OFW’s photos champion migrant workers

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Ryo Nagaoka
Fujifilm PH President Ryo Nagaoka welcoming Xyza (middle) to her book launch. -- MICHELLE ANNE P. SOLIMAN

By Michelle Anne P. Soliman

IN NOVEMBER 1996, Georgia left her home while the children were sleeping one evening. With only P20 (about four US cents) she traveled with her husband to the airport. She was scheduled to take a flight to Singapore to become a domestic worker.

“She was staying there as a tourist as she waited for the employment agency to find work for her. This was illegal. But she was willing to take the risk. Two years later, Georgia left Singapore and came to Hong Kong where she has since continued to work as a domestic helper,” Xyza Bacani, the eldest of her three children, wrote. “She saw her children once every two years when she came home on vacation. Her children grew up without a mother. She only got to know them through brief visits, phone calls, and photographs.”

Georgia is one of 2.3 million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who have left their families in their home country to earn more overseas by serving other people and their families.

In 2006, Ms. Bacani followed her mother’s footsteps and became a domestic worker in Hong Kong. With a loan from her employer, she pursued her passion for photography upon purchasing her first digital single-lens reflex camera. She would roam the streets of Hong Kong alone and cautiously take photos of strangers, as well as images of activities by migrant workers.

“I’m like a ninja photographing other people in their most intimate moments when they think no one is watching,” she told BusinessWorld.

Since making a name in photography, Ms. Bacani has been recognized as one of the BBC’s 100 Women of the World for 2015, and Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia in 2016. On the evening of March 13, she told stories of Filipino migrant workers in Hong Kong through her black and white photographs, displayed at the Ayala Museum souvenir shop.

In the book We Are Like Air, Ms. Bacani focuses on the lives of various Filipinos migrant workers including the story of her family, and its effects on their families. The compilation of photographs was take between 2013 and 2018. It also includes personal letters between the author and her family. The book is written in English, Filipino, and Chinese.

According to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) in a 2017 survey, 59% of overseas Filipino workers were engaged in elementary occupations such as domestic work and hotel and office cleaning; 6.5% are deployed in Hong Kong.

“I want to spotlight the story with these women rather than have the spotlight on me,” Ms. Bacani told BusinessWorld.

“This is the story of different families connected by migration,” she added citing an example from her book of a woman who was taken care of by a Filipina since she was four. The same nanny, after taking time off, came back to serve the same woman when she had her own child.

“These are stories we don’t hear all the time. That’s why I think it’s important that we write them. It’s important that we celebrate things that are happening in real life, especially since it’s actually possible for people who are from two different worlds to connect, despite all the differences.”

Ms. Bacani likens the value of Filipino migrant workers to air. “I strongly believe that migrant workers are like air,” she told the press, citing that they are “important, a necessity for every society to survive, but unseen.”

The 32-year-old domestic worker turned freelance photographer hopes her book will have an impact on the children of migrant workers and their families.

“We forget to celebrate the women who are with us every day, serving our families, and serving other people’s children, and still serving their children in the Philippines.”

“We need to stop treating them as victims all the time. They’re champions. Champions of their own families, and champions of the families serve,” she said.

We Are Like Air is priced at P2,500. For more information and orders, visit