For 23 years one woman has been championing the cause of domestic workers in Cyprus. AGNIESZKA RAKOCZY meets a determined woman who has helped and had help from the island’s Filipino community
In the midst of the Mitsero tragedy, a Filipino woman put a direct question to the joint session of the House human rights and legal affairs committees’ inquiry into how the Cyprus police handled the search for missing foreign women that starkly summarised the issue that has stunned and shamed the island. “Is it really so difficult to communicate with our organisations so that we can help find those who have been reported as missing?” asked head of the Federation of Filipino Organisations in Cyprus (FFOC) Ester Beatty and the words she directed at the Cyprus authorities couldn’t be simpler.
She had just explained to committee members that often individuals listed by the police as missing persons had in fact returned to their countries either of their own volition and circumstances or because they had been deported. Regardless of what may have compelled them to leave Cyprus, it would have been a simple and straightforward matter for the police to check this out had they cared enough to make a couple of phone calls or to search through their database.
The logic of Beatty’s question sent powerful ripples through a system long inured to answering any such questions if indeed they are ever asked.
The demand for accountability highlighted by the story of the island’s first serial killer and the police force’s negligence in investigating the disappearance of the women he murdered and the accompanying shocked international headlines combined to trigger the resignation of justice minister Ionas Nicolaou and the firing of police chief Zacharias Chrysostomou.
So who is this woman who demanded a simple answer from those who are so accustomed to asking the questions?
I first met Ester several months ago accompanying her one Sunday on an eye-opening tour of the city I thought I knew well. Ester opened doors for me of places that I didn’t have slightest idea even existed. We dropped by a range of Filipino churches and meeting places, ate some wonderful Filipino food and witnessed a rehearsal as Filipina ladies practiced their traditional dances, all within a kilometre of where we set out from. Everywhere we went, we were greeted with open arms, mostly by women, all of whom seemed to know Ester personally. Clearly she knew them and was familiar not just with their stories but deeply involved in helping many of them solve their problems.
“A lot of them call me ate or mamu, which means elder sister or elder mother,” she tells me when I ask about these encounters later on. She says she has been doing these rounds every Sunday for the last 23 years having become involved in working with the Filipino community in Cyprus two years after she settled here.
“My Sundays start around 8am and finish at 7.30pm,” she laughs. “Sometimes I walk as many as 27,000 steps. I start with a mass at the Catholic church and then just go through the old town, visiting various places and meeting people.”
Fifty-five-year-old Beatty acknowledges she is not typical of the Filipina woman who came to Cyprus to work as a domestic help. Born in the mountainous region of Luzon, the largest and most populous island of the Philippines, after graduating from her local high school she went off to study accounting at one of the leading universities of the country, the Far Eastern University of Manila.
“Even then I was pretty independent,” she admits. “I started working during my second year at a recruitment agency. I am quite a confident person and I speak fluent English so my job was to coordinate relations between an applicant and employer. During this time a Swiss company came to the Philippines and saw how I worked and offered me a job in Libya after my graduation so I said ok.”
Libya? “What year was it?” It was 1986, Beatty says. She was 21 and landed in Tripoli a mere month after the Americans and British had bombed hell out of it. “I was employed to be a kind of secretary/administrator in the Swiss service company, which was subcontracting to an Austrian firm that was providing services to oil companies in Libya. I had really no idea what my job was to be like. And I couldn’t cook anything apart from rice or a boiled egg. I had to learn…”
Ester lucked out. Within a month she was transferred from conservative, Kadafi-ardent Tripoli to the Mediterranean port of Benghazi, “a much more laid back city, full of expats”. Her Austrian colleagues proved very helpful as she adjusted to her new life. “There was a lady there, Monica, she became like a second mother to me,” Beatty remembers. “We lived in the same house. She taught me so much.”
Life in Libya was tough and exciting at the same time. “The expat community was very close knit. We were like one big family and we relied on each other. There were lots of parties at the weekends and trips to the beach and the desert,” she recalls. “I met Stuart [her husband] and we really enjoyed our life there together, but then I was expecting a baby and moved to Britain when I was seven months pregnant.”
Thus began a new chapter in Ester’s life. She lived in Wiltshire, not far from Stonehenge. Stewart, meanwhile, kept on working in Libya, visiting home every three months. In 1990 their first son Michael was born. “It was a difficult birth,” Ester remembers. “He was a big baby and a week overdue and on top of everything else it was Christmas so there was not enough staff in the hospital so Stewart had to help the doctor during the birth…
“Michael was born with cerebral palsy so he is a special needs child. He cannot talk and needs 24-hour supervision. We still don’t know what happened during the pregnancy that caused it. We did many tests when he was a small child but we still don’t have a special diagnosis… The only thing I remember was that I had rashes on my tummy during the early stage of the pregnancy while I still didn’t know I was pregnant so we think it was some virus but we don’t know anything for sure.”
When their second child Catherine was born the family decided to re-locate to Cyprus, something that Ester says over time has proved to be the right move for the family. “For Michael it is a good environment,” she explains. “He loves being outdoors and the weather here is so much better than in the UK. And my two other children, Catherine and Matthew, who was born here, regard Cyprus as their home even though nowadays they live in the UK.”
A proud mother, Ester tells me that 26-year-old Catherine, who plays piano and has been Cyprus’ champion in hammer throwing, having graduated with a degree in biology went on to do a masters in environmental science. Now she works for a bio-science company in London but returns to the island regularly to take part in pancyprian competitions. She’s not the only athlete in the family. Her brother, 21-year-old Matthew, an accomplished guitarist, is a discus thrower. He is studying systems engineering at Loughborough University.
“They have turned out well,” Ester tells me, obviously proud of her children. Neither smokes and both are very focused thanks to their sport activities. “Actually watching them train gave me lots of satisfaction. It gave them discipline in life. And I love doing sports. I was always very active as well.”
Laughingly, she notes that she was “a taxi mum” for years until three years ago when Matthew got his driving licence and became independent. “But now, would you believe it? I miss it a lot because I was doing it all my life and then suddenly it stopped…”
But driving her kids around wasn’t the only thing Ester was doing all these years in Cyprus. “When I came to Cyprus I had no idea that the Filipino community on the island would be so large,” she confesses. “But from the moment I started going to church here I just started meeting people. And once you start hearing about their problems, then you start wanting to help.”
I ask if the situation of Filipina women in Cyprus then [in the mid-90s] was much different to what they face today. She thinks not, other than “the trafficking”, she adds. “At least the trafficking finished. Now the women who come here know they come as domestic help. Before they were promised lots of other things.
“But when it comes to the treatment of foreign workers, nothing has really changed. There is still a lot of abuse, lots of maltreatment, lots of sexual harassment. Cyprus is now in the EU but the domestic help here is still treated like slaves. Of course, there are some good employers but the majority tend not to be, especially when we talk about live-in help. They work very long hours. They clean not only their employer’s house but those of the whole extended family. They are often sexually harassed and when they complain it comes down to it being their word against a Cypriot’s word…”
Ester allows that things have improved slightly. In some disputes, for example, the police bring employers and employees together and there are times when it becomes obvious that it is not the employee who is at fault.
“Also the technology helps. We tell girls to record everything and keep it as an evidence. You have to clean three houses instead of one? Film all of them… Your employer masturbates in front of you – take a picture… One cannot deny something that has been recorded.”
So what compelled her to become a community activist? Was there a particularly bad case or was it the overall situation that got her started?
“I was very new in the town and was increasingly shocked by the whole situation – the abuse, the racism… I was already able to drive around and because of Michael I had some help at home (a Filipina lady named Nora who is still with us and who is like the second mother to my children). So I started getting involved. I would drive all over the island trying to help and our house became like a refuge for women who had to run away from their employers.”
In 1996 there were elections for the leadership of the Filipino Community Association (“Filipinos like getting organised”) and Ester entered the race with a group of friends and won. She hasn’t stopped since although she admits that when she started working full time again in 2004 for an international business company she did slow down for a while.
“In 2016, the Federation of the Filipino Organisations in Cyprus (FFOC) was founded and I was elected its President. I was re-elected in 2018,” she says. “And now that Catherine and Matthew have flown the nest, I find myself spending more and more time on the job. My average day starts very early and I still work between 8am and 2pm at the same company. Then I concentrate on the FFOC. There is always so much to do that I usually don’t get to bed before 1.30am.”
Ester is the focal contact person for everybody both in and outside the community. She liaises with most of the Embassy of the Philippines in Athens, Filipino associations in Cyprus, various churches, NGOs, municipalities, you name it… She and the other women who help her organise and participate in numerous activities of the Filipino community including cultural festivals, parades, performances, workshops, sport activities, tree planting, beach cleaning or fund raising for those in need.
Currently, the FFOC and the whole community is working on preparing the 121st Philippine Independence Day celebration, to be held on Sunday June 23.
“I have this group of people that I know so when we need to do something we do it together. We are like a family,” she says, adding that this is something she is very grateful for although she wishes that others would join them since there is always work to be done, all the more so because of the current tragedy.
“Events of the last month because of this tragedy, have put us under unbelievable pressure. The community was shaken severely. We were organising the vigil, participating in masses, talking to police, having meetings in the House of Parliament… I am so thankful that members of our community in times of crisis like this always support one another and work together.”
So are there people in the community that might disagree with her and her activities? Yes, of course, she laughs. There are those for example who criticise her for being the leader of Filipino oversea workers when they claim she herself is not an overseas worker and imply she is doing it all just for fame. “But then actually who am I?,” she asks. “I am a Filipina and I am working overseas. It is just that I am not a domestic help. And I have been doing this work and helping others for 23 years now and it is a hard work. I think my actions speak louder than words.” They definitely do – deafeningly so.