By Humaira Qamar
Sundays. Everyone was home. Catching up on some sleep. Snoozing in a little past after noon. We would slowly arrive at the kitchen one by one. And had the appetite to chow down a hefty breakfast. Cooked by my mom and not Lanie. Lanie and Lei had their day off today that meant the house wasn’t going to look in tip top shape as it usually does. You see, Lanie and Lei are live-in Filipina domestic workers and due to the close proximity and years of service, my family especially us children had grown incredibly close to them. On Sundays however, by the time we were up, Lanie and Lei had long left for their commute to church.
As for me, on this Sunday, I woke up at the same time as them. My phone began to ring and somebody started to speak in Tagalog. I tried to tell them in English I didn’t speak Tagalog but she continually said “sa Filipina ka”. I handed the phone over to Lanie. They exchange a few sentences. And Lanie relayed to me I had to meet a woman in Central before 1pm. So I hopped into the shower and began an unusual Sunday.
I arrived to Central. It was busier than ever. As I exited the MTR, I met a lady named Marbs at the steps of the World-Wide House from where we walked over to the tram station. We hopped on to an overly crowded tram as Marbs was greeted in Tagalog by some other women. After a short ride, we got off the Tram and walked over to a usually less-dense area under the HSBC building. As we entered the premise, a sea of migrant workers sat in groups. Erected cardboards were propped upwards or mapped on the floor. As if to segregate the different groups. Some women were fast asleep. Some were busy plucking white hair out of their friend’s scalp. While some sat on a stool and helped painted nails in exchange for a little money.
We finally arrived to the other end of the building where a group of women sat preparing for a birthday celebration for a kind woman named Delma. As I sat on a slightly inclined surface I watched as the women placed final touches to setting up a table for their friend Delma’s birthday. One of the task of my internship at Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants (APMM) was to take part in an integration program with foreign domestic workers (FDWs). Many FDWs in Hong Kong launched organizations that shared certain values and beliefs. They would meet regularly on Sundays commonly known as a day off for the majority of FDWs and occupied public areas such as parks, streets, churches and mosques.
The Migrant Stories
Every Sunday I would have to sit under the HSBC building in Central with my allocated organization Gabriela Women’s Party. My purpose was to establish a dialogue with the FDWs on their struggles, successes and aspirations during their course of employment here. While also collecting data for undergoing empirical studies on the conditions of migrant workers. On my second visit, I sat in a small group of six women. What followed were narrations of short to long stories detailing the reasons for leaving their home countries for employment and their experience in Hong Kong insofar. Some struggled with living accommodation, stress-related health conditions, strenuous working hours, insufficient training to care for special needs children and habitual breach of contract by employers.
One by one I asked the women to share with me some more details of their stories. I could tell some of them were shy or had trouble directly communicating with me. So one woman acted as a spokesperson and spent the next hour talking to me about many issues I was oblivion too. Many migrant workers have reported to be susceptible to depression, high-blood pressure, heart attack due to the stress they faced from the heavy workload and financial strain. A study by the Consulate of the Philippines reported causalities of FDWs were usually a result of stress-related illnesses in the recent years. Across from me sat a woman who was suffering from high blood pressure due to the stress of financially supporting her family. But she hoped with her sons all grown up now she would be near retiring very soon.
As I sat and explained my purpose in their community. One thing I had picked up was that the workers were well-informed about their rights and were aware when their contracts were being breached by their employers. For instance, they were not given the 24-hour day off they were entitled to in the contract. Most of them had curfews or couldn’t leave the house on a Sunday until all the chores were completed. Employers were knowingly breaching theirs rights but most FDWs didn’t want to speak up simply because their employers had a good attitude towards them and they feared termination.
An Absent Youth
As we came to a halt in our discussion, one member relayed to me that she was quite impressed by my concern for the migrant community and she wished the youth of Hong Kong took more interest in advocating for their basic rights. I told her my natural inclination towards their issues stemmed mainly because I was raised by a domestic worker. I learnt the most basic of skills from her and had always considered her more of a motherly figure than my own biological mother. However, I realized at that particular moment, the members were not all too surprised by my story. And I could also easily count the number of friends I had that were raised by and very attached to their domestic worker.
After this incident, I began to reflect on the advocacy work many migrant organizations did. Most of which were advocated towards policy-makers and the labor department. Yet, we had an entire group of young individuals in Hong Kong that were not actively involved or a target of the advocacy work. This made very little sense to me as on many occasions I had heard peers expressing their love and respect for FDWs. And these peers were going to be the next generation of employers to FDWs. Questions began to rush through my head. Was the current situation of FDWs apparent to the youth? Were they familiar with the day-to-day problems faced by migrant workers?
I decided to ask my friends about their experiences and what they knew about the situation of migrant workers. Most of them knew that there was a certain degree of ill-treatment of Hong Kong employers towards some migrant workers. And some migrant workers had difficulty attaining appropriate living quarters. However, what they did not know was that we breached their contract on a regular basis and our own parents were guilty of it too. Additionally, migrant workers were not recognized by the Hong Kong government as “workers” thus not subjected to the minimum wage nor invited to public consultations on regulations of working hours held by the Legislative Council.
It appeared that their ignorance on the matter was not all too unfamiliar. I too was unaware of many of the issues. And only after being part of APMM, I became familiar with the web of politically active organizations that were lobbying for regulations and pushing for certain rights and needs of FDWs. I only became familiar with the rescue operations that took place at the dead of the night in the event of termination, physical assault, sexual assault, etc. I didn’t know there were shelters in place and the hefty amount of money and manpower it took to keep them running and in-operation.
Recognizing Migrant Efforts
Many FDWs lived in our households and played a vital role in the upbringing and nurturing of many children in Hong Kong. A study on the effects of Filipino FDWs showed a positive influence on the educational attainments of school children especially in the level of English-speaking ability and maturity (Tang & Yung, 2012). Moreover, the dependence on FDWs to run households has allowed many local women to enter the workforce. Nearly every family had the luxury to afford a FDW. In them, they entrusted their homes and children from a very tender age.
Despite the positive impact and contributions of FDWs to Hong Kong households, the Hong Kong government and employers undervalue and fail to accredit them. Conversely, the youth that have a fairly positive attitude towards the migrant community remain unaware of their movements. I was feeling overwhelmed. I had entered a community I thought I knew because of my close ties with my own domestic worker. But I had entered a different world altogether through my integration.
From afar and an onlooker’s perspective, it looked as though these workers were idly passing their Sunday by getting some rest and spending some time in leisure. But at a closer speculation, these workers had formed political organizations that stood for different values and most importantly to voice and raise awareness of their basic rights. It was a political nest with members of different organizations running off from one place to the other to discuss pressing political matters and using their one day off to push for the rights and recognition they should have been entitled to from the start.
Bridging the Gap
This incident has made me question why the youth was uninvolved in a movement for a community that they positively perceived. As a youth I was initially part of the advocacy merely because of a graduation requirement. But my empathy only grew through the integration programs. I expected the youth should have at least had a greater foothold in being part of the advocacy and targets of these campaigns. It made me feel that we were neglecting a community of women that had taught us from wrong to right and had helped us in times when our parents were absent. It should have not been rare for FDWs to witness a youth from a different race advocating for their basic rights and needs. It should have been a norm in a society that entrusted their children to a community from a tender age.
The majority of Hong Kong youth are extremely politically and socially active. Yet, the issues faced by FDWs are rarely discussed by our generation. And due to this unpleasant feeling and moment of realization, I felt as though I had a greater purpose to play apart from the work that was already allocated to me at the internship. As an active member of a society and a migrant worker advocate, I had to bridge this gap. I decided to take the role of a spokesperson between the youth and the migrant working community.
On my return to the office in the following week, I sat with other fellow interns and began to decide the one surefire way to get the attention of the millennials – social media. We drafted up proposals on increasing the social media presence through different mediums. I was convinced that the youth could play a propelling role in changing the current attitude of employers towards FDWs. But I must first attract their attention to the issues. This meant capturing the lives of different FDWs through profile and featured stories. We sat with our supervisors and asked for their permission to access the Facebook page and set up a blogging page in the organization’s name.
Currently, we are in the process of devising stories and have pitched many story ideas that have been approved. I hope in my time at this internship I am able to develop a sustainable social media platform in which future interns and different members of the organization can contribute. It is my way of ensuring that the youth become part of the advocacy and also a target of the advocacy.
Through this incident I realized that understanding any issue was not simply a click away. In order to inject empathy and receive first-hand information, one must not wait for an experience to take place rather take the initiative to get to know contemporary issues. This applied to different members of society such as asylum seekers, refugees, elderly groups, etc. I would never be able to fully realize my role or purpose in helping someone if I do not sit where they sit, eat what they ate and talk where their conversations took place. I had to show a genuine desire to become part of the community if I wanted to be welcomed and well-informed with the most pressing of issues.