By Kathleen Mae Magramo
“Oh you’re Filipino? Is your mother a domestic helper like my ‘jiejie’?” – a lot of curious children who I teach in my part time job ask me this.
And the answer is that “yes, I am Filipino but no, my mom is not a domestic worker. Both my parents are professionals”, often this mumbled with a tone of indignation.
You cannot blame them. Hongkongers only see the tanned arms that clean their house sparking white. Meanwhile on Sundays at Central, the scene of domestic workers setting up cardboard forts along the sidewalks of hailed financial district. I am torn—as a Filipino myself, I understood the harsh realities of fleeing your home country to work a wage but as a Hongkonger, I was also ignorant of how the society treats domestic workers on a policy level. And so, I set off my weekly integration to Central on Sundays to put myself in the shoes of the city’s 180,000 foreign domestic helpers (FDWs).
It was a hot Sunday of thirty-three degrees Celsius. Ate Reja picked me up next to the Chanel store at Chater Road. She was excited to have a Filipina intern with them for the next two months. Ate Reja is a member of Likha, a migrant organisation that sharing Filipino culture through dance and music. I was introduced to the other members of Likha, who were all sitting under a bus stop along Chater Road.
At first, I was constantly complaining about the heat and how uncomfortable it was to be literally sitting on the sidewalks. As the day ended, I realised that this was the reality of migrant workers. In fact, this was their day off- their only leisure time from working 24 hours for the past 6 days of the week. Funny thing is, I took a nap when I got home then showered and had my mom prepare dinner for us. As I dined with my family, I thought to myself “After that tiring day, I have the privilege to rest and relax. But to the domestic workers, that “tiring day” of mine was their “rest day”. In reality, the domestic workers have to go back to their employers that evening, prepare their dinner, iron out uniforms for the week, send the kids to sleep, etc. And this goes on every week.
I have been to Central in Sundays and I have seen the sight of domestic workers sitting on cardboard along the footbridges and sidewalks of the city. Yet, in this experience where I sit next to them, instead of walking hurriedly to avoid them, I realized how poorly the HK community treats these workers. These domestic helpers are the people who make sure that families in HK have someone to look after their child while parents are away at work. These domestic helpers are on call 24/7 to any demands by their employer and have unregulated working hours nor do they have a proper place to rest. This incident was a reality check for me, I felt ashamed for complaining about the discomfort of the experience and started to think of solutions to make the rest days more enjoyable for domestic workers. I was also starting to think whether or not domestic workers had adequate rest after that long day in the summer heat wave.
Contrast to last week, it was rainy all day long. The crowd at Chater Road was much smaller but there were still lots of things happening. No amount of rain would stop the FDWs to gather together and share homemade delicacies. While I was having lunch with the members of Likha, one of them received a call for help. The case is that a FDW hired by a Filipino Employer had her contract terminated on the spot. The FDW has been employed for 5 months. The problem arises as the employer insists that the FDW packs her things immediately and she will be brought to the airport by the end of the day. Appalled by the situation, the members of Likha explained the FDWs rights in the case of a termination of contract, namely, the employee would have 14 days in HK to look for a new employer, the employer should pay one month’s notice and that the employer has no right to coerce the FDW to board a plane ASAP. The members of Likha also talked to the employer to explain the contractual laws and procedures that must be fulfilled to legally terminate the employee. Everything happened very quickly. Through this incident, I began to understand the true impact APMM brings to FDWs. The members of Likha attributed their knowledge on their contract and migrant rights through seminars and fellowship activities hosted by APMM and its partner NGOs. Put it this way, when you work overseas for the first time, you are unaware of not just the culture but also of the laws and employment practices of your host country. That is the same with FDWs. Many NGOs and societies provide FDWs with more that a support network but also provide them with pivotal legal knowledge to prevent them from being marginalised, exploited and abused by employers. I now value the importance of learning and understanding HK’s contract laws on FDWs because I could be a vessel to safeguard someone’s well-being as a domestic worker in HK.
I came in APMM with a rudimentary understanding on the migrant worker community in Hong Kong. I thought I was familiar with the harsh realities of long working hours, discrimination and unfair treatment of domestic workers as depicted by local HK news and documentaries from the Philippines. It seems as though these past 4 weeks has opened my eyes to what it is truly to be a domestic worker in Hong Kong. The next for us as a society is to figure out how the Philippine and Hong Kong government can create jobs back home and reduce the exploitation of domestic workers.