More than 10 million Filipinos work abroad, often in Saudi Arabia, Japan and Hong Kong. However, for those working as domestic help, it isn’t always a tale of happiness and financial security. Ynia Love, a trained engineer, arrived in Romania from the Philippines on a cold winter’s day four years ago. A gifted actress and singer with no formal training, in the past year Love made a stand for domestic workers rights and featured in ‘Domestic Products’ – a play directed by Ioana Paun, based on a screenplay by Xandra Popescu and an investigation by journalist Laura Stefanut.

In the play, Love interpreted multiple stories of fellow Filipino workers. The abuses illustrated are not just reflective of Filipino women in Romania though, but also of the unbalanced and illegal power relations between employer and employee happening in numerous countries all over the world, with even bigger abuses enacted in places such as the Middle East. Around 53 million people, predominantly women, are employed in households globally. The play also questions the very nature of domestic work.

YNIA and Smaranda Nicolau in Domestic Products, Photo: Marina Ungureanu

The abuses illustrated are not just reflective of Filipino women in Romania though, but also of the unbalanced and illegal power relations between employer and employee happening in numerous countries all over the world.

Shown across several cities in Romania, most recently during the Temps D’Images Festival in Cluj-Napoca on 14 November 2015, ‘Domestic Products’ challenges audiences to explore these issues afresh. I caught up with Director Ioana Paun to discuss how the play came together with the help of investigative journalist Laura Stefanut and learnt what became of Ynia Love, a Filipino worker who played the role of main character Joy in ‘Domestic Products’, before being deported back to her home country after she was found to be an illegal worker and her asylum was rejected.

Sorana Serban: How did you learn of the issues faced by the Filipino community in Romania?

Ioana Paun: Part of my family migrated abroad for a better life and I was touched by those stories of survival and struggle of women close to me. In 2012 I started a project in Italy that shifted my interest in art and politics, guided by the powerful artist Tania Bruguera. It was with Filipino women doing household chores but no longer inside secluded flats. It was in public locations, exposing intimate, taboo gestures of care and affection for all to witness. From that to ‘Domestic Products’ was a tiny step, united by meeting Laura Stefanut and deciding to work together as an artist-journalist team.

Laura’s findings and research were precious as her sources were really hard to trace and their stories were not for every ear to listen to.

SS: What prompted you to translate your own findings on domestic workers, as well as Laura Stefanut’s investigation, into a play?

IP: I am a director. I translate the emotions and dynamics I observe around me into gestures, actions, images and text. Laura’s findings and research were precious as her sources were really hard to trace and their stories were not for every ear to listen to. Collaborating with an investigative journalist was an outbreak for my understanding on how a script can be developed.

YNIA in Domestic Products, Photo: Vlad Dudu

Collaborating with an investigative journalist was an outbreak for my understanding on how a script can be developed.

SS: What were the challenges of staging a play informed by a journalistic investigation?

IP: The challenge is to work with the truth but at the same time, make it so that people digest it slowly, understand all the pieces of the puzzle; a complex puzzle that represents being a migrant woman in a place that offers you no guarantee of safety or affection.

Smaranda Nicolau in Domestic Products, Photo: Marina Ungureanu

Ynia filtered the entire story through her experience; it was touching and powerful to see her reliving the stories of someone like her.

SS: How did you discover Ynia Love? And why did you select her to act as the main character?

IP: We organised an audition and she came. Ynia was a revelation, not just as a presence on stage and a performer but also as a human being. There could be no one else performing the part of Joy, the main Filipina character in the show. And actually, Joy and Ynia are friends. Ynia filtered the entire story through her experience; it was touching and powerful to see her reliving the stories of someone like her because you knew she also lived them and they marked her life in Romania, one way or another.

SS: What were the implications of Ynia playing in ‘Domestic Products’?

IP: This is a message I received yesterday from Ynia: “I will always cherish the moments you [brought] out the actress in me… Love you and thank you from the bottom of my heart.” This text was sent from the airport; Ynia was deported back to the Philippines. She was illegal in Romania, both before and during her performances in the piece. Illegal is a term I do not agree with but this is what the state uses. She was basically screwed by a boss and remained without papers, like many Romanians before and after EU integration.

This was an act of courage and strength that cost her. It was a very humane part of our production. She wanted to do it, she wanted to speak out. We were there by her side, but she is the one living the realities of deportation, not me. So I would say the impact of the piece was strong on her, and complex. She became a strong voice for women’s and domestic workers rights; she was featured in many newspapers locally and abroad. I feel a bit responsible for being part of her exposure. But I have a lot of faith in our friendship and we’re already planning her return.

Filipino women washing soy sauce off the Italian flag, Photo: Viva Performance 

This was an act of courage and strength that cost her. It was a very humane part of our production. She wanted to do it, she wanted to speak out.

SS: How do you plan to bring Ynia back from the Philippines?

IP: We are touring the performance in five big cities in Romania with an actress replacing Ynia, spreading Ynia’s reality and raising funds and support for her return.

SS: You have also worked on two other plays about domestic helpers: one in Italy and the other in Chicago. Could you pinpoint the differences, as well as the similarities you noticed between these contexts?

IP: In Italy, it was a public performance. In Chicago, it was a one-off performance staged as a mock conference, called ‘Economy of Desperation’.

Recently I worked with domestic workers again in ‘Natalia Turn the Lights On’, a gallery piece where I transformed energy consumed by women working as domestic helpers into light.

There is no difference, everywhere women have little rights and respect from their peers. The issue is identical.

'Natalia Turn the Lights On' exhibition view, Photo:  Kunstraum Lakeside

I want to give the territory of art – a really privileged arena - to women that are invisible and rarely listened to.

SS: Domestic work is a complex issue that goes beyond employment, reaching towards the very condition of women in contemporary society. What role can art play in this situation?

IP: My art, I know for sure, is a place where the audience, the domestic labourers, and I, can meet and address the issues. I cannot say that I shake the system. But I want to give the territory of art – a really privileged arena - to women that are invisible and rarely listened to.

SS: What are you working on at the moment?

IP: I have recently finished directing a piece called ‘The Enemy of the People’. It was a performance questioning democracy – again I collaborated with Laura Stefanut on an investigation on a toxic factory – and I also recently organised the first edition of the Biennial of Emerging Arts (BEAR), which showcased radical artists from Europe and the Middle East in Bucuresti, Romania.

Words: Sorana Serban

Images source:  Ioana Paun / Marina Ungureanu / Vlad Dudu / Kunstraum Lakeside / Viva Performance