An account of the lives of foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong
Every Sunday, Hong Kong’s central district is transformed by the Foreign Domestic Helpers (FDHs), most of whom are Filipino or Indonesian women. For six days a week this area is an austere financial district of banks, designer brands and luxury hotels until Sunday when it is given life and a whole new level of social significance. It is quite an astonishing sight as every crevice, including under the station and in the pedestrian sky-walks, is teeming with these women sat in groups on cardboard boxes and plastic bags. Among other things, these women can be seen laughing, eating, playing games and painting nails; perhaps even engaged in dance or singing competitions.
It is bittersweet. The hubbub is uplifting as music, chatter and laughter pervades. Yet, the conditions in which they congregate are poor- dirty, crowded and smog riddled.
Foreign Domestic Helpers are amongst the most vulnerable people in Hong Kong. They are often subject to abuse and poor conditions in their live-in employment. According to Amnesty International and welfare groups, some workers are subjected to work hours of as long as 16-18 a day with only 1 day off per week. Perhaps this could be justified if they were given advantageous benefits. They are not and are instead suffering personal, systemic and structural discriminatory exploitation.
According to the General Policy provided by the Labour department ‘’FDHs are further protected by government-prescribed Standard Employment Contract’’. In reality, it is not fully enforced. One example is that ‘’the amount of wages should not be less that the Minimum Allowable Wage (MAW) announced by the Government of Hong Kong’’. However, the current minimum wage in Hong Kong is presently only $34.8 (£3.47) and this ‘protective’ requirement does not account for the hours of unpaid work these women are forced to do because of their live-in status. In fact, of 2500 interviewed, the Hong Kong Rights Monitor (2001) found that at least 25% had experienced violations in their contracts including pay less than the MAW and denial of their mandatory weekly day of rest and statutory holiday. Even more shockingly, more than 25% had also experienced physical and verbal abuse, including a significant occurrence of sexual abuse. Fear of losing their jobs and having to leave Hong Kong has meant that many of these foul instances have gone unreported.
Most of these women are mothers, whose children are back in the Philippines or Indonesia. Even if they do not face problems with their employers this is an unfathomable hardship itself. Thus, Sunday gatherings are pivotal for these women to be alleviated from their stress and anxieties of being separated from their families. To be denied this is unacceptable and inhumane.
Some domestic helpers have chosen to give up their rest day to participate in migrant activism advocating, for example, better pay and work conditions. However, activism among migrant workers is difficult to mobilise as, unsurprisingly, most women want to use this day for their own leisure; to express their individualism and femininity which is often repressed by their employers.
Anthropologist Nicole Constable, author of Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Migrant Workers and Born Out of Place: Mothers and Politics of International Labour has spent decades in contact with Hong Kong’s FDH community. In an interview with HK Helpers Campaign she states ‘’Even if people want them to just be workers, as some people in Hong Kong expect them to be, no one is just a worker’’ and ‘’their rights need to be respected’’. There needs to be a greater support network for these women because many have little knowledge of the law and their rights, which they need to protect themselves in Hong Kong. For the Indonesian FDHs, this is even more of an issue as very few speak any English, disadvantaging them further as they have no common language to communicate and voice their concerns.
The socioeconomic position of FDHs in Hong Kong is clearly not satisfactory. However, it is the lesser of two evils with Hong Kong providing more opportunities and rights to the migrant domestic workers than in their home countries. Through activism and support of charities the helpers have been able to have their voices heard, resulting in some improvements in their social, economic and political situation.
Recently, a 78-year-old Indonesian-Chinese woman, was arrested for pouring boiling water down her FDHs back. Although this is awful, there is a silver lining; the fact that she was found guilty of causing grievous bodily harm with intent and terminating the contract of an employee during a period of incapacity shows Hong Kong’s justice system is considering the human rights of FDHs more seriously, rather than letting the abused be ignored and scapegoated.
Hiring domestic workers can be a form of giving back to the community, and therefore potentially something to be encouraged. But there is a difference between ‘giving back’ and exploiting the vulnerable. I hope that the situation of FDHs in Hong Kong improves in the future, and with the increased awareness of discrimination and growing numbers of activist groups, augmented by charity support, I believe this is a possible endeavour.