Marking 20 years
of bold journalism,
reader supported.

A Global Nanny's Story

The Philippines exports caregivers, stripping its own families of mothers. Crisanta Sampang knows the cost.

Deborah Campbell 28 Mar
image atom

"It's a small world…but not if you have to clean it."

Artist Barbara Kruger appended this pithy caption to a photo of a 1950's housewife wielding a magnifying glass. Well, goodbye to all that. Yesterday's (truly) desperate housewife, suffocating under a mountain of laundry and suburban ennui, is today's manic working mother, striving to balance home and family obligations without falling off the corporate ladder. Yet, to turn the magnifying glass on millions of homes in prosperous nations is to discover something rather more unsettling than expanding colonies of dust bunnies or rings around the toilet bowl. The world has indeed become smaller, but the ones cleaning up after it are, increasingly, millions of poor women who have left behind their homes and families in far-off lands to care for ours.

What prompted me to look more closely at a phenomenon so vast and unprecedented that it now strikes me as shocking never to have seen it addressed in any editorial on globalization was a slim, new book by Vancouver-based writer Crisanta Sampang. Sampang was born in the Philippines and worked as a nanny/housekeeper in Singapore from 1984-88, before immigrating to Canada to take a similar job. In Maid in Singapore, she writes that hers "is a story not of one person, but of countless others like me, who had left both hearth and home in the hope of finding a better life abroad." Like a million Filipinos a year, 70 percent of them women, she saw migrant work as her ticket out of poverty. What she left behind remained a secret for more than twenty years.

'Love' for hire

On a recent sunny afternoon, I join Sampang at a Filipino restaurant on the west side of Vancouver. It's the weekend and the direct-to-the-Philippines courier service across the street is crammed with women sending home the remittances that sustain their families. With more than eight million citizens working abroad, some ten percent of the population, foreign remittances are the Philippines' largest source of income, bringing in upwards of US$8 billion a year. Through nannies, housekeepers, nurses and home support workers, the country's primary export is something rarely identified as a global commodity: care.

In Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy, co-editors Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild sum up the "feminization of migration" in startling terms. "The lifestyles of the First World are made possible by a global transfer of the services associated with a wife's traditional role-child care, homemaking and sex-from poor countries to rich ones…Today, while still relying on Third World countries for agricultural and industrial labor, the wealthy countries also seek to extract something harder to measure and quantify, something that can look very much like love."

They offer a theory on the way modern life-workaholic, narcissistic, cut off from the obligations and supports of community-is affecting the emotional landscape. "It's as if the wealthy parts of the world are running short on precious emotional and sexual resources and have had to turn to poorer regions for fresh supplies."

The restaurant where I meet Sampang is full of nannies and former nannies, but she may be the first of their lot to publish a memoir. "It's a niche subject and no real domestic worker has written on it except The Nanny Diaries," says the very petite Sampang. She suspects the nanny diarists were fakes. They write in "this gossipy American way," she says, "looking down on their employers. I didn't look up to my employers, but I didn't think I was better, either."

On the rare occasion that magazines like Vogue write about the hidden world of domestic workers, it is inevitably from the employers' point of view: the secret jealousies of an ambitious Gucci-clad mother confronted by a nanny who bonds more closely to the children than either of the parents do (and, even more galling, may be younger and thinner than she). Or it's in the form of deliciously scandalous novels like the bestselling Diaries, wherein the caretaker (a graduate student on her way up and out, since no one would stay in such a job) exposes the comically dysfunctional lives of Manhattan's über-rich.

Sampang's memoir is about as far from that perspective as Vancouver is from her rural farming village. Her story begins with the suicide of Imelda, a desperate 23-year-old Filipina domestic who had lost her job. Imelda's parents had borrowed money to pay an agency to bring her to Singapore; if she was unsuccessful they could lose their farm. Imelda's suicide-later echoed by the suicide of a Filipina domestic working in Canada-is the most extreme response to a situation characterized, Sampang writes, by "isolation and lack of emotional support."

A long held secret

Though it begins on a tragic note, Sampang's account of the profession is largely positive, even light-hearted. She describes the employers who warmly welcomed her into their family and didn't object when she began writing about them in features for the Straits Times, her first foray into writing. She chronicles the way other domestics found love in the arms of migrant construction workers (or in one another's), touching briefly on the consequences for marriages back home.

Smart, attractive and confident, Sampang flourished in Singapore and Canada. She was not among the abused, the runaways, or the victims of sexual assault-fates that prey upon the particular vulnerabilities of workers in private homes. "I was living in a bubble with good employers, good people," she says. "And I didn't have much experience with abused nannies. But I heard things."

What she heard ran the gamut from those who didn't get time off to those that didn't get enough to eat. "I heard stories that their dogs were better fed than the domestic." In Canada, where many Filipinas who arrive under the federal Live-In Caregiver Program and have university degrees, there are reports of 16-hour works days, withheld pay, the subcontracting of their services, physical and sexual abuse, even forced captivity. Many keep silent for fear of losing their jobs.

At the table next to us, a Filipina toddler in a pink jumpsuit samples from her mother's plate. Watching the little girl, I am reminded of Sampang's secret. By the time she left the Philippines in 1984, she had separated from her alcoholic husband and was struggling to support three daughters; aged seven, five, and two. Desperate to find work abroad, she did not declare her children. Later, when the opportunity arose to go to Canada-where the Live-In Caregiver Program allows domestic workers to apply for citizenship after two years-she did the same. After all, a domestic worker in Canada makes about the same per month that the average Filipino earns in a year-roughly $1000 US.

It was not until her book was published in Singapore last fall-hitting the Singapore Times bestseller list within two weeks-that her partner of ten years, writer Daniel Wood, read it and learned of the children. "He was blindsided," she says. But he understood her reasons. "It has made us closer. It was a great relief because now I can talk about my children."

This, then, is the hidden cost of the global trade in mothering-a cost that has become, in the words of Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, a "dark child's burden." An estimated 30 percent of Filipino children, some 8 million, live in households where at least one parent works abroad. In three Asian countries-the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka-women are the majority of migrant workers and most are mothers.

'Working for everyone'

"My children 'understand,'" says Sampang, curling her fingers into quotation marks, "but it's still not good enough. I thought they would be better off growing up with my mother, but apparently not." The middle daughter dropped out of college at eighteen to marry a merchant marine after becoming pregnant. "I asked her why she got married so young," says Sampang. "She cried and said there was a hole in her life that cannot be filled. Now she is married and has a family to fill the hole."

The effect of migration on families is a "two-edged sword," Sampang says. Working abroad enabled her to buy her mother a house and property and send one of each of her brothers' children to college with the understanding that they will help their siblings. "A Filipino nanny is not working for herself only, she's working for everyone, first and foremost her children, then other family members."

But children who grow up with absentee parents show higher delinquency rates and often experience "reunification issues" after years of living apart. A cultural upheaval has taken place as parents compensate for their absence with money and gifts. "In the Philippines, every teenager has a cell phone, an iPod," says Sampang. "Everyone wants the latest fashion. It's become a western culture of materialism, as if the local is not good enough."

She sees an ingrained "colonial mentality" extending back to the Spanish and American occupations of the Philippines; a mentality that says "white skin is better," in which "everyone wants to leave." It is as if centuries of dependence on wealthier nations have created a crisis of faith in their own culture and country. A survey of children of Filipino migrant workers found that 60 percent want to leave. "They leave because they think life is better outside-and life is better," says Sampang. "There is so much poverty."

Sampang has made a good life for herself, working in television and film, exploring options that would have been unthinkable back home. Like most female migrant workers, she has settled abroad, visiting the Philippines for several weeks a year. Her, and the millions like her, epitomize the adaptable workforce praised by free market economists. They have made tough decisions that may just be their best options in the global economy.

Migrant work, dictators' debt

But why are these women forced to make such wrenching decisions, essentially abandoning their families in order to save them? What creates the conditions that compel them to leave?

The disturbing answer is that entire countries have become dependent on the incomes of migrant workers in order to service the foreign debts owed to international lenders like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. These loans have, to a remarkable degree, been handed to corrupt leaders with few or no controls. It would almost appear that the lenders crave the kind of power these massive debts afford them, from lucrative interest payments to the ability to dictate economic and social policy.

The term "crony capitalism" was first coined to describe Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who counted among his personal friends Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. In 1972, Marcos pronounced martial law; two years later he enacted the first government policies in support of overseas migrant work. Such policies have since evolved from a stop-gap measure to a permanent economic survival strategy.

Between 1980 and 1999, the Philippines received nine structural adjustment loans from the World Bank. By the time Marcos went into exile in Hawaii following a people's revolution in 1986, half of the government's annual budget was earmarked to service foreign debt. And what did these debts accomplish?

The largest single debt of the Philippines is the Bataan nuclear power station. Constructed for more than $2 billion (all amounts in US dollars) on a fault line at the foot of an active volcano, it was completed in the mid-'80s but never opened due to safety concerns. The plant was built by US multinational Westinghouse, which allegedly paid $80 million in kickbacks to the Marcos government (and which built a similar plant in South Korea for a third the cost). Though Westinghouse eventually paid the Philippines government $100 million to drop charges of fraud, Filipino taxpayers still pay $155,000 a day in interest on the plant. The debt will not be repaid until 2018.

"We are not asking for debt forgiveness; we are asking for justice. We are asking the creditors to repent and debt cancellation would be a symbol of that repentance," said Archbishop Alberto Ramento of the Philippine Independent Church, in an interview in 1998. The IMF and World Bank, he said, had given loans to the Marcos regime despite knowledge of its corruption. "We are paying for the shoes of Imelda Marcos," he said.

A 'war' for dignity

Structural readjustment loans have required governments like the Philippines to cut funding to education, health and social services, exacerbating poverty and perpetuating the export of labour. Yet, the influx of foreign capital has not been used for development that might create the kind of society where women like Crisanta Sampang and her daughters can achieve their potential. Education has become focused on exportable skills, with doctors studying to be nurses in order to emigrate. Debt payments now account for nearly 70 percent of the Philippines' government expenditures. Spending on social services shrank from 35 percent of the budget in 2000 to 23 percent in 2004, sowing the seeds for greater social instability and extremism-and, of course, more migration.

The same factors lurk behind the growth of sex tourism-another form of "women's work," one with a long history linked to the American military presence in the Philippines. A friend who worked for an American high-tech company located at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines described the peeler bars and brothels that have sprung up around it to service US troops. One of his colleagues, an overweight middle-manager in his fifties, had found several Filipina "girlfriends" there, some as young as fourteen.

"Developing countries are fighting a war," said Archbishop Ramento. "We are fighting to live with dignity and we cannot win this war because we do not have the power to win it on the streets of Manila alone. But it can be won in the streets of London and Washington by those who have the power."

The kitchens and cradles of suburbia can seem a long way from the slums and brothels of the Third World, but they are linked by economic policies with far-reaching consequences. Somebody's mother, so attentive to the needs of her employers, listens to the voices of her children through the crackle of a long-distance connection. She notes how they have grown and changed, how they have become, through years of separation, almost strangers. Then she hangs up the phone as another voice, someone else's child or parent, calls her name.

Vancouver writer Deborah Campbell is the author of This Heated Place.

Join Crisanta Sampang and hear her story at the Canadian launch of Maid in Singapore on Thursday, March 30, 2006, at Fireside Books, 2652 Arbutus Street in Vancouver, from 7 to 9 PM.  [Tyee]

  • Share:

Get The Tyee's Daily Catch, our free daily newsletter.

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.


  • Be thoughtful about how your words may affect the communities you are addressing. Language matters
  • Challenge arguments, not commenters
  • Flag trolls and guideline violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity, learn from differences of opinion
  • Verify facts, debunk rumours, point out logical fallacies
  • Add context and background
  • Note typos and reporting blind spots
  • Stay on topic

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist, homophobic or transphobic language
  • Ridicule, misgender, bully, threaten, name call, troll or wish harm on others
  • Personally attack authors or contributors
  • Spread misinformation or perpetuate conspiracies
  • Libel, defame or publish falsehoods
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities
  • Post links without providing context

Most Popular

Most Commented

Most Emailed


The Barometer

Will the BC Conservatives’ Surge Last?

Take this week's poll