Last year, Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul was packed with hundreds of thousands of people rallying over the impeachment of president Park Geun-hye. The Korean Constitutional Court upheld the motion and the president’s dismissal initiated reforms in my country; once neglected agendas – including labor rights, youth employment, gender equality and political transparency – are coming back to the spotlight. The plight of migrants in the country, however, has never been an issue of focus. Jasmine Lee, as Korea’s first Filipino lawmaker, is advocating migrant rights but any social or political changes are hardly afoot. Migrants are very much invisible in the society; the idea of multiculturalism has only been recently discussed while people lack general understanding of foreign cultures. Coming from such an allegedly homogenous society, I was shocked when I first encountered migrants in Hong Kong and the ‘Sunday Central.’
On Sundays, there are tens of thousands of migrant workers sitting on cardboard in front of major buildings, five-star hotels or storefronts of luxury brands. Hiring a domestic worker is a common practice here – HKSAR immigration department statistics states there are around 340,000 – and everyone eventually becomes numb to their presence. My initial response of shock also faded and while studying international politics at University of Hong Kong, I have never connected the learned concepts back to the domestic workers. The issues of human rights or humanitarian aids were easily related to those from Syrian civil war but hardly to those fighting a different kind of war here in Hong Kong. Thus, when I was first asked to spend every Sunday at Central with migrant workers, I got a little frustrated. Being an intern at Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants (APMM) definitely meant a big leap as well as being in the front line of the battle but Sunday Central was something out of my expectations.
It is always 10 o’clock every Sunday. Instead of following lazy weekend routines, I head to the Chater Garden in Central to join Filipino Migrant Workers’ Union (FMWU) as assigned. I am usually soaked in sweat by the time I arrive at the garden. Temperatures are well up in the thirties and sitting in the scorching sun is not the most pleasant experience; however, neither the migrants nor migrant organizations can afford air-conditioned venues. The government regulations dictate 24 consecutive hours of uninterrupted rest each Sunday but with the minimum wage of 4,310 HKD, streets and public parks are the only available places where they can spend their day off. At the same time, as the employment law requires foreign domestic workers to live with their employers with very little privacy, streets and public parks are the only places where they can properly relax. They sit on the road with their colorful plastic stools, laugh, eat, sleep, cut hair or even participate in coordinate dance routines. Chater Garden is just one those places.
In the middle of the Chater Garden, along with all the activities going on, FMWU hosts weekly meetings; agendas vary from know-your-rights campaign to the debate on the recent proclamation of martial law in the Philippines. My initial response on my first Sunday was a sense of alienation. As I pushed my way through the migrants to join the organization, I could feel glances and stares as if I do not belong to the place. The air is filled with words spoken in a completely unfamiliar language that I do not understand. Without any specific tasks given, I just set there in a complete daze. The midday sun felt relentless and all that I thought was ‘how am I going to do every Sunday?’. So I started to make a list of questions. Sitting there every Sunday was something inevitable and asking relevant questions seemed to be a good way to avoid any awkward situations.
“How long have you been working here in Hong Kong?” was my first question and Joy, a 27-year-old Filipina with fluent English, became my first respondent. Our little chit-chat, which was meant to be a stopgap, lasted 4 hours that day. We went on from the initial question to migrant workers’ lives in Hong Kong, to working conditions with her current employer, to the role of FMWU and APMM, to migrant workers in Korea, to Ukulele that she bought the other day and eventually to how she enjoys her Sunday Central. Now on every Sunday, I casually sit with Joy and her friends in FMWU, share their foods, learn some useful Tagalog, share opinions on hot Kpop stars and sometimes share our personal stories. They make sure that I do not feel alienated because they say they understand how it feels to be segregated from the rest of the society. They keep me updated with any activities that they plan so that I feel integrated as a part of their community.
From the past 6 weeks of integration process, I learned that their gathering on Sundays is not a mere getaway: they interact with each other; they explore beautiful places in Hong Kong together; they share their grieves and finally release themselves from the overwhelming isolation that might have weighed them down during the weekdays. Migrant organizations then connect these individuals and make sure that their voices do not go unheard. FMWU, for example, always has weekly meetings on different agendas. When there is an orientation for newcomers, they hold an information session to keep them abreast with any policies or practices that might affect their rights as migrant workers. These sessions are critical as a lot foreign domestic workers are unaware of their basic rights while being highly vulnerable to exploitation. Abuse and discriminations are more than often tolerated as their biggest fear is being kicked out of the country. Orientation held by grassroot organizations on Sundays then serve a crucial role of education and empowerment as they inform the migrants of their rights and ways to speak up against injustice that are prevalent in the society.
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Foreign domestic workers consist around 5 percent of the entire Hong Kong population. We see them every day on the market buying groceries, on MTR stations picking up children or in restaurants eating with their employers. At the same time, people are indifferent. What I learn from my weekly integrations and research works at APMM is that people less interested in why these workers need to be at the public spaces on Sundays. People place less attention on how these workers are underpaid, overworked and stuck in little cupboards for their short rest. Prevalent mistreatments seem to become more of a ‘custom’ and eventually form an environment in which inequality and injustice is easily tolerated.
What I appreciate most about my internship experience is that I actually get to ‘know’ and ‘understand’ the foreign domestic workers here in Hong Kong. Before the internship, I lacked both interest and knowledge towards the migrant society. I always classified myself as a migrant but I was hardly the subject of inequality or injustice. Issues of migrants were then only learned through textbooks, mere statistics, case studies or class discussions. Even in classrooms, educational focus was largely on international crisis when there are closer and more immediate humanitarian crisis near us. If it were not for the Sunday Central integration, I would not have learned any of the situations. I know not all employers in Hong Kong treat their workers badly; however, the lack of social awareness and legal exclusion definitely dedicates to forming an environment where these migrants are forced to tolerate the current status quo. As the ‘multiculturalism’ or ‘ethnic diversity’ now becomes a buzzword in my home country, I hope to bring the broadened perspective back, put knowledge into practice, touch on those with stereotypes and advocate the rights of those segregated.