“I take care of other people’s kids while my kids grow up without me. Here is why I decided to come to Singapore.” Filipino domestic worker tells her story of working in another country while her children are growing up without her.
Elizabeth Libre Gong, 42 years old, is from the Philippines. She is currently a domestic worker in Singapore and has been separated from her husband for ten years now. Her children are left behind in the Philippines.
It is a very common scenario for a Filipino wife, to work abroad in hopes to provide a better life for her children while there is not much high-paying work in the Philippines. Her husband, on the other hand, refuses to leave and find work, so it was Elizabeth who made the sacrifice.
Elizabeth hopes to improve her life so she may provide well for her children and be with them more when the time comes. She doesn’t want them to grow up without proper guidance and care.
Older sister worked so I could go to college
Elizabeth came from a family that was not rich, but she had a good father who provided well and made sure that they had all they needed inside their home and in school.
In 1996, she graduated from high school, and that same year her sister decided to work abroad to be able to provide for the family and help her go to college. “My success is your success, too,” her sister said.
Elizabeth was enjoying her studies in college when her sister came back home for the holidays of the same year. The news she brought home with her saddened Elizabeth because her sister could not go back to her job abroad anymore. She was pregnant!
So Elizabeth talked to her parents about the decision of finishing her first year of college education and try to find work so she may help with the expenses at home.
In March 1998, she has finished a year in college and started working in June.
Met my husband and had children
On the 22nd of February 2001, Elizabeth was celebrating her 22nd birthday at home when she was introduced to her future husband through their mutual friends. They have arrived at the party with him.
She got pregnant with her first child and gave birth on the 4th of June 2002.
She got married to her husband on the 18th of January, 2003, and her mother was the happiest on that occasion. “Promise me that you will try to learn to love your husband,” her mother whispered in her ear.
In June of the same year, Elizabeth’s mother was diagnosed with stage-3 bone cancer. Unfortunately, there was no cure and no chance to improve even with a bone marrow transplant. The doctor said that it would only be a miracle if she had lived more than 8 months.
Come December, her mother passed away. The death of her mother was a terrible blow to her, like having one of her feet cut off. Elizabeth was very dependent on her mother, asking her opinion on everything she decided upon. She had no more choice but to move on.
At the time, she still had her father and her son, too. She did her best to fulfill her mother’s request of learning to love her husband fully, and so she did, which resulted in a pregnancy for her second child.
On her sixth month of pregnancy, her husband’s company closed. They provided him a final payment of Php25,000 (SG$885 during that time). The family was then forced to move to the husband’s province in Northern Luzon, though Elizabeth hated the idea to leave her father behind.
They used the money given by the company to start a small business, a small store. Sadly, it did not last a few months because the business revenue was much less than their daily expenses.
“Our move to Luzon was the start of the worst hardship and difficulties I have experienced and never imagined I could have in my entire life,” Elizabeth recalled.
By the time she has given birth to her second child, their small store has already closed. Her child was not able to taste bottled milk, or wear disposable diapers, or even have a baptism. Her husband was earning Php150 (SG$5.31) every other day driving a tricycle (three-wheeled motorcycle with sidecar).
“I grew up in Manila, I’ve never experienced how to live in the provinces. I tried to learn how to live in that place. I learned to drive a motorcycle, so when the time my husband came back from driving, I could get his tricycle and ride in the street hoping that there would still be some farmers that wanted to sell their un-milled rice to town.”
Earning Php10 (SG$0.35) for every sack of rice, she could carry around eight sacks and the owner would pay her Php80 (SG$2.83). Elizabeth also learned how to harvest corn and tobacco leaves for other farmers. She would then get paid Php150 (SG$5.31) for eight hours.
Without her husband knowing, her father would also help her financially. He would send a small amount of money at month’s end. Her father was a big help for her and her children during difficult days even though they were far away from him.
Worst financial problems of my whole life
In January 2008, Elizabeth has given birth to her only daughter. She recalls that it was the start of her worst financial problems that she has faced in her entire life. Upon giving birth, she says that she did not have even a single peso in her pocket.
“I had to deliver her at home, on my own, with no alcohol, no oil, no soap, and no midwife to cut her umbilical cord. With the help of some neighbors, they called someone working in the health centers to check on my daughter and me. I gave birth to my precious daughter in this very difficult situation.”
As days have passed, Elizabeth made a promise to herself and whispered to her newborn daughter that one day, everything will be okay, that things will change and they will be fine. She also whispered that she will do her absolute best to give her a good life just like what she had when she was still a child and under the guidance of her parents.
Three days before Elizabeth’s birthday, she has received a heart-breaking message from her sister, asking her to come back to Manila and bring the children with her. Her father has passed away, and Elizabeth felt like the whole world has fallen on her.
“My father was gone! I did not know how I could live without him. Who was I going to talk with when I needed financial help? I could not ask my siblings because they also have their families.”
Financial status was getting worse and worse as days have passed. Elizabeth begged her husband to find work, or find anything to do for money to feed the family, but nothing has changed. She started to go to other houses for work, but the only salary she earns is USD 150 per month (S$268.5 back then).
Explored option to work abroad
Desperate times called for desperate measures, thought Elizabeth. She was already deciding to work abroad to earn more money. Though she waited until her daughter turned three before she could talk to her husband about the idea of pursuing work abroad.
Come September 2010, she finally dared to talk to her husband in front of her sleeping children. “Why don’t you go abroad to find work, even just for two years so that we feed our children and maybe we can save and we can start a small business again?” she asked him.
His response was annoying:
“Elli, why don’t you go yourself, go abroad and work, and I will stay with the kids and will take care of them like the way you take care of them.”
Upon hearing his reply, Elizabeth felt very upset. “Is this the man I am supposed to learn to love?” she thought.
Since then, she made a vow to make their lives better and make the biggest sacrifice to leave and be far away from her children just to give them a better life. Without her husband knowing of her plans, she applied to a recruitment agency owned by their neighbor who was married to a Singaporean.
In just three months, her documents were done and an employer who interviewed her over the phone hired her. Three days after her daughter’s 3rd birthday, she left the Philippines. That was the 26th of January 2011.
A week before Elizabeth’s flight, she still has not mentioned her plans to her husband, hoping he would do something and find work to support the family so she would not have to leave, but sadly, he never did.
Worked in Singapore to support children
Her first year of working in Singapore was worse than Elizabeth has expected. Though she did not mind the hard times and difficulties that she was experiencing, in her mind, she was there to work and earn money for her children.
Elizabeth was working for 13 days, from morning until the night before being given eight hours off on Sundays. Her employers would look stare down at her during mealtime, and talked down to her, making her feel like a beggar or a rodent.
Although she only expected to cook and clean for her employers, they made her do more work like bringing them water in the middle of the night if they were thirsty, taking care of them, and even cleaning up after them when they were sick.
She was willing to do all these sacrifices just to earn money for her children.
However, there were a few changes when Elizabeth got her second employer in September of 2012. It was a little bit easier for her because they were friendlier and treated her more like family. although she was still only given a few hours off on two Sundays a month.
In April 2013, her employers moved and Elizabeth stayed with them for a year in Egypt. The timetable was six hours later than the Philippines, so she communicated less with her children. The telephone calls were getting to be too expensive for her to call daily. It turned out that staying in Egypt was very difficult.
This was the year Elizabeth learned that her husband was already cheating on her. Worse, he has ignored the needs of the children and was no longer taking care of them. He started spending the money she was sending for the children on himself and his other woman.
At this time, Elizabeth was stumbling and too stressed to focus on work.
Three months after her visa expired, Elizabeth talked to both her employers, telling them that if they cannot process her legal papers or renew her visa, she would have no choice but to go back to Singapore.
It was her most difficult decision because her employers have treated her nicely and she loved their daughter as her own since she raised her since she was seven months old.
Went home to the Philippines
In April 2014, Elizabeth decided to come back to the Philippines, took her kids from her estranged husband’s house, and moved them back to Manila. With a small savings of US$2,900 (116,000 Php, or S$3262.09), she started another small business to cover all her expenses and needs of the children.
She opened another small store with the savings she had for the last three years. Sadly, just like before, it only lasted for five months. The daily income was too small for their daily needs.
So, she decided to go back and work in Singapore in the last quarter of 2014.
Elizabeth feared that the next time she would come home to the Philippines, the same thing would happen again. So she decided to work in Singapore until her children could finish their studies until college. She was willing to stay in Singapore and be far from them as long as she can provide for the needs of her children and make their lives easier than when they were still with their father.
“I thought that as a single mother dreaming for her children to get a better life, having a good education and not struggling for any difficulties along with their lives, this was the only solution to my situation.”
It broke her heart to decide to stay in Singapore throughout their growing years. Elizabeth knew it was going to be hard for her, and much harder for her kids.
She has been trying to find a way to change the situation. She has heard from the recruitment agency that some of the employers are willing to sponsor their helpers with their studies, so Elizabeth planned to go back to school when she got back to Singapore.
Returned to Singapore to work and study
By September 2014, Elizabeth was back in Singapore, doing the same line of work she has done before. This time she had an Indian employer, once again having only two days a month off, having curfew during off day, waking up as early as 5:30 am, then working all day as late as 11:30 pm.
Unfortunately, her plans to go to school during her day off did not work. No employer was willing to sponsor her or give her a day off at least once a week so she could go to school. But, Elizabeth swallowed her pride again as the most important thing for her to do is earn money for her kids and their studies.
In May 2016, Elizabeth has finished her contract with the Indian employer and was fortunate enough to find a British couple with a good offer, they were willing to sponsor her studies. They would provide her 1 day off per week and even on public holidays.
Elizabeth finally was able to fulfill her dreams of going back to school. The employers have opened the door of her dreams. She called them the “angels” that she waited for to guide her to the right path. Her boss enrolled her in a charity school program exclusively for domestic workers run by Aidha (a non-profit organization empowering women).
Aidha provides financial literary courses such as money management, computer literacy, leadership, and entrepreneurship for people who have lower incomes. Elizabeth was getting a step closer to having her own business, back to the country where she can be with her children, and Aidha was doing the best for her dreams.
Elizabeth also did volunteer work for some of the mentors in her school. She has also been attending seminars on how to save and invest money wisely.
I want to be there for my children
“I really want to move forward with my life and work to the next level. I don’t want to be a house helper for the rest of my life. I don’t want my kids to grow up without me beside them. I want to be there to see them grow up with my own eyes. I want to march with them when they receive their diplomas and certificates. I wanted to celebrate with them on their birthdays and all special days in their lives.”
Elizabeth is finally climbing the steps to reaching her life’s goals of becoming financially literate and business-minded. This way, she will be able to save enough money to start her own [bigger] business so she can be with her kids and support them on her own.
“I love my children with all my heart and more than anyone in this world, and it breaks my heart every day not to be with them. In the past eight-and-a-half years, I have only been able to see, kiss, hug, and be with them for 14 days every two years.”
Elizabeth is doing her best as a mother, but she could not stop thinking about the fact that her children are growing up so fast. They are growing up without their mother, without experiencing the love and care that she has been giving to other people’s children whom she works for in Singapore.
Elizabeth Libre Gong is reaching out to anybody who can help her reach her dreams more quickly. She strongly believes that some people and organizations are willing to help her with strong determinations to change her life.
A very strong woman who wants to prove to people who looked down on her that she can change the status of her life. Not only is Elizabeth Libre Gong doing this to improve her life, but to be able to give a wonderful life for her children. That would be her greatest achievement.
PERSPECTIVE: In her essay “It’s Not Too Late” — first published in Call and Response 2: A Singapore Migrant Anthology by Math Paper Press — Elizabeth Libre Gong tells of the sacrifices she has made as a mother who has spent most of her months away from her children, and the hopes that she has for herself and her family moving forward.
Call and Response 2 is an anthology that brings together more than 70 writers and poets, who all have different relationships with Singapore and the word “migrant”, to cover topics ranging from homesickness to prejudice to romance to friendship. For more information about the book, go to this website.