Central District has been toted as the “most celebrated financial district” in Hong Kong, and on any typical weekday you would see men in suits and ties and women in heels and dresses on their way to their respective banks. During the lunch hours between 12-2pm the sidewalks are also flooded with people, but it is the same men and women you would see in the morning on their lunch breaks. But Sunday is completely different.
On Sunday it seems that every inch and corner of Central is occupied by Filipino women. Underneath the HSBC bank the ground is covered with cardboard to serve as makeshift cubbies where Filipino women can be seen socializing, sharing food, doing each other’s nails, selling or making things, and napping. Unless you come to Central on Sunday, you would never know there are tens of thousands of Filipino women living in Hong Kong. Central is known as “their spot” on Sunday.
The same can be said for the Causeway Bay area and Victoria Park, except there are tens of thousands of Indonesian women, who are predominantly Muslim. Before going to Causeway Bay last Sunday, I had seen maybe four or five Muslim women throughout Hong Kong. Once we arrived in Causeway Bay I was almost completely surrounded by Muslim women and was honestly in shock that I had not seen more before then. Causeway Bay and Victoria Park are “their spots” on Sundays and they can be seen doing mostly the same things as the Filipino women: socializing, eating, facetiming family, and napping.
But why is it that I had never seen these hundreds of thousands of women in Hong Kong until Sunday? Why did I have no idea that there are over 100,000 Muslim women living in Hong Kong?
The reason is because these women work six days a week, for 12-16 hours each day. Their days are filled with cleaning, cooking, and babysitting for families in Hong Kong. As per their employment contract, these women are required to live in their employer’s home, which is why they are forced to work such long days. These women are known as domestic helpers, or more respectfully, foreign domestic workers (FDW). There are over 350,000 FDWs in Hong Kong, with a slight majority from the Philippines and the next largest group from Indonesia. These women leave behind their homes and quite often their children and husbands to come work in Hong Kong as domestic workers. They then send their paychecks back home to help provide for their family.
There is a completely different system for FDWs in Hong Kong that includes different laws and rules, which inevitably leads to different rights. The rights that FDWs have are extremely limited, which often leaves them in vulnerable positions on a daily basis.
The organization I am interning for this summer, called Mission for Migrant Workers, aims to help these women not only understand and defend their rights as FDWs, but advocates and produces research to fight for greater protection for them in the workplace. Their most recent research investigated living accommodations for FDWs and includes pictures that workers took of different places they are forced to sleep. We are currently in the process of helping to distribute this research to politicians in Hong Kong.
The Mission serves as a walk-in center for women to come to when they need any type of help in relation to their role as a migrant worker. This can include filing a claim for lost wages that their employer is refusing to pay; if their contract has been wrongfully terminated by their employer; if they have been abused by their employer; if they are trying to apply for a visa extension since they only have 14 days to leave Hong Kong once their contract is terminated; if they are being forced to sleep in unsuitable conditions; if they have not been given proper food or the correct allowance for food; if they have not been given a day off in weeks; if their employer is refusing to pay for their flight home after the contract has been terminated; and the list goes on.
I am learning new things each and every day about foreign domestic workers and the issues they face, and do not claim by any means to fully understand their situation. But if you are interested in trying to learn more about foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, these resources can help give you an idea of the different problems they may face:
-This articled, titled Sleepless in Hong Kong … on fridges and in toilets: worst places city’s domestic helpers have called a bed, sheds light on the unsuitable accommodations foreign domestic workers can be forced to live with because they are required to live with their employers.
-Employers are required to provide foreign domestic workers with adequate food or if they do not provide food, they are required to give them a food allowance. This situation has led to cases such as this: Filipino domestic worker fined HK$800 for eating HK$100 worth of employer’s meatballs
-Nicole Constable is an Anthropologist from the University of Pittsburgh and has spent years researching and trying to understand the position of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong. I actually met her on my first day of work here and she explained that she tries to come to Hong Kong for about 6 weeks every other summer to update her research and produce more articles about the topic. She has written two books on the subject:
- “Maid to Order in Hong Kong” by Nicole Constable
- “Born Out of Place: Migrant Mothers and the Politics of Labor” by Nicole Constable