The Maids of Hong Kong
Immigration is both an age-old problem and solution: scores of disadvantaged migrants seek employment and refuge in a country with a better economic climate.
The U.S. government has warred over the issue of Mexico-U.S. immigration for years. The Thailand government has made efforts to deport many Burmese illegal workers over the past decade. The British Migration Advisory Committee has recently proposed a measure that would make it difficult for low-income immigrants, the largest immigrant population being Indian, to sponsor spouses and family member’s visas.
Currently in Hong Kong, the largest economically displaced population in this world city is embroiled in a battle for fairer treatment that has been percolating for several decades.
The trouble began when Filipina maid, Evangeline Vallejos, challenged the Hong Kong government’s long-standing rule against foreign maids applying for residency. Other foreign nationals are allowed to apply for permanent residency after working for seven years in Hong Kong. It took Vajellos 25 years and months of legal battles to do the same.
Vallejos won a court case on Sept 30, 2011 that granted her the right to apply for residency. The Hong Kong government is expected to appeal the court’s decision.
Many in the Filipino community were joyful on the day of the ruling but reserved in their optimism for the future.
“We are very happy with the ruling today but that does not mean that it’s the end of the struggle in Hong Kong for fair treatment, for justice and against discrimination in Hong Kong,” said Eman Villanueva, vice chairman of the Filipino Migrant Workers Union, secretary general of the United Filipinos in Hong Kong and spokesperson for the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body.
With such an uncharacteristic ruling from the High Court, Villanueva and others are worried that in the future new laws may be imposed on the length of stay for Foreign Domestic Workers (Maids), forcing them to return to their homelands before they reach the mandatory seven year stay required to apply.
“We still have a long way to go,” Villanueva said. “There are still many other anti-migrant and discriminatory policies in Hong Kong that we have to deal with,” like low wages, long working hours and laws that make it mandatory for FDWs to live with their employers.
“All these are still there so we still have a long way to go but this is a first step towards the right direction, and that is respect and fair treatment for foreign workers in Hong Kong,” he added.
Opponents of the residency ruling argue that if the maids are allowed residency, it will contribute to overcrowding in a region that is already tight on space which would have a direct impact on housing, education and other resources.
So why do these women leave their countries, homes and families for such long hours and little pay? For many, it’s the opportunity to send their children to college and avoid a difficult life that drives them, for others it’s the opportunity to send money with a favorable exchange rate home to families that are living in poverty. For some it’s simply the thrill of living abroad by the only means available.
For Virginia Iniego, it was her dream of sending both of her sons to college that has kept her spirits high since she moved to Hong Kong 22 years ago.
After working as a maid for 12 years, Iniego was diagnosed with stage four nasopharyngeal cancer.
“When my employers know that I have cancer, they terminate the contract,” Iniego said.
She pleaded with her employers not fire her, that she had two sons she wanted to send to college, but they told her that she needed to return to the Philippines.
Iniego contacted the Mission for Migrant Workers, a local non-profit organization that provides assistance to FDWs.
After 14 days of unemployment, FDWs are forced to leave the country. This small amount of time has made the word “termination” a part of every FDWs English vocabulary. Because of the fear that contract termination brings, agencies that specialize in job placement for FDWs thrives. Such organizations are often found to take advantage of FDWs that come to Hong Kong knowing little English or Cantonese by instituting special fees, some for unnecessary training, that are often worth a half year’s salary.
Iniego visited the Immigration office 13 days after her contract was terminated.
The MFMW contacted a reporter at The South China Morning Post. After the article was published she had a number of job offers from citizens touched by her story and the Immigration department extended her visa for “humanitarian reasons.”
“That’s the reason why I can finish all the medication here,” Iniego said. “And a lot of people are helping me to survive—that’s why I can survive.”
Iniegos current employer wants her to be happy and has helped pay her medical bills over the past ten years. Even though she is not “fit to work,” she is still earning a living.
“I’m not working so hard—just iron the clothes—it’s a light job,” Iniego said.
Iniego left the Philippines when her sons were four and two years old. Both sons graduated from college and are living successful lives because of their mothers sacrifice.
“Of course it’s not easy to leave your family, right? But I don’t have a choice because in the Philippines it’s very hard and difficult. If I’m in the Philippines, I cannot send them to university. That’s why, even though I went from the country, I still try my best to work here because I know the money is here in Hong Kong.”
A warm smile spreads over her face as she talks about her sons.
“That’s why, even though life is very difficult for me, I’m prepared to stay here because that’s my dream—to finish both of my sons through university. And, luckily, all my dreams come true.”
Foreign Domestic Workers, primarily from Indonesia and the Philippines, account for most of the migration into Hong Kong. The majority of workers are women who fill the roles of maids and mothers in many Chinese and Western families.
At the end of August 2011, there were a total of 295,554 FDWs registered in Hong Kong, according to C.M. Chan, director of immigration for the HK government. When undocumented workers are accounted for, the number is speculated to be much higher. The total population of Hong Kong is 7,108,100, according to the Census and Statistics department in Hong Kong.
Number of Foreign Domestic Workers in HK by Nationality
Number of Foreign Domestic Workers in HK by Gender
Maids live with the family that employs them as the maid’s salary is generally quite low and their job demands that they work long hours. The current minimum wage for FDWs by law is HKD$3,740 or USD$480 per month. The minimum wage for FDWs is lower than the standard minimum wage for any other type of employment in HK. Most maids make between the minimum wage and HKD$4,000. Considering that prices for goods are quite similar to U.S. prices, this is the equivalent of trying to live in New York City on USD$500 every month.
By law, FDWs should receive one day off from work every week. For most of the maids, that day is Sunday.
The maid population does not seem very high, but if you take a walk downtown on a Sunday it will.
It is almost unimaginable for a maid to have friends over to their employer’s home, leaving them with nowhere other than the streets to spend their weekly holiday.
Visitors to Hong Kong will most likely be astounded when they see thousands of Filipino and Indonesian women lining the above-ground walkways on Sunday, picnicking on blankets and cardboard boxes, brightly colored umbrellas always at hand to keep the tropical sun or rain at bay.
Sundays are visibly territorial, though not in a violent or aggressive manner, just one distinctly marked by language and culture.
Many Filipina maids spend their Sunday afternoons in Central, Hong Kong, whereas, large numbers of Indonesian maids are found in groups in, or around, Victoria Park in Causeway Bay. The maids generally share a sisterly respect for one another; they simply enjoy speaking their native language and embracing their cultural heritage on their one day off every week.
“Every Sunday is my holiday, so I spend my holiday with my friends, just having fun, telling some stories, share our feelings—sharing our problems— sharing everything with friends during our holiday,” said Marites Bernales, a Filipina maid who has worked for the same family for 12 years.
“It’s more easy for us to go in Central. Because there’s no place rather than Central,” she added when asked why so many of the maids are found in Central. Bernales was interviewed at a market on Sunday in Tuen Mun, an area that is roughly 20 miles from Central.
Central and Causeway bay are by no means the only places the maids will be found but they are the two areas where they are impossible to ignore. The local Filipino or Indonesian market often becomes the local hangout/bar for a handful of maids on their day off. Many sip beer or wine, sing karaoke, dance and enjoy home-cooked meals made in preparation for their communal gathering.
Both Filipino and Indonesian cultures embrace community and color. Walking through town on a Sunday, you may just hear one of your favorite American songs being sung by a Filipina maid enjoying karaoke.
Women from the Philippines have sought employment as maids in Hong Kong for several decades and, until recently, had been the largest immigrant population. Over the past decade, the numbers have shifted and the Indonesian maids now constitute the highest immigrant population. In some ways, history is repeating itself for a whole new population.
The Filipinos have been in Hong Kong for a long enough time that the maids are more frequently familiar with the system. Many in the Indonesian population are still learning the laws and are willing to work for lower rates than many in the Filipino community, allowing some employers to abuse the system. Many of the Indonesians and Filipino FDWs earn below the minimum wage and are not granted the government mandated one day off every week.
The problems that face the Indonesians vary, according to Eni Lestari, chairperson for the Association of Indonesian Migrant Workers in Hong Kong and coordinator for the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body.
“Most of them come to us with their first problem, such as underpayment, fees by the employment agency or confiscation of their passport in the employment contract. Some of them are suffering from sexual or physical abuse. Some of them are meant to work in a different house…There are also some who come to us because they are not being treated well by the Indonesian Consulate.”
When the Indonesian maids complain to the government about not receiving time off or being paid below minimum wage their complaints are generally disregarded by both the Hong Kong government and the Indonesian Consulate, according to Lestari.
“The Indonesians are not being informed of their rights by their government,” Lestari said
Lestari and others speculate that this is intentional, that poor Indonesians are being sold at a cheaper price, holding fewer rights, to keep Indonesia competitive in the global market. Similar beliefs are shared amongst many in the Filipino community.
There are a number of immigrants from the Philippines that resort to selling their bodies as a source of supplemental income, some of whom are maids. Filipino prostitutes are normally found in strip clubs, bars and on the streets in Hong Kong’s red-light district, Wan Chai. Prostitution is income that can be earned outside of their employer’s home after hours during the week or just on Saturday night, which makes it one of the most feasible ways for the maids to earn more money. Maids are not allowed by the current laws to have more than one job or clean for more than one family.
The local Hong Kong Chinese are somewhat divided when it comes to FDW’s rights. A large portion of the population opposes the court’s decision to allow Evangeling Vallejos to apply for residency.
While things like salaries, residency and fair treatment continue to be points of contention in Hong Kong, some of the more progressive Chinese families are beginning to show support for the maids.
Marites Bernales, a Filipina maid, is being encouraged by her employer to apply for residency.
“They treat me like their own family member. I like it and I will never forget them because they help me. Not like the others (employers). That’s what I like over here.”
“We can say that all the employers are the same,” Bernales said. “There are some good, some are bad. Like us, also, we can say that all the Filipinas are good; some are bad also. So it’s like give and take. But I can say my employer’s good. They support me and help me whatsoever.”
Traditionally, judges in the High Court tend to rule in favor of the Hong Kong government because they aspire to be judges in the Court of Final Appeals. Since Vallejos won in the court of first instance, the case still is yet to be determined in the Court of Final appeals.