Limited copies of Work Is Work Issue 1 (Hong Kong, 2015) were made available through the efforts of the Youth and Beauty Brigade (YBB) at last year’s Better Living Through Xeroxography (BLTX). It is serendipitous to have picked it up off a pile of unread books and zines at this point in time, post-election, in this limbo between an old administration and a new one, and the probability that as with governments past, there will be little concern for culture and the arts, including cultural workers.
It is serendipitous not because it speaks of these concerns, but because it reminds that while we demand for our rights as cultural workers, so many workers are not even given the right to speak.
Work Is Work is a zine of art and writings by Philippine and Indonesian migrant women workers in HongKong. They had participated in a series of seminars and workshops with the Mission for Migrant Workers of St. John’s Cathedral and HERFund, to “concretize the ill-effects of the Mandatory Live-in Policy through their life stories” (Introduction, 4).
The Mandatory Live-in Policy for foreign domestic helpers (FDHs) in HongKong has been a policy since 2003. Through the years it has proven to be connected to the rise of various instances of abuse, particularly with regards prolonged working hours and poor living conditions.
What this context prepares one for is an anthology of works about pain and suffering in the hands of employers and recruiters, a slew of sob stories and testimonials from migrant workers. And yes, those narratives exist in Work Is Work, but it is balanced out not just with the expected texts that speak of gratefulness and hope, but also the surprising narratives that reveal the breadth and scope of experience and realization.
In these migrant workers’ own words, with seemingly little intervention and mediation, one finds that while the stories might be familiar, the specific voices and the chosen forms—if not the fluidity of it, or lack of concern for it—are what allow for these texts to be new, if not different, from the usual local anthologies produced about our migrant workers, that tell their stories for them, instead of allowing them to speak.
In Work Is Work, migrant workers use the language they are familiar with, revealing a diversity of Englishes that is a measure of social class and learnedness, immersion and exposure. And freedom.
The narratives are not limited by imaginations of how stories should be told, or how they must look. Instead writers were allowed the freedom to tell their stories as they saw fit.
“Live-In” by Evelyn Balangiao are migrant workers’ different experiences under the live-in policy, stories that she heard in church after Sunday mass, as she eavesdropped on strangers’ conversations. “my work is work!” by Bernadette Masa begins by telling the basic facts of her arrival in HongKong, and ends with a sense of the value of domestic workers not only to the households they serve, but the nation they work in. It is the process that she uses to move from beginning to end that is interesting: it is a list of the chores she needs to do each day, where her work is in fact labor, a battery of daily activities that define her as person, as worker.
A series of phrases written by Lory Jean Yungco in “I Know Who I Am,” meanwhile, refuses this definition of identity as worker, asserting ownership of self beyond work, declaring that the lack of choices does not mean the inability to think.
Images and texts
Handwritten narratives are published in their original forms, in the handwriting of authors, on whatever paper they might have written it on. These textual narratives published as images instead of as clean, edited, typewritten, uniform texts layer the stories with an authenticity that is borne of the conditions that make handwriting easier, more comfortable, for these writers.
The photographs, meanwhile, layer the stories with veracity and accuracy: Where the words are equated with faces and bodies, situations and events. Illustrations and artworks make the compilation of experiences a little less difficult to swallow, even when the stories are all premised on the particular pain of being left without a choice but to work away from home, in conditions they have no control over.
In the Introduction, Cynthia Abdon-Tellez says: “. . . the materials produced by the MDWs come in various degrees and depths of expression. Kindness and generosity are urged from the readers to appreciate this work.”
And yet it is not kindness nor generosity that is needed in valuing this work. It is acceptance of the fact that there is no one way to tell a story, no one way to speak. Certainly it highlights how those of us who claim to speak for others and tell their stories, will always fail because of the mere fact of mediation. We might as well engage in the more important task of providing people with the opportunity to tell their own stories, in whatever way they can, while we become the readers who know to appreciate and value these stories, no matter how different in form, how painful the content.
If anything, it is Work Is Work that reminds us that for all our notions of how important writers are, it is people writing—speaking and thinking, un-silenced and un-fettered, and without fear— that is most important.