Last Sunday, around 300 migrant domestic workers marched through Hong Kong’s central district before International Women’s Day, holding banners demanding better pay and conditions. Unable to march on Wednesday 8 March for fear of losing their jobs, they chose to give up their day of statutory rest, Sunday, to make a stand and make their voices heard.
As the peaceful demonstration, organised by union groups including United Filipinas of Hong Kong, set off from Chater Gardens, passersby stopped and took photos, while others pretended not to notice. Many of the women had gone to great effort with their signs, including “Domestic workers are not slaves” and “Our lives matter”.
It was no coincidence that the march was held on a Sunday: it is rooted in a tradition that is typically Hong Kong.
Since the early 1980s, migrant domestic workers have congregated in Hong Kong’s public spaces every Sunday and for public holidays. Tens of thousands of women sit on cardboard or plastic mats in the shadow of five-star hotels, major bank buildings and storefronts with luxury brand names etched across them in glowing cursive.
Around Statue Square, the Filipino community holds court and the streets are transformed into “Little Manila”, injecting noise and colour into the otherwise austere financial district.
Annie, 29, and Nilda, 36, met at the employment office, where they were both handing in their notice, roughly a year ago. An hour after meeting, the two women sat chatting on a raised concrete planter outside the MTR [Mass Transit Railway] stationexit.
“I try to be outside as much as possible,” said Annie, “because my employer’s house makes me feel sad.” She had been in Hong Kong for five months of her two-year contract, but had made the decision to leave. “They mistreat me and don’t give me enough food. So on my day off, I have to stock up on snacks and canned goods to survive the week.”
Hong Kong’s domestic workers (also known simply as “helpers”) arerequired by employmentlaw to “live in”. Nilda, who shared a room with her employer’s baby twins, described how she found this arrangement exhausting. Annie, meanwhile, lived under constant CCTV surveillance. “There’s a camera in my bedroom,” she said. “They monitor me all the time.”
In Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, living spaces are notoriously small. Still, the cheap labour of foreign domestic workers attracts even those employers who do not have suitable space in their homes to accommodate them.
There’s a camera in my bedroom. They monitor me all the timeAnnie
For the 380,000, largely female domestic workers who fall under it, the live-in law can create overwhelming feelings of isolation, explains Hans J Ladegaard, a professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, who conducted research into domestic migrant workers’ abuse stories for his recent book The Discourse of Powerlessness and Repression.
It can also lead to sub-standard living conditions. “[In many cases] a domestic worker doesn’t have her own room,” Ladegaard explains. “She sleeps in the living room, the kitchen, or the bathroom. Workers are kept inside the flat 24/7, they cannot go out during the day.” On Sunday, many of the protesters held signs specifically calling for an end to the live-in law, which they compared to modern-day slavery.
A report published in 2016 by organisations including the Asian Foreign Domestic Workers Union described “serious gaps” in Hong Kong’s legal framework in relation to trafficking and forced labour. In surveys of Filipino domestic workers, the report found that 84% had paid illegal fees to a recruitment agency, leaving them with debts that cut into their salaries for several months, with some reporting that their passports were confiscated as collateral. Those taking part in the survey worked on average 16 hours a day, with nearly half reporting food deprivation.
Ladegaard first came across domestic workers’ stories while volunteering at a shelter run by the local NGO Mission for Migrant Workers. In his experience, the Sunday public assemblies perform an important function in connecting domestic workers to each other. “Newcomers would come into the shelter Sunday night or Monday,” he recalls. “That was simply because they would meet other domestic workers on a Sunday, and find out about their rights. They would hear ‘Your employer is exploiting you, abusing you.’”
One of the founders of Mission for Migrant Workers, Cynthia Abdon-Tellez, who came to Hong Kong with the NGO in 1981, explains that the Sunday gatherings are a lifeline even to those not suffering abuse.
“Most of these women are mothers,” she says. “Even if you don’t have problems with your employer, you have stress from being separated from your families. Six days a week you are inside your employer’s home: that one day is all you have to alleviate this. [The workers] speak a lot, they talk a lot. They sing their hearts out.”
People expect migrant workers to just be workers. What they don't realise is that they are people tooNicole Constable
On Sunday mornings, as people teem through Central’s Escher-landscape of connected buildings and pedestrian skywalks, the helpers pitch camp below. Space is claimed using anything from a circle of bags to a tent, and public ground is transformed into temporary venues for every possible social interaction.
Workers picnic, cut hair, hold protests, or even take part in coordinated dance routines. A group of women might host a roadside bridal shower, passing around a pristine white wedding dress as cars fly past. A pop fanclub might meet under brightly coloured banners, proclaiming their appreciation for the affiliated act with screams and laughter.
“We found each other on the internet, then we started meeting up,” says Cha Bordo, 34, a member of Jadine Lovers HK, a fan club for the Filipino pop duo Jadine. “We meet every week and we go to mass, then we explore beautiful places in Hong Kong.” She trained as a teacher in the Philippines, but left before she could take a job. Her club helped her adapt to living far from home. “We do everything together,” she says.
One smog-choked afternoon, under a busy flyover, a worker named Edna, 41, pulled Tupperware containers of macaroni and sticky rice out of a knock-off Fendi bag, and listened to Girlie, 27, tell a familiar tale of negligent employers.
For these women, caught between a home country with no economic plan but to export labour and a city that excluded them from universally held rights, every act of expression is resistance. In these gatherings, Hong Kong’s migrant workers openly flaunt their agency, their individualism, defying the city’s attempts, via standardised and restrictive employment policies, to treat them as a faceless whole.
“It’s important to say that they’re not all powerless victims,” explains Ladegaard. “There are migrant women who are empowered, who are strong, leading others, committed to NGOs. That’s the great promise of the migrant worker communities: they provide this support network for each other.”
In taking this network to the streets, the helpers confront those who would rather ignore their humanity for the sake of convenience. “People expect domestic workers to be just workers,” said Nicole Constable, author of Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Migrant Workers and Born Out of Place: Migrant Mothers and the Politics of International Labour. “What they don’t realise is that they are people, too.”
Constable, who has spent decades in contact with the city’s domestic worker community, remembers how, in 1992, a group of local residents tried to ban them from Central. This culminated in “the Battle of Chater Road”, a fierce public debate fought in newspaper editorials, during which the residents board failed to win public sympathy, eventually seeing their petition denied.
Today, Constable says, the gatherings are mostly accepted as part of the city’s cultural identity, thanks in part to the skilled advocacy of the Filipino activists, who then influenced the activism of a new generation of Indonesian helpers. The Indonesian migrant community, who tend to congregate to the east of Central around Victoria Park and the Causeway Bay area, are often the most vulnerable to abuse, being newer to Hong Kong than the Filipino community.
“Hong Kong does have problems,” says Constable, “but it is considered one of the best places in Asia for domestic helpers to get work.” Citing certain high-profile abuse cases and the UN-condemned “two-week rule” that requires workers to leave Hong Kong within two weeks of a contract’s termination, she admits the situation is not perfect, but believes there are ways that helpers and their advocates have been able to improve the situation.
Technology has also changed the shape of the Sunday gatherings, as well as workers’ lives in general. “In the 90s I remember people were forbidden from using phones at work, and there were huge lines for the payphone in Statue Square,” says Constable. “Now everyone has their own phone, and you can message and text in your home without having to make any noise.”
Mexico City's domestic workers: a life being treated as a lesser person
Having grown up in Hong Kong, the festivities in Statue Square hold a special resonance with me, after first drawing me in as a child. Just over a year ago, on a return visit, I began interviewing migrant domestic workers on their “statutories” – including Annie, Nilda, and Cha. My experiences getting to know these women and their lives enabled me to write a song, Mahal Kita, meaning “I love you” in Tagalog, a language spoken in the Philippines.The song is a tribute to every migrant worker who took Hong Kong’s public space and made it their own.
Since first speaking to them, Annie and Nilda have left the city. Nilda got married in the Philippines, but eventually returned to her previous employers in Hong Kong to avoid new agency fees. Annie ultimately managed to find work in Singapore, though she hopes to go home one day, and train as a cook for cruise liners.
Cha, meanwhile, continues to live in Hong Kong. “Though people have tried, you can’t drive [the workers] away” from the squares, says Tellez. “It is where they feel at home. It’s where they can be themselves.”
Some names have been changed and last names omitted on request
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A Working Women Society
Gender equality is relatively high in Hong Kong. As a university lecturer, I have a lot of opportunities to talk with female undergraduates. Many job-hunting students said: "I do not feel any discrimination in my job search. There is no constraint in my employment." and "I have never felt inferior as a female." By contrast, very few Japanese females can express similar feelings. The confidence of Hong Kong females comes from their high employment rate and educational background.
Hong Kong is a society of working women. According to the figures provided by the Hong Kong government, the actual number and percentage of working women in the entire working population in Hong Kong have continued to increase considerably, although the Hong Kong economy is stagnant. In the decade between 1999 and 2009, the working population of females jumped to 1,736,000 from 1,362,500. The average annual growth rate was 2.5%, much higher than 1.1%, that of the entire working population. The ratio of females in the working percentage increased from 49.2% to 53.5%. The government believes that the trend will continue and the percentage will reach 55.4% in 2026.
The educational level of working females has improved over the years. The ratio of university degree holders among working females increased from 25% in 1999 to 32% in 2009. In 2009, about 40% of professionals and managing staff were females. This was an impressive figure even by European and American standards, not to mention Asia.
A Society of Foreign Domestic Helpers
Hong Kong, like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, is one of the places where overseas domestic helpers are received. There are 300,000 Indonesian and Philippine domestic helpers. Hiring domestic helpers is no longer an upper class or middle class practice, it is also part of the culture among ordinary families. In Japan, most females work full-time before marriage, quit a few years after for giving birth and go back to work as part-time employees when their children go to school. Hence the employment of Japanese females is an M-shaped curve. In Hong Kong, most females work fulltime before and after marriage and thus domestic helpers are recruited to do the housework and take care of the children.
According to the figures provided by the Hong Kong government, out of a population of 7 million in Hong Kong, about 8% are foreigners. By nationality, the top three come from Indonesia (156,319), the Philippines (144,463) and Thailand (28,067). The majority are live-in domestic helpers who work full-time. The minimum wage for a foreign domestic helper is 3902 Hong Kong dollars (about 507 U.S dollars). The host family provides food and accommodation. Most working females have a monthly salary around 10000 to 40000 HKD (about 1,300-5,200 U.S dollars) and thus hiring domestic helper can actually increase the family income.
Hong Kong is a society that puts emphasis on education and performance. Based on employment quality, men and women receive the same salary in the same post. This encourages females to work. A standard family in Hong Kong consists of father, mother, one child or sometime one grandparent. The parents work full-time and thus the domestic helper takes care of the child and the elderly. Foreign domestic helpers are a must for many Hong Kong families.
Role Switching in the Family
The traditional view that the husband earns the living and the wife takes care of the family is outdated in Hong Kong. Both husband and wife are full-time workers and thus the foreign domestic helper takes care of the family. Many children feel closer to their domestic helpers than their own parents. Dependence on a domestic helper undermines the independence of the children and the relationship between the parents and their children. Most Hong Kong parents have not understood the seriousness of this matter. Ms Derby Sim (Programme Development Director, Milestones Workshop), an expert on gifted and special needs education, frankly said: "As the parents are working full-time, the domestic helper takes the roles of housewife and mother such as taking care of the children and doing the housework. Many fathers do not see this as a problem." They support this idea because the status of females is high in Hong Kong and working full-time can increase the family income. However, there is no free lunch. If not handled properly, there will be role switching in the family with negative consequences.
Actually, there are drawbacks to hiring foreign domestic helpers. For instance, news about a helper hurting the baby or child is not uncommon. Many Hong Kong children rely too much on domestic helpers and they cannot do even simple things. They always think: "I have the helper to help me and she has to listen to me." Regarding reliance on foreign domestic helpers, Singapore is similar to Hong Kong. One or two decades ago, there was a Singaporean movie about the problem of hiring domestic helpers. In the movie, a child was kidnapped and he did not know how to take care of himself. One of the kidnappers said: "I should have kidnapped his domestic helper as well." Some female undergraduates in Hong Kong do not know how to cook or do the housework and they do not think it is a bad thing. One told me that "It is unfair that doing housework and cooking are female jobs. If necessary, we can simply hire a domestic helper."
To be fair, most of the Hong Kong ID holders (including immigrant from Mainland China etc.) who are hiring domestic helpers I know care about their children. Some take care of the children themselves and ask the domestic helper to do the housework. These are the interviews I conducted. Mrs. A is a full-time company employee. In order to avoid having her children rely too much on the domestic helper, she makes a timetable for her children, reminding them to do things themselves. Mrs. B, a part-time company employee, makes rules for her child and the domestic helper. Mrs. C, a teacher, spends time tutoring her child no matter how busy she is. In order to have her child respect others, she is always soft-spoken to the domestic helper and has the helper eat at the same table.
On the other hand, Mrs. D, a teacher, relies on the domestic helper to take care of her children. She hires a experienced and well-educated domestic helper. Mrs. E, a freelancer, prefers to hire a high-quality domestic helper who can educate her children. This attitude has become increasingly prevalent all over Hong Kong society. The traditional view that educating children is the responsibility of the parents has weakened. A young Hong Kong man, in a Japanese TV program, complained: "My mother often makes Demae Iccho (Japanese instant noodle)." Due to its convenience and good taste, Japanese instant noodles are well-received in Hong Kong families. Hong Kong people like to eat out and many eat breakfast in Hong Kong style coffee houses and canteens. Compared to the Japanese, Hong Kongers pay less attention to cooking home dishes. Eating Japanese instant noodles at home and eating out are very common.
Knowing Your Role in the Family
If the family hires a foreign domestic helper, they must define the role of each individual clearly so that it will not cause unwanted results. Derby Sim has identified three taboos in handling domestic helpers. First, the parents often scold the helper over minor things in front of their children. The children will not respect others and will become bossy to the helper, family members, classmates and teachers. Second, Parents and the helper have a bad relationship. The children will feel unsafe and confused. They tend to test the boundary of the adults. Third, the domestic helper is given too much power. This will undermine the authority of the parents and the children will not listen to their parents. This creates confusion in role playing.
Derby Sim gives the following eight tips to the family:
- The parents must not forget their role and should ask the domestic helper to assist them only.
- The parents hold the authority and the domestic helper follows the instructions of the parents.
- The parents have good communication with the helper, setting a good example for the children.
- The parents should set up rules for the family members and the helper to follow.
- The parents should put emphasis on their ties with children and should not rely too much on the helper.
- Do not give the domestic helper too much power.
- The parents should treat the helper with respect and should not scold her in front of the children.
- The parents should be appreciative and encouraging to the helper.
The children who are served by domestic helpers will be parents and the core members of Hong Kong society one day. With more females entering the workforce, Hong Kong will continue to introduce foreign domestic helpers. There is nothing wrong about females entering the workforce, but the parents, family members and the helper must know their own role in the family. This is the most important concern. If the parents have a harmonious relationship with the helper, it will have a positive impact on their children. They will learn the virtues of mutual respect, gratitude, politeness and thoughtfulness.