Help From Asia

A growing number of Czech families are discovering Filipino housekeepers

Emily has been living in the Czech Republic for three years and has seen her children, a 12-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old son, only once. In April of this year, she spent her first whole month without them. "I didn't feel like leaving them but I am doing it for them," she says. When she starts counting how many more years she will have to work as a domestic help abroad to keep them in school, she is taken aback by the result -- eight long years.


From time to time she sends them a mobile phone or a computer game. The kids both dream of careers as IT specialists and Emily wouldn't be able to forgive herself if they couldn't attend school and ended up as assistants or helpers like her. As soon as she gets her salary on the first day of a month, she keeps a thousand crowns for herself and rushes to the bank to send the rest home. "My husband said I had a better chance of finding a job abroad, so it was me who had to go," says Emily Acielo in fluent English.


Originally a teacher of English, she worked for a year and a half in a Prague factory making computer components. When her contract expired, she found a job as a domestic helper. "I worked as hard as I could, so I would overcome the culture shock," says the Filipino national, who knew only the names of a couple of Czech sportsmen prior to her arrival in the country. It is still difficult for her to come to terms with the Central European climate, Czech cuisine and the Czech obsession with pets. Acielo, who used to be afraid of dogs, is now calmly petting a 40-kilo Rhodesian ridgeback, which puts its head in her lap. "I have to adjust, I am doing it for my children," she says, repeating her mantra.


She's what is known as a live-in domestic helper, so she is at the family's disposal around the clock. Her private life consists of a small room, nightly telephone calls to her family and church on Sundays. Sunday is a day off for her fellow Filipinos too, so they meet up, cook food together and watch movies.


Because English is an official language in the Philippines, working abroad is practically a national industry, with Filipino women employed by families around the world. For years it was women from Ukraine who helped out in Czech households but their liberation has been bad news for would-be Czech employers. Ukrainian women have been raising their prices in recent years and often speak or understand Czech, prompting some families to look for help from more "foreign" countries. "Demand for domestic help is traditionally higher in states that don't have as good a social welfare system as we do," says Petra Ezzeddine-Lukšíková, an anthropologist at Charles University's (Univerzita Karlova's) humanities faculty, explaining why foreign help isn't generally in high demand among Czechs. Ezzeddine-Lukšíková's doctorate included a dissertation on foreign domestic help in this country.


In their hundreds
Lawyer Markéta Pokorná began looking for domestic help shortly before giving birth to her second child. Her mother lives outside Prague, her husband is always busy with work and a Czech helper would work only from 7am until 3pm. Her relatives told her that Filipino women were commonly employed in Lebanon as housekeepers, so she decided to try one out.


That's when Emily's and Markéta's paths crossed. For 25,000 crowns the family has gained extra comfort and time. (They paid for her insurance and air fares.) Babysitting, shopping, dog-walking and other household duties are now taken care of by one person: Emily. Soon more people learned about their household's "exotic" nanny and Markéta was even asked by the wife of Czech crooner Karel Gott for advice on hiring a Filipino housekeeper. Markéta has set up an agency that has so far found jobs for around 30 Filipino women with the families of Czech politicians, celebrities and businessmen.


It is estimated there are hundreds of foreign domestic helpers in the Czech Republic and the demand keeps growing. Czech helpers would probably master the local cuisine more easily but an English-speaking nanny can help Czech children learn the language. On top of that, Czech families appreciate Asian modesty and decency. "I wouldn't want to have a Czech helper, because she could understand our language," says Markéta. "This way we all gain more privacy."


Each family has different expectations, of course. "With our [Filipino] nanny I returned to our Christian traditions," says journalist Jana Ciglerová, "I started to go to the church again at Easter and I fast with her." Ciglerová used to employ a Ukrainian as a cleaner and occasional babysitter but when her salary rose to 11,000 crowns and the helper told them she wouldn't be available for babysitting on a regular basis, they decided to look for a live-in housekeeper. "I was looking for someone childless," Ciglerová says. "I couldn't bear the thought of her leaving her kids at home."


A few months ago, a 30-year-old Filipina, Enrilyn Tabligan, moved in with Ciglerová's family. A teacher of English, Tabligan couldn't find a suitable, well-paying job back home so, soon after finishing her studies, applied for jobs in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Czech Republic. She would like to earn enough money to be able to buy a car for her parents and to secure her own future.


Possible discrimination
This type of a job can lead to abuse, however. In factories, women can get support from trade unions or from their colleagues but as domestic helpers they must stand up to their bosses alone. They also have no trade license and are often officially employed as translators or cleaners. This means that if things go wrong they have no legally binding contract. "If they aren't fully legal in this country, they won't contact the police," says Pavel Duba of the Association for Integration and Migration (Sdružení pro integraci a migraci, SIMI). Cases of torture and suicide have been reported in Lebanon, Portugal and Italy. Those countries have responded by demanding that families ensure their household helpers are legally employed.


Unless the foreign domestic helpers working in the Czech Republic are represented by an agency, like Emily and Enrilyn are, and instead, like an entire generation of Ukrainian women, must find families themselves, they are largely condemned to working here partially illegally.


New restrictions on long-term stays in the Czech Republic have been in force since January of this year, and very few foreigners are able to meet all the new conditions. If a foreigner applies for a trade license, for example, he or she has to pay health insurance two years in advance, at a cost of up to 40,000 crowns. Since the beginning of this year, SIMI has become aware of several illegal Ukrainian domestic helpers who have health problems but have no health insurance. "The [Czech] government could have field workers who monitor and inform women working in households about their rights or subsidize Czech-language course," says Jitka Polanská of the charity People in Need (Člověk v tísni).


While employing household help will likely remain an option only available to wealthier Czech families, demographic developments suggest the Czech Republic will probably take the "Austrian" route. Austria, which mainly requires carers for its elderly, now specifies the conditions under which household helpers can work, including regulations on the number of hours in a working week. Czech policymakers will have to make household work a legitimate job, too. Although many Czech politicians use the services of domestic helpers, they're in no rush to provide them with more favorable conditions. "Sometimes it is enough just to learn about the conditions these people live in in our country and to pay some extra money toward health insurance," says Pavel Duba.

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