The world’s biggest picnic, every Sunday

A few weeks after I arrived in Hong Kong, I was wandering through the Central district with a friend when we stumbled across something slightly bizarre. There were thousands upon thousands of Filipina and Indonesian women lining the sides of the pathways, sitting or lying upon large pieces of cardboard. Some were sleeping, others singing, a few reading. Groups of women sat in circles playing cards, listening to music or just chatting and laughing with each other. Many were eating snacks or packed lunches. The further we walked the more concentrated these people became; they really were absolutely everywhere. What was going on? Who are these women?

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Photo: https://untracings.com/page/2/

I later learned that they are some of the 320,000 foreign domestic helpers who represent almost 4.5% of the population of Hong Kong. The majority of these workers are maids or housekeepers, with roughly half coming from the Philippines, half from Indonesia, and a small amount from Thailand. Their contract requires them to live in their employer’s home, so on Sundays (the one day a week they get off), where do they go to socialise? They can’t exactly invite a bunch of their friends over to their place, and so there isn’t really anywhere else they can hang out except for the street. So they congregate at Central; an ideal location due to its location and many sheltered public paths and walkways. The weekly tradition of turning Central into ‘Little Manila’ is so long-standing that the ‘no littering’ signs in the area are written in three languages: Chinese, English, and Tagalog.

These women come here to work as maids because it allows them to earn so much more than they could at home. They are drawn to cities like Hong Kong due to the relatively high minimum wage. Some of them are highly-educated; nurses, social workers and so on. They come from all kinds of backgrounds. Yet due to corruption and economic turmoil in their home countries, they can provide a better life for their families by flying off to some crazy place and spending six days a week cooking and cleaning for someone else’s family. It’s supply and demand, sure, but I can’t help to see it as wasted potential.

Middle-class Hong Kong families will often hire a domestic helper because it allows both parents to work. The cost of a maid is likely to be significantly less than the amount of money a second income would bring, so for many, it’s an easy decision. The maids will normally speak with their employers in English, which means both are communicating in a second language, which I find cool. I’d like to think that if I employed a domestic worker, I would treat them kindly. However, it’s interesting to me to think that everyone else has a different idea of what it means to treat a domestic worker “kindly”. Ultimately they are your employee and you need them to do what you’re paying them for.

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Photo: http://www.asianurbanepicenters.com/?p=771

I’ve heard stories from local friends about families hiring domestic helpers to care for their ailing parents and grandparents, occasionally being lucky enough for their helper to be a trained nurse. They tell of how warm and kind the domestic helper is towards them, and how the families will return the favour with gifts, extra financial support, and general kindness. Domestic helpers may work for the same employer for many years, and almost become adopted as a member of the family. However, since arriving here, I’ve read far too many news stories about these workers being mistreated. From falling to their death after being forced to clean the outside windows of their high-rise apartment, to being raped and murdered by a coked-up British banker in Wan Chai, it almost makes me wonder if it’s worth the risk. A government survey of over 3000 foreign domestic helpers found that 58% had suffered verbal abuse, 18% physical abuse and 6% sexual abuse. Furthermore, due to a law that prevents helpers from working while being involved in a case, these crimes are mostly going unreported. How will they provide for their children for the six to eight months it takes to investigate their case? Sometimes the only choice is to just take it.

It’s not just abusive employers that helpers need to be wary of – there’s also the issue of very dodgy agencies. While Hong Kong law limits the agency fee to HK$401, agencies often skirt around this or outright defy it and charge their ‘customers’ exorbitant training and development fees; in some cases over HK$20,000. It’s especially difficult for the Hong Kong government to enforce this law for agencies which are located outside of the territory. When the monthly minimum wage is just HK$4010 (and often helpers aren’t even paid this much), it can sometimes be tantamount to debt slavery.

Activists working to protect the rights of foreign domestic helpers are campaigning against two of the most controversial aspects of the Hong Kong law which governs their contracts. Firstly, the ‘live-in requirement’, which states that helpers must live and work at their employer’s place of residence. This means they are effectively on-call 24 hours a day, leading to very long working hours. On average, helpers will work 15.8 hours a day. 43% of helpers don’t even have their own room; instead, they sleep in bathrooms, hallways, or the kitchen. Many do not feel safe living with their employers. Secondly, the ‘two-week rule’, which states that helpers must leave Hong Kong within two weeks of their contract being terminated unless they find another employer. This gives an unfair power to employers over their helpers. “Do what I say or I’ll terminate your contract and you’ll be kicked out of the country in two weeks.” Scary.

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Photo: Flickr / Paul Keller

So when I walk through Central on a Sunday and see the maids out in their cardboard forts playing go-fish, I can’t help but wonder what life is like for them the other six days of the week. So long as the minimum wage here remains higher than other neighbouring countries, there will always be both a supply of and demand for cheap domestic helpers. However, there is certainly a lot more that the Hong Kong government could be doing to protect these people’s rights and guarantee their protection and freedom. Until that day comes, I just hope that their employers treat them like the people they are.


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