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IRMA BUENO

Baguio City

Domestic Helper, Hong Kong, 1995-2000, 2008

Veggie Chips and Noodles Maker

“My Baby Walked Past Me!”

J. Dela Torre

I was half-expecting an unsophisticated, behind-the-house manufacturing operation, somewhere in one of the hundreds of hillside communities of Baguio City. What I found was a group of strong-willed but family-centered women of the Cordillera putting their talent and their muscles together to make chips and noodles flavored by herbs and vegetables. The Bagong Bayani Family Association under the leadership of Irma Bueno, conducts its business out of the crowded kitchen of one of its members. In the gloomily-lit living room, we arranged for a display trolley to be filled with the group’s products as background, and set up the interview equipment. Former Miss Baguio Julienne Fortunato, Labor Communications Officer, of DOLE-CAR conducted the interview while I listened. 

“I had two children when I left for Hong Kong, the younger being only 11 months old then. Two years later, I came home. I wanted to kiss and hug my now-3-year-old baby, but she just walked past me. She no longer recognized me, and I was devastated,” Irma began her narrative with the common lament of young mothers who leave the country for jobs abroad with only one purpose in mind—to save enough to pay for the education of the very same children who will miss the warmth of their embrace, and the comforting sound of their voices when singing their favorite lullabies, and might even forget them totally as time passes.

“Masakit, pero kailangang tanggapin ko,” Irma said of the incident as she wiped away the tears under her eyeglasses.

It was the only time Irma unabashedly shed tears during the entire interview, and from my spot behind the display trolley, I was trying to keep my own tears from falling.

“Work was hard in Hong Kong. The pay was decent but there were times when I was made to feel very small by my employers when they called me “pan moi” or “kong niam” (household worker). Despite the put-downs, I focused on my work. I saved enough to buy a piece of real property, on which our little house now stands.

When I came back in 2000, I had to look for work here, but not finding any, I went back to Hong Kong in 2008. Unfortunately, I was terminated and I decided it was time to return for good and seek my fortune in the Philippines.”

She attended an OWWA seminar, and was told to organize an association of former OFWs or OFW dependents to be able to qualify for start-up capital support. She was able to group together enough numbers, and they then underwent training for veggie chips and noodle making.  Whatever they produced during training, they started selling.

But every business has to have a location, and the Association didn’t have one. So, they resorted to peddling their products house to house, and to schools. When business started to pick up, the group’s membership began to thin as most of the officers drifted away, many to work abroad. One of the members volunteered for the group to do their cooking at her house, and to be the group’s secretary. Irma and the rest agreed, but it turned out the secretary had a hidden agenda.

In 2011, they felt confident enough to join the Panagbenga Trade Fair. What they earned from the trade fair, they used to buy ingredients to be able to join another event, the month-long Strawberry Festival. Their products being new, the buying public was curious and came to their booth in droves. The business was a smash hit. They earned P60,000 from the Festival, which the secretary proposed to divvy up in the following manner: P3,000 to Irma, P2,000 to the person assisting in the booth, and the rest of the takings she claimed for herself, with the Association not getting anything at all. Irma strongly protested at how the secretary was shafting her and the Association, but to no avail. Worse, the secretary also kept the cutter, blender and other equipment which belonged to the Association. In short, the group had become a victim of its own secretary, nearly resulting to its financial ruin.

The 100k grant from the NRCO was therefore a godsend, which Irma and the group used to buy new equipment and ingredients. The Association was back in business.

Now, they have their own regular customers, including schools where the veggie-rich snack foods are most needed to counteract the lack of healthy ingredients in most of the food being sold in most school canteens.

“Nakakatulong na rin ako sa pamilya namin. Yung share ko sa sales, binibigay ko sa aking mga anak para may pamasahe sila papunting eskwela,” Irma’s eyes beamed with pride.

“Nakakatulong na rin kami sa mga farmers dito dahil yung mga produce nila na vegetables, ginagamit namin as ingredients sa aming chips and noodles. We are also helping promote healthy foods among children. Our products have no preservatives, no food coloring.”

Irma is also happy that the present officers of the Association are now very much into the business, volunteering always for the progress of the Association and the welfare of its members.

Does she still have plans to go back abroad?

“Wala na,” she was quick to answer, “may negosyo na kami, e. Baka madagdagan pa ng DOLE yung puhunan namin, e di, lalong mapaganda at mapalaki pa namin ang aming negosyo.”

She now turns to her fellow OFWs:

“Sana hindi masayang ang mga sakripisyo na mapalayo sa ating pamilya. Yung purpose na kung bakit tayo lumayo sa pamilya sana ay hindi mawalay sa ating isipan. Sana hindi dumating sa punto na magka broken family tayo. Dahil sa haba ng paghihiwalay ay sana hindi rin mawawala ang damdamin natin para sa isa’t isa.”

Do you think there is future for you here in the Philippines?

“Oo naman. Konting tiyaga lang. Konting sakripisyo lang. At may aanihin tayo. Dapat pursigido tayo para makamit ang ating magandang bukas. Hindi lang pala sa abroad ang puedeng pag-succeed. Puede rin palang mag succeed dito sa Pilipinas, at mas masaya at mas masarap dito sa Pilipinas dahil kasama mo ang iyong pamilya.”

Driving away from the place, I can only breathe deeply and think of how we could help the Association further. Out of this story, I thought, the DOLE and the DEPED could sign an agreement to require school-based canteens to ban unhealthy junk food, and go for veggie-based chips and noodles such as those being produced by this Association. It’s a win-win situation: the children’s health is promoted, and the Association will be able to produce more and hire more workers.