When Frai Bartolomé de las Casas, a 16th century Spanish chronicler, saw the abuses suffered by native American slaves, he is said to have uttered the words: ‘I don't know whether to laugh, or cry.’ It’s the same reaction many have had after the Hong Kong government’s pay rise for domestic foreign workers was announced on May 31.
The monthly wage rise, which is determined by the government, means foreign domestic workers will now receive HK$ 3,740 (US$480). This is HK$160 (US$20) more than the previous wage.
The rise, which applies to new contracts, doesn’t even come close to the HK$4,000 domestic workers have been demanding. No wonder they are unhappy. After all, they typically work six days a week, 12 hours a day. It’s cheap slave labour in all but name.
Hong Kong, like Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan, is one of Asia’s main importers of domestic workers. The great majority of domestic workers come from the Philippines and Indonesia, but there are also women from Nepal, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. Most of them are young women from impoverished rural areas. And while the monthly wages in Hong Kong are exploitive, the wages are still better than in Malaysia, where women work for as little as US$130 a month.
In Hong Kong, where they are euphemistically called ‘helpers,’ there are more than 240,000 domestic workers. The most common two nationalities are Filipinos and Indonesians. These are also the most vocal when it comes to social and economic demands. Eni Lestari, an Indonesian worker and spokesperson of the Asian Migrants' Coordinating Body, lambasted the Hong Kong wage rise, saying domestic workers are struggling to make ends meet in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
The pay increase comes against the backdrop of incidents such as this one a couple of years back, when an Indonesian helper fell to her death while trying to climb down from the roof of her employer’s flat. Apparently, she had forgotten the key. As some domestic workers have told me here in Hong Kong, they live in constant fear of upsetting their employers. Losing the flat key means being late for the cooking, picking up the kids from school, washing and cleaning.
I live in Sha Tin, one of the 18 districts of Hong Kong, in an enormous apartment complex where most of the time ‘helpers’ are the only human beings there from one day to the next. I see them when I go for a jog early in the morning – they are out at 6 a.m. walking their employers’ dogs. And I see them a bit later when I head to work, when they are walking their employers’ kids to school. I will see them again in my local shopping centre and later that night walking the dog again.
On weekends, I see them washing their employers’ cars and even cleaning the windows of my high-rise apartment block. They hang out of the windows trying to reach the far corners, attempting to remove the constant dirt left by Hong Kong’s infamous pollution.
Having a helper is more common than not having one here, and it’s a practice adopted with gusto by the large contingent of Western expatriates living in Hong Kong. For the majority of them, this is the first time they’ve had a domestic servant.
‘We’re helping them,’ is the phony justification given to me by one colleague, who says he has hired a Filipino worker who speaks English and is good at cooking. He says his family treats her well and that such helpers prefer Western employers to locals.
I suggested that if he wanted to help her, he could perhaps pay her a salary that would be remotely equivalent to what a maid would be paid back home. ‘I don’t have one back home,’ was his terse reply.Of course not. There’s no cheap labour there.
Is slave labour too strong a term? Not really. These are desperate women coming from desperately poor countries.Poverty pushes thousands of women to leave behind their families in search of money. But their desperation makes them easy targets for sexual and physical abuse, a point well-documented by international organizations. And as if this wasn’t bad enough, domestic workers are frequently subject to humiliating practices such as having to walk behind their employers outside of the home. If a bag has to be carried, they carry the bag, and if a door has to be opened, they open the door. I’ve seen it many times.
Yet many feel they don’t have any choice. Back home are families, children and parents that depend on their meagre salaries. ‘I send home around HK $3000 each month to my family,’ one Filipino maid in my complex told me. The rest is left for her own monthly expenditures.Perhaps a little of that leftover money will be spent meeting other domestic workers on the one-day off they have, usually Sunday.
A few months ago, as I walked past one of those Sunday gatherings – outside on the steps to Sha Tin’s shopping centre – I saw them sharing stories, food and makeup. One of them was singing while playing her guitar. She was singing a catchy song. ‘It’s no fairy tale,’ she sang. That says it all, really.
Antonio Castillo is a journalist and academic based in Hong Kong