Q & A with Sr. Joseph Lourdes Nubla

by Dan Stockman

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Maryknoll Sr. Joseph Lourdes Nubla was living a relatively quiet life volunteering at the Mission for Migrant Workers in Hong Kong, where she is an official interpreter and translator of statements. The agency empowers and advocates for migrant workers and is backed by the Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist and Catholic churches; its clients are migrant workers in Hong Kong, many of whom are domestic workers from Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Indonesia and the Philippines, who often face physical and sexual abuse, worker status issues, and outright termination without pay or underpayment.

The case of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih brought international attention to these workers’ plight: Sulistyaningsih was essentially kept as a prisoner in the home of Law Wan-tung, a 44-year-old mother of two who regularly deprived her of food, sleep and payment for long hours of grueling work. She suffered broken teeth, scratches all over body and blows to her head at the hands of Law, and when her injuries became so bad she could not work, Law attempted to send her home to Indonesia.

In February, Law was convicted of grievous bodily harm, common assault and failing to pay Sulistyaningsih’s wages or give her statutory rest days. She was sentenced to six years in prison.

The Mission for Migrant Workers helped Sulistyaningsih, and Nubla had a few minutes’ fame when she was photographed by the Agence France Press wire service at a demonstration on Sulistyaningsih’s behalf outside the courthouse as her case was being heard.

Nubla was born in the Philippines, where she attended Holy Ghost College and Maryknoll College, entering the Maryknoll Sisters in New York in 1960. She has served in a variety of posts in Hong Kong since 1964.

Describe the work you do, and how you got involved in it. I think most people in the United States would be surprised to hear there are about 330,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong.

It was through my older sister, Gloria [a Good Shepherd Sister], who was the very first religious to start working with the migrant workers that I got interested when she opened the first shelter for the migrant works in 1984 at the instigation of an Italian priest. She named the house “Bahay Natin” [“Our Home”].

I started volunteering at the Mission for Migrant Workers in the early 1990s when Archbishop Dominic Tang retired, as I was his secretary. 

When I first joined them, I used to be the interpreter between the employers and the migrant workers, especially among the Chinese- and English-speaking employers. I also did a bit of counseling, accompanied clients to court, the Labor Department, consulates, police, the Immigration Department, and we also rescued them from the employer's apartments who wouldn't release them when necessary. 

St. John's Cathedral [Anglican Church] has been so, very generous to us, providing us with office space for over 30 years now, for free! We are very grateful to St. John's Cathedral, as without their generosity, we don't know where the MFMW would be.

What does our treatment of immigrants say about who we are?

It reflects how we appropriate into our lives the faith we profess to hold. By doing what we do, we declare that we value human rights and dignity. By doing what we do, we declare we value human lives. By doing what we do, we also declare the insufficiency of the receiving government, as well as the neglect of the sending government, to their peoples.

After several serious issues from our office have been publicized, people are beginning to recognize our work and are beginning to support us in different ways. There is now an increasing number of local Chinese who come forward in support of migrant domestic workers. Local groups, associations, NGOs and our interns and volunteers from the University of Hong Kong, colleges and even secondary school expressing concern for migrant workers are our grace and hope. This did not happen five or 10 years ago.

Migrant workers are treated differently from Chinese domestic workers, and what makes things worse is that because they are live-ins, this gives the employer the ability to make them work from 16 to 20 hours a day.

Flats in Hong Kong are very small, so many don't have quarters for their domestic workers – they either share a room with a family member (sometimes with a teen-age boy or a youngster who needs to be looked after during the night), or they sleep on the floor in the living/dining room or kitchen. The domestic worker doesn’t have any privacy. For those who sleep in the living or dining room, they are not able to go to sleep until after 1 or 2 a.m., as the family is watching the TV, and many are expected to be up by 5 a.m. Some are not provided with blankets, etc. to keep them warm during the freezing cold winter months.

Are there things that give you hope even amid a sea of bad news? What keeps you going or inspires you?

It is simply the fact that I can extend help to those who need help that made me volunteer at the Mission for Migrant Workers. And it must have been my being a Chinese-Filipino that made me want to help my most valuable compatriots in distress, though as it turns out, we at the Mission for Migrant Workers do not serve Filipinos alone but people of other nationalities and faiths.

What also keeps me going is our demands, such as ending the two-week rule, which requires migrant workers to return to their country of origin within two weeks of losing employment. It usually takes about two months to find another employer. We also want to end the mandatory live-in arrangement for migrant domestic workers, which allows employers to make them work too many hours. The government also needs to prosecute employment agencies that overcharge workers: Many agencies charge the client as much as 500 percent more than what they agreed upon, so their monthly salary goes entirely to the employment agency for the first five or six months, leaving them with nothing.

What I find encouraging is that we have migrant workers themselves trying to learn what we do so they can help their peers. These are workers whose employers allow them to volunteer in our office and in both our shelters as long as their duties have been covered. 

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Follow him on Twitter @DanStockman or on Facebook.]