When Hong Kong’s Domestic Helpers Need Help

by Xyza Cruz Bacani/ February 11, 2016/ Chinafile.com

It was at a small, off the record press dinner with a Hong Kong government officer not too long ago at the Summer Palace restaurant in the Shangri-la Hotel. The topic of the day, inevitably, came up for discussion: the minimum wage for domestic helpers had just been raised, to reach the monthly allowance of 4210 Hong Kong dollars, or U.S.$540, a month. “Not a lot, for such an expensive place as this!” someone said. “You must take into account that they have no expenses.

They do not need to pay for food nor accommodation: at the end of the day, they are better off than me!” the government officer retorted. The dinner was almost over, and she had already called for the bill. “Which credit card has a discount rate tonight?” she asked, taking out various cards from her wallet. On another occasion, at a large outdoor reception that followed a financial event, on a hotel rooftop, as glasses clinked and name cards flew back and forth, a financial analyst volunteered that he comes to Asia often. His wife is from the Philippines, he said. “Did you marry your maid?” asked an expensively dressed, British-accented Hong Kong businesswoman, with a bright smile. The analyst seemed aghast, but the lady was undeterred: “It happens!” she retorted, holding on to her smile.

A superficially stupid comment, a harebrained remark, a look askance on Sundays and public holidays in Central and Causeway Bay, as people walk next to the huge public gatherings of Hong Kong’s “helpers” on their day off: all small marks of the conflicted relationship that Hong Kong has with the foreign domestic workers who have become indispensable to the city’s functioning. Thousands of women sitting in the streets or rehearsing dance routines—sometimes in colorful costumes, as if ready to go on stage, as in Xyza Bacani’s pictures—talking, eating, combing each other’s hair, conducting small business exchanges, exchanging information, painting their nails, packing huge quantities of stuff to send home: to the Philippines, to Indonesia, and further afield. In this territory of nearly 7.5 million people, as of December 2014, live more than 330,000 “foreign domestic helpers” who hail from the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. They have a minimum wage—but are only allowed to work in Hong Kong on contracts that bar them from gaining full residency, no matter how long they stay. They cannot apply for visas for their spouses or children, since the conditions of employment do not allow them to have “dependents”; should a family member also obtain a Hong Kong work visa, they cannot live as a family, as, by law, a foreign domestic helper must reside with her employer. And even if the rules require that the helpers have “suitable living accommodation with reasonable privacy,” in many cases the dismal size and condition of their actual quarters do not even cause a scandal anymore. Some sleep on mattresses on the floors of kitchen corridors, others in cupboards, some in the bathroom or with the children, others yet under makeshift canopies on tiny balconies. Read more…

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