers here, 973 OCWs complained of long working hours, 732 reported no private accommodation, and 586 said they had insufficient food in 1994. Arcely, a 25-year-old domestic helper who declines to give her last name because her case is still in court, says she used to get up at 5:30 a.m. to work five hours at a newsstand owned by her employers. Then she went back home to do chores and look after two children. And, she says her employers repeatedly failed to fork over her full salary, short-changing her by as much as $200 a month. "It was too much work," she says.

I met Arcely at a shelter for displaced domestic workers in Hong Kong, filled with at least 20 women in their 20s and 30s who either left their employers or were fired. They sleep in a single room with eight bunk beds and clothes hanging from the rafters. Floryvic, 24, says her employer slapped her about the head whenever she did something he didn't like. "If I made a small mistake, he'd hit me," says this scrawny, shy countrywoman. Once, after the man's daughter vomited into a bowl, the employer threw the dish at Floryvic, she says.

Since these young women often pay as much as a year's salary to get the necessary documents to land a job in Hong Kong, they have too much at stake to fight back. More often than not, they view the abuse as the price of a decent-paying job. It's no stretch to understand how Floryvic relates to Flor Contemplacion. "I'm angry because the Philippine government didn't do anything about it," she says.

"ANOTHER VICTIM." The Middle East is notorious for such cases. Filipinos first started going there during the oil boom in 1974 at the urging of then-President Ferdinand Marcos. A bruised and battered Nelfa Baltar, a domestic helper beaten by her Egyptian employers, is featured on the front page of an overseas Philippine newspaper with the headline: "Another Victim." Others are known to be languishing in Kuwaiti and Saudi jails.

It's a sense of helplessness that has triggered the outcry against the hanging of Flor Contemplacion. For those who feel victimized, it's easy--almost natural--to commiserate with the hanged woman. Now, a presidential commission in the Philippines has concluded that Contemplacion "appears to be mistakenly blamed and hanged" for the two murders. But Filipinos overseas didn't need to wait for that verdict. To them, Flor Contemplacion is already a martyr. "Flor is a hero," says Inday. And so she will remain, guilty or innocent.