Catalla was Manila’s ambassador to Lebanon at the time of her death
In Hong Kong, domestic workers’ union leaders recalled her as ‘a good consul general who tried to listen to opinions’ and sped up bureaucratic procedures
Bernardita Catalla – the
’ ambassador to Lebanon, who also served as consul general in Hong Kong – died in Beirut on Thursday morning due to complications from
Catalla, 62, is the
, which has killed more than 47,000 people around the world.
Before her assignment in Beirut, Catalla – known as Bernie – was from 2014 to 2017 consul general to Hong Kong, a city with some 240,000 Filipino residents, including some 219,000 domestic workers.
“We remember her as a person open to engaging with progressive organisations, unlike other government officials,” said Eman Villanueva, spokesman for the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body.
The union leader recalled that Catalla sided with domestic workers when they called for Hong Kong to introduce a ban on them cleaning windows. Rights groups raised concerns over the issue in 2016 following a spate of deaths of domestic workers who fell from high-rise buildings.
“We were able to at least get some informal agreements on some of the issues we raised,” Villanueva said.
In November that year, the Hong Kong government revealed details of a new clause to be added to all domestic workers’ employment contracts, prohibiting them from cleaning external windows above the ground floor unless the window had a secure grille. The ban had been proposed by the Philippine consulate.
Catalla was already a seasoned diplomat when she arrived in Hong Kong, after postings in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. But she got to the city in June 2014, at a turbulent time – just three months before the beginning of Occupy Central, a civil disobedience movement that pushed for universal suffrage.
From her office, she had a front-row seat to the umbrella movement, which unfolded around the local government headquarters in Admiralty. Although she did not take a political stance, in an interview with the
about a year after the occupation, Catalla praised the students’ passion and discipline.
“One thing that I observed … they are very clean. You see people cleaning up the streets,” she said. “They are so orderly and … peaceful.”
Shiella Estrada, chairwoman of the Progressive Labour Union of Domestic Workers, said she was shocked by Catalla’s death and recalled meeting the diplomat during the Occupy movement.
“She was new and asked me to disseminate information among migrants and tell our members not to join any of the protests,” Estrada said. “I was not very happy with the request, because we always respect human rights, we couldn’t pressure them [migrants] into not going. But she had just arrived in the city.”
Dolores Balladares-Pelaez, chairwoman of United Filipinos in Hong Kong, said Catalla “was a good consul general who tried to listen to opinions and take some action”.
She said Catalla was able to slash the long queues that Filipino migrants in the city had to face to get their Overseas Employment Certificates.
“She was still very young and could do a lot of things with the Filipino community overseas,” said Balladares-Pelaez, lamenting the diplomat’s death.
Catalla, who learned the Chinese martial art of tai chi while in the city, seemed to believe that life was to be enjoyed to the fullest.
In Hong Kong, “it seems that everybody is in a hurry”, she said in a 2015 interview.
“There should be a balance between efficiency, enjoyment and entertainment,” said Catalla, who was a diplomat for 27 years. “Sometimes you have to be a little bit slower and enjoy life. Be less competitive so life will be happier and easier.”