HONG KONG. June 1, 2009. Every night in Yuen Long, a far-off area in the New Territories, she rummages through garbage bins for soda cans, cardboard boxes, and other recyclables that can earn her HK$38 (P228) on a nice day.
Poverty drove Mildred Perez, 38-year-old Filipina, like 126,000 other Filipinos here, to come and work in Hong Kong as a helper, leaving behind her two children in Bambang, Nueva Vizcaya.
But her dream to build a decent life for her family was crushed when her employer, a pastor, sexually assaulted her in 2007. She lost her job, and being a complainant in a pending court case, is barred by Hong Kong laws to take up employment.
She has since been unable to support her family, so her children were forced to drop out of school. There are days when her life, it seemed to her, was useless.
But on April 29, Perez found something that could have ended her misfortunes. After renewing her visa at the immigration department, she noticed a thick packet just slightly bigger than an airmail envelope, in a trash bin on the corner of Pottinger Street and Des Voeux Road.
Perez picked it up and handed it to her companion, a man identified only as David, who opened the packet. Inside were cash and checks amounting to HK$350,545 (P2.1 million). There was $176,000 in cash (in denomination of $1,000) and four checks: one for US$13,000, another for US$5,000, a third for US$3,250, and another for HK$10,920.
One of the checks was clipped to the envelope, she said. Instinctively, they called the Hong Kong Information Centre to get the number of the company indicated in the documents. Because it was past office hours, they just left a message on a recorder, saying they found the money and wished to return it to the owner.
“Of course, I couldn’t sleep. It’s money. That would have allowed me to go home. But I was thinking, who left the money? What if he is just another worker? He would lose his job. How many people depend on him? I couldn’t keep it. My conscience would have bothered me no end if I did otherwise,” Perez said.
That person, it turned out, was Kitty, an ordinary employee tasked by her company to deposit the money in the bank. Kitty said she realized she had lost the envelope around 2 p.m. on April 29.
At noon on April 30, Kitty and her superior Yvonne Tsang met Perez and David at Fairwood in Tin Shui Wai for the handover.
Philippine Overseas Labor Office officials, who got wind of Perez’s exceptional deed through Perez’s friend Merly Bunda, had wanted the turnover to be done at the Philippine Consulate for proper documentation, but Perez acceded to the company’s request to have it at its premises.
“Sobrang pasasalamat nila (They were very grateful,” Perez said, adding that David even told the company officials that the Filipina was jobless and would never have that amount of money even if she found work again as domestic helper.
Tsang and Kitty gave Perez a can of butter cookies as a token of gratitude, and Perez quietly resumed her life.
She is now back to collecting scraps and now, venturing into the buy-and-sell of used clothing because she constantly needs money to extend her visa until her case is resolved.
Her case, which has yet to be scheduled for its first hearing, has not progressed, and this prevents the Filipina from being employed or returning to the Philippines to be with her family. “It’s been a long time. Nothing is happening. Do they think it’s that easy to rummage through the garbage bins? Sometimes, I wanted to give up,” she said, breaking down at the thought of her two kids having to postpone college because she could not support them.
Perez is also saving up for the HK$3,000 cost of a minor surgery she needs to remove a growing clump of flesh on her head.
She does not know when she can attend to this, as coming up with the HK$160 visa renewal fee alone every few weeks is a challenge.
Last month, Perez could hardly pay the fees to renew her passport at the Philippine Consulate and she almost did not renew her visa on May 20, if not for friends and strangers who pooled their own meager resources to help a fellow Filipina.
But even in these times, the Filipina refuses to contemplate how much better off she would have been had she decided not to return the money.
The cash alone in that envelope was equivalent to P1 million, a considerable wealth in her hometown in the village of Aliaga, in Bambang, Nueva Vizcaya, where her family, though poor, strives to live with integrity.
Perez’s father, a local official in their barangay, can be credited with Perez’s inherent honesty. He was very strict when it came to his children taking or even accepting anything that is not theirs.
In her second grade, Perez recalled how she and her friends took labong, a cheap vegetable shoot, from a neighbor’s yard to use for playing inside the house. When her father learned of her indiscretion from the neighbor, he put her inside a sack and reprimanded her terribly. The lesson stuck.
She has kept true to this, even if it means she has to keep digging trash to survive.