Part 1: An undocumented OFW’s most awaited Christmas

Lian Buan

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Part 1: An undocumented OFW’s most awaited Christmas
Regina Laborce came to the UK in 1997 with a tourist visa and worked as an undocumented domestic helper for 14 years before she got to see her daughter again

The story starts at an upscale hotel on Drury Lane in London one summer day in June of 1997. Regina “Regie” Laborce, then 31, was desperately dialing the number of somebody she was told might be able to help her. If the person didn’t pick up, Regie would have nowhere else to go.

The hotel was her last destination as a “tourist” before she bolted, hopefully never to be seen by UK immigration again. Her boyfriend introduced her to a fixer in Manila who set her up with loaded bank accounts and business papers signed off by the trade department.

The story was that she was going to Scotland for a business conference, then spend time in London for a bit of leisure time before heading home. That was how she found herself at that hotel on Drury Lane. The fixer promised to get her to that point, then it was every man for himself.

The phone just kept ringing and it was her last day at the hotel. She turned to the only other woman in her group for help. Her name was Lorina and she had managed to contact her relatives in Plaistow, in the outer parts of London where housing was cheaper.

It was 5:30 am when the man who Regie would come to call Manong (Uncle) Ben fetched them at Drury Lane. Uncle Ben had just finished his shift as a valet in a casino on Grosvenor Road in the rich Mayfair district.

Regie bid goodbye to the two men in her group – a dentist and a sales rep. She never saw them again. “Saan na kaya sila ngayon (I wonder where they are now)?”

She lived with Manong Ben, his wife, and their two young sons in a two-bedroom in Plaistow. She and her friend slept in the living room.

For one month, she stayed in Plaistow rent-free. “Mabait naman sila, pero pakapalan na lang din talaga ng mukha (The couple was very nice, but I knew I was overstaying their welcome),” Regie said, chuckling affectionately. “I looked after their kids, and sometimes I would buy them groceries.”

After two weeks, she found a job as a housekeeper near Victoria Station, where undocumented immigrants like herself alight the trains from different parts of Europe. She considers herself lucky to have gotten a job so quickly. The English, Regie said, were fond of hiring undocumented househelp so they won’t have to pay their tax.

She was then earning £280 a week – her monthly salary as a helper in Taiwan where she worked before deciding to give the UK a try.

“British pounds were the dream,” she told me.

New country, new baby

BORN IN THE UK. Gienell's christening photo

Just as she was settling into her job, ready to send remittances to her two-year-old son with an estranged partner, Regie found out she was two months pregnant with the new boyfriend she had left in the Philippines.

The baby’s father could not follow her to the UK because all the money had been spent on Regie’s trip. And a man would not have the same luck as an undocumented migrant in the UK. “No one wants to hire a male for a domestic job,” Regie said.

Regie had planned to leave Plaistow to be a live-in housekeeper, but her pregnancy forced her to stay longer with Manong Ben. Instead of taking it easy, she worked even harder.

“Two weeks due na ko pero nagtatrabaho pa rin ako (I was still working two weeks before I was due to deliver),” Regie said. For fear of getting caught by immigration authorities, Regie could not register with an NHS practice. In a country with one of the best health systems in the world, Regie had to pay for expensive private health care.

When it was time to give birth, Manong Ben took her to a private facility where one of her Filipino friends, Merlyn, stayed by her bedside.

She named her daughter Maria Gienell – “Gie” from Regie and ‘nell’ from the father’s name, Arnel. Regie took her back to Plaistow where a bed had been set up in a small room they shared with the two boys. There was no more space for a crib, so Regie slept next to Gienell in her small bed.

With more expenses expected for a new baby, Regie sought live-in domestic work, which will pay so much more. She couldn’t find an employer who allowed  her newborn to live with them, and she couldn’t leave her in Plaistow.

Her friend Merlyn married a British man and they had a son. Merlyn’s husband had a good job so she could afford to take care of her son at home. Regie had a number of friends who had come to England like she did and ended up with British men who gave them citizenship.

When Regie speaks of these women, she pauses mid-sentence to say, “They’re so lucky,” followed by a soft sigh, as if wishing she had done the same. Instead, she got pregnant with a man who could not come to the country of her dreams, leaving her alone to fend for their unplanned child.

At the time, Merlyn was renting a flat in Edmonton in East London with enough space for a baby girl. Gienell was sent to live with her future godmother while her mother lived in someone else’s home to look after someone else’s children.

This is a narrative shared by millions of Filipino families. Anywhere in the world you would find stories of two kinds of children: the child in the Philippines growing up without a parent, and the child elsewhere being raised by the former’s parent.

Regie and Gienell had a chance to live a different story. Gienell had a birthright to something a lot of people were risking everything to have: a British passport and all the privileges that come with it.

Before 1983, all children born in the UK were automatically British citizens.
After that, citizenship was only granted to UK-born children if at least one of the parents was British or settled in Britain. Gienell had very slim chances of getting a British passport, and it would be exposing Regie to too much risk.

Gienell stayed with her godmother in Edmonton for two years before Regie decided it was best to send her daughter back to the Philippines.

Living costs for her would be cheaper back home, and Regie would be able to work more hours. More importantly, the risk of exposure would be greatly reduced. The dream for British pounds would be kept alive.

The price to pay for that dream, however, was of a greater cost: not being able to raise a child, and enduring many Christmases apart. (To be continued) –

This was first published in

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.