Saturday, July 25, 2020

Faces of Migration and Return: Story 2 - Erlinda F.Chi

Story 2: Erlinda F. Chi

The past few months have brought a series of calamities to the Philippines. Before 2019 was over, four major earthquakes rocked Mindanao and Typhoon Ursula battered the Visayas. Hopes that 2020 would start on a more positive note have been dashed by the Taal Volcano eruption and the outbreak of COVID-19. The latter has brought much of the world to a stand-still, endangering lives and livelihoods.

As of this writing, we have already heard stories of migrant workers in Hong Kong being let go as expat employers return to their home countries. Travel disruptions also inflict financial hard-ship on migrants workers that are unable to return to their job sites and have to remain in the Philippines indefinitely.

Return and reintegration are considered as the last stages of migration cycle, but how prepared are Filipino migrant workers for this? In times of grim headlines, we will focus on sharing the success stories our Ateneo Leadership and Social Entrepreneurship (ALSE) graduates who have returned home for good, started their business and are still running them today.

Erlinda F. Chi, ALSE 12

Flowerqueen Blooms

Married female migrant workers seek employment abroad to support their nuclear family while young single women, depending on her role in the family, support their parents and siblings. More often than not, extended families also benefit from migrantsremittances. Some leave because they seek self-fulfillment, adventure, and want to discover the world outside their present environment. Others work abroad because they want to escape from domestic violence.

Erlinda F. Chi belongs to those women who sought new adventures. It was not poverty that primarily drove her to go abroad. She had a good education. She finished her Bachelor of Science in Secretarial Administration at Saint Mary's University and some MBA units at St. Paul University in Tuguegarao, Cagayan. After graduation, she found a teaching job at the University of St. Louis in the same city.

A new adventure

After 10 years of teaching, Erlin was raring to explore something new and discover what life could offer her outside the Philippines. The only way for her to do this was to become an overseas Filipino worker. At the age of 34, she left her home in Saguday, a fifth-class municipality of Quirino Province in August 1991 bound for Hong Kong.

At one point in time, there were six people in Erlins family who worked abroad: five in Hong Kong and one in Canada. Today, all four who worked in Hong Kong, including Erlin, have already come home. This is not surprising since Cagayan Valley, where Quirino Province, is  one of the top OFW-sending regions in the country. In Hong Kong, one will find many OFWs mostly coming from the same region or hometowns, especially from northern Philippines.

Switching jobs from a schoolteacher to a foreign household worker was not an easy decision for Erlin. Her first two years in Hong Kong were miserable and depressing. She was crying every day and experienced difficulties in adjusting to her new situation. There were times that she was inconsolable and refused to go back to her employer after her day off. She thought about what kind of life she landed. She had two maids at home, but in Hong Kong she was the maid.

All things considered, life got better for Erlin after two years working in Hong Kong and she felt finally adjusted to her new situation. Fortunately, her employers were generous, kind, respectful, and understanding. But she still felt it was not an easy job to work as a domestic helper. Little by little she overcame loneliness, met new friends and decided to stay in Hong Kong until 1994. Many domestic helpers developed special attachment to their employer. Loyalty and the perception that their employers need them specially those who treat them well motivate them to stay.

Erlins husband died in 2004 while she was working in Hong Kong leaving her with their lone daughter. Now a widow, Erlin decided to move on with her life in Hong Kong, serving the same employer who had gotten sick. This became another reason for extending her stay. According to the contract agreement in Hong Kong for domestic helpers, Erlin had to go home every two years to renew her contract, which she did a couple of times for a total of 21 years. Based on a study undertaken in 2012 on the Behaviors and Practices of Filipino Domestic Workers in Hong Kong (Rispens-Noel), the average length of stay for migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong is seven years and three months.

Fossilized flowers

During the period 1994-1997, Erlin decided to stay longer in the Philippines. It was during this extended stay in Saguday that she noticed her mother was laboriously drying and dyeing leaves, grasses, and twigs gathered from the rice fields and hills and made them into flowers. She learned that the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) conducted a training in fossilized flower making in 1994, which her mother attended. Her mother immediately practiced what she learned and was eventually recognized as one of the pioneer fossilized flower makers in Quirino.

Seeing the business potential of fossilized flower making, Erlin registered Patrocinio's Arts Gifts and Decors in 1997. The business was named after her late eldest brother, with Erlin as the registered owner, and run and managed by her sister, Agnes.

In the same year after she officially registered her business, she decided to go back to Hong Kong. By this time, she was already feeling adjusted to her new life as a domestic helper.  She got involved in various activities of the Filipino community in Hong Kong. She spent most of her free days attending leadersforums conducted by the Philippine Consulate. She also organized the Hong Kong International Association of Computer Enthusiasts and taught computer classes to Filipino domestic helpers at Far East Computer Center, C and D Computer Center, and Welkins Computer Center on a voluntary basis. During that period, she tried to monitor the progress of her business, but she could only do very little. She was highly dependent on the information she received from home.

Then in 2012, Erlin attended the first ever Ateneo Leadership and Social Entrepreneurship (LSE) course conducted in Hong Kong. While attending the course, Erlin had ample time to rethink her business back home and realized some weaknesses. She decided to submit Flowerqueen Enterprises as her business plan. She proposed new directions for her business and for the first time, she finally felt she had a full grasp of how to run it and what it should be. The lessons and tools she learned from LSE made her more systematic, analytical and more self-confident. The first thing she did after LSE was to change the name of her business to Flowerqueen Enterprises and designate her daughter Maria Lynx Brenda Chi as owner. This was the start of Erlins life as a social entrepreneur, juggling between her work and managing her business from a distance. Flowerqueen Enterprises is one of the business plans presented in LSE 2012 that was actually implemented.

She also learned how to manage her personal finance. She stopped sending money to her mother, nieces, nephews, and siblings, unless urgent and necessary. Except for her mother, she encouraged her relatives to make flowers and promised to buy them. In this way, they earn something through their own efforts instead of just waiting for the money she sent. She finally had a chance to start saving money for her business.

Flowerqueen Enerprises

Flowerqueen Enterprises is a handicraft business venture that manufactures fossilized flowers, decorative products, and artworks. They use indigenous materials like weeds, leaves, twigs, seeds, grasses, driftwood and other useful waste materials. After a laborious processes of drying, bleaching and dyeing, flower assemblers create colorful flowers and bouquets. The flowers are used during weddings, graduation, debut, anniversaries, graduation, TeachersDay, Fathers Day, Mothers Day, Christmas, and other occasions.

From the first training conducted in 1994, the fossilized flower making in Quirino developed into a thriving business destined for local and international markets. The business created employment for unemployed couples, low-income individuals, out of school youths, and those who have physical barriers to employment, such as inmates. The Department of Social Work and Development of Quirino also contracted Flowerqueen in 2016 to train women under the conditional cash transfer (CCT) program locally known as Pantawid Pamilya Pilipino Program or 4Ps — a government program that provides conditional cash grants to the poorest of the poor in the Philippines. Around 42 participants attended the training.

At present, Flowerqueen has two full-time and three part-time workers who can produce 1,000 2,000 flowers a day. The production increases during peak season. They buy materials locally such as twigs, leaves and grasses that are abundant in the area, which also provide extra income to elderly people and small farmers. Housewives also supply finished products to Flowerqueen an earn extra income for their family’s basic needs. Aside from the local market, Erlin also sells fossilized flowers in Manila, La Union, Nueva Ecija, Baguio, Bulacan, Davao, South Cotabato, and Hong Kong.

Continuous training

To stay in the business, Flowerqueen conducts regular training for processors of raw materials and assemblers of flowers. It strives to ensure unique and high-quality output. It also offer specialized floral arrangements and church decorations, including local door-to- door deliveries. When online selling was not yet quite popular, the business joined trade fairs in Megamall, World Trade Center in Manila, and Golden Shell Pavilion facilitated by DTI. Owing to its significant contribution to the local economy, the province of Quirino declared fossilized flower making as itsOne Town, One Product – OTOP” a government program through the DTI to encourage entrepreneurship aimed at providing livelihood and employment. The OTOP designation boosted the marketing of fossilised flower products. Flowerqueen is one of the major and pioneer suppliers in Quirino.

Among the challenges Erlin while running the business are shortage of skilled assemblers and lack of drying machines to dry raw materials, especially during rainy season. She needed funds so she can buy the necessary equipment and automate some processes like cutting and drying. She plans to tap the Department of Science and Technology to advise her on the appropriate equipment she needs. However, this plan is something for the future when she can already save enough money. Her concern now is to finish the construction of a multipurpose center that will house her business.

LSE helped her understand how to effectively manage the day-to-day business operations.  She gained enough knowledge on how to deal with her staff. LSE also taught her that her business is not only for her own economic gains but also a social enterprise that helps unemployed men and women in her town and creates even a small change in her community.

Coming home

Erin’s daughter also came to work in Hong Kong so she extended her stay just to be with her. With her daughter also in Hong Kong, there was no one in the Philippines to manage her business. After weighing things, Erlin returned home after 21 years in Hong Kong.

She took over the full ownership and management of the business. Among the first things she did was to tap social media to promote her business. The construction of her multi-purpose center, where she will soon operate her business, is keeping her busy.

Erlins involvement goes beyond her hometown something that she learned from the LSE. Fulfilling a promise she made to Wimler during her LSE days, she came to Davao in June 2017 to conduct training on fossilized flower making in Bansalan. It turned out that there were also interest for the workshop in Davao City. In the end, she conducted an additional two workshops in Davao City for women from Samal Islands and for OFW returness. The training in Bansalan was attended by mostly women including some from the Bagobo-Tagabawa tribe. All in all, Erlin trained about 110 people in Davao. Some participants are now seriously planning to start their own fossilized flower making livelihood program. Erlin showed that our country can benefit from the skills, talents, and expertise of migrant workers if given the right opportunity.

Erlin believes that she has still many things to learn and therefore, she continues to consult her mentors for advice. She also regularly attends seminars and trainings to enhance her skills and expand her networks. Recently, she attended seminars on Business Operations, Product Development, and Brand Equity Development.

Looking back, her 21-year stay in Hong Kong has prepared her for the role she now assumed as a social entrepreneur. If she did not go to Hong Kong, probably she would not have been able to attend the LSE course. Now she felt that she is more confident to meet challenges of managing Flowerqueen Enterprises. I have no regrets that I went to work in Hong Kong for 21 years as a domestic helper. 

I got a lot of experiences which broadened my perception in life and I met people who have influenced and inspired me to be a better person,she said. For Erlin, there is purpose to everything that happened in her life. She faced many challenges but she always found a way to be resilient.
My greatest learning in Hong Kong is to be like a rubber ball not an egg, because an egg breaks when it falls while a rubber ball bounces back,she said.

See Related topic:
                                Story 1: Alvir Catacutan

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