Fri, May 05, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Who'd be a nanny?

What forces a woman to leave her family thousands of miles away so she can look after someone else's children?

By Diane Taylor  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Sometimes, when nanny Imelda Gonzales cradles three-year-old Ben in her arms to rock him to sleep, she closes her own eyes and allows herself to dream a little, too. And what is in Imelda's mind then is her own children: And what she dreams is that this little person in her arms isn't Ben at all, but one of them.

Imelda, 37, left the Philippines in January 2000 for a job as a migrant domestic worker in Hong Kong, leaving behind her daughter, Joanne Nicole, then seven, and her son John Valerie, who was five.

Her husband was also working abroad and the children were left with her mother.

Imelda adores her country and misses her children "every minute, every second," but left for one simple reason -- to earn money to secure a better future for them. Despite being a university graduate (she has a BSc in biology and would love eventually to do a degree in medicine and become a pediatrician), she says it would be impossible to earn enough at home to break the poverty cycle and improve her children's life chances.

And so she paid US$1,400 (around six months average salary in her country) to register with an agency which finds domestic work overseas for Filipinos. It secured her a job as a housekeeper with an English employer in Hong Kong. He treated her well and after four years asked if she would come to England to care for his mother. He applied for a domestic worker visa for her and she traveled to the UK.

Things didn't go well and Imelda says she was badly treated. In May last year, she ran away to London and found a job quickly as a nanny with her current employer who is "absolutely wonderful." She looks after Ben four and a half days a week, lives in and sends home 90 percent of her ?1,000 (US$1,750) a month salary which is used to pay for her children's current needs and to save for their future education.

She has been able to buy a computer to help her children with their schoolwork, something that would never have been possible if she had remained at home.

"As a nanny in the Philippines I would have earned about US$75 a month and would have been unable to support my children properly," she says. "In my current job my employer pays for me to go home a couple of times a year and when I go back people call me `the millionaire.'"

Imelda isn't the only woman who has left her own children thousands of miles away to care for British youngsters. Camilla Brown of Kalayaan, a charity which campaigns for justice for migrant domestic workers, says there are many others in the same or a similar situation.

"If they don't have children themselves they will often have a family or multiple families who they are supporting back home. There is a huge burden of guilt and responsibility on their shoulders," Brown says.

Officially there are 111,500 nannies in Britain, but campaigners believe there are many more from abroad who are uncounted in the figures and that tens of thousands are in a similar situation to Imelda. Last year alone more than 17,000 visas were issued for overseas domestic workers -- and many of these, though not all, will be child care workers who have left their own kids back home.

According to Julia Harris, who runs The Housekeeper Company, which supplies nannies and housekeepers to UK families, demand for overseas nannies has never been higher. Filipinos are particularly highly prized. Workers also come from India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, along with parts of Africa and South America.

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