Features | Society | East Asia

Why Are Migrant Workers Joining the Hong Kong Protests?

Many of Hong Kong’s migrant workers have expressed solidarity with the protests. Why?

By Michael Beltran for
Why Are Migrant Workers Joining the Hong Kong Protests?

Ten of thousands of protesters flood the streets during a rally in Hong Kong, July 1, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Kin Cheung

The current wave of demonstrations by Hong Kongers against the proposed extradition bill has drawn in people from all walks of life. Media has shone spotlights on the youth, parents, first-time protesters, and other sections of civil society for their creativity and determination.

However, one section has gone quietly under the radar despite their solidarity with the movement in the street. Migrant workers have actively and consistently participated since the beginning of the protests, although most have preferred their involvement to be low-key. Many fear the repercussions, concerned about a backlash from employers who may not be too fond of their domestic help choosing activism over house work, despite the #NoExtraditionToChina campaign being widely popular among locals. 

Numbering more than 380,000 in Hong Kong, migrant workers have developed quite a vibrant social movement of their own. Last year, the Hong Kong government raised basic pay by 2.5 percent, an initial victory for the workers who have campaigned for improved wages. They continue to pushed for further wage increase to $641 per month. 

In 2016, Hong Kong banned window cleaning from domestic worker contracts, given that cleaning the exterior windows of high-rise apartments was a hazardous obligation.

Most migrant workers in Hong Kong are domestic help from Indonesia and the Philippines. Workers from Indonesia and the Philippines, who represent the majority of migrants workers, would not actually be directly affected by the extradition bill. Both countries already have their own extradition agreements with China and Hong Kong. So why have some staked a claim in defense of Hong Kong’s civil liberties and one of the perceived last shreds of its autonomy?

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Beyond Borders  

Jennifer Cabanez, a Filipina, has been a domestic worker in Hong Kong for six years. She first heard about the extradition issue through social media in a Facebook group. 

Among the community of migrant workers, there is already a general distrust of the Chinese justice system and of Beijing’s motives. Cabanez draws parallels between how the powers in Beijing approach Hong Kong and her homeland.  

Last month, controversy erupted when a Chinese trawler rammed into a Filipino fishing vessel in the South China Sea (called the West Philippine Sea in the Philippines), over which China has claimed dominion. The Filipino boat’s 22-man crew ended up in the water, fearing for their lives, for a few hours as their vessel sank. They were ultimately rescued by Vietnamese sailors. Chinese officials have downplayed the incident as an accident and have offered a joint investigation into the matter. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has echoed Chinese sentiments, much to the dismay of some who hoped for a a more strident response.

These occurrences exhibit how China has been using its strength to strong-arm neighboring nations, according to Cabanez. Furthermore, she said, like in the Philippines, China displays unwanted authoritarian actions elsewhere. “The moment you make your opposition to certain government policies known, you are treated like a threat to state security,” she said.

“Trumped up and fabricated charges can land you in jail for years in China, just because of your political or critical views. The same goes for the Philippines.”

Cabanez was able to join the protests and is thankful that her boss is understanding, even somewhat sympathetic to the tumult of the times. Nevertheless, she says permission from her employer is not decisive in her overall political involvement. 

However, Cabanez was careful to generalize. She noted that not all migrant workers have been able to join in the rallies. Most have expressed support through social media and, she said, there are many who really want to join but their current conditions in the households where they work bar them from it. 

“The people of Hong Kong will be facing greater impunity if the bill passes. Not unlike what we see in the Philippines. We hope that more Filipinos in Hong Kong also express greater solidarity for the spate of injustices going on back home,” Cabanez said.

In the Southeast Asian nation under Duterte, grassroots groups and prominent lawmakers alike have decried the sorry state of human rights. But according to Cabanez, the Duterte administration still enjoys significant support from the Filipino migrant community. She hopes that “China’s bullying” can help them see how things are not very different back home.  

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Another migrant worker from Indonesia, who refused to be named, said that the main reason her compatriots have been participating in the protests is extending solidarity. She said that social media has also lit a fire of support among the Indonesian migrant community. 

While the extradition bill is directed at Hong Kong residents, it opens up the gates for greater involvement of Beijing in local policies and directives. That, the Indonesian worker said, is something which might not bode well for them. “China’s government may have more power to suppress the migrant movements in the future.”

Welcome at the Frontlines

Relative to the huge crowds the protests have drawn into the streets of Hong Kong, migrant workers represent a tiny portion. However, their presence has not gone unnoticed by Hong Kongers looking to bolster their ranks in opposition. 

“They came because the injustice and oppression are clear,” says Terry Tsui. Tsui works with civil society platform Autonomous 8A’s Migrant Solidarity Committee. “Migrants are very organized among themselves,” he said.

Tsui explained that mutual support for various issues are becoming more important as both communities face their own struggles while growing and diversifying, amid the influx of labor from abroad especially. “Marching alongside them, there was no skeptical feelings coming from the rest of the crowd. Others found it interesting but it is possible that it fostered a better understanding of each other’s struggles. Migrant groups always show up with big issues anyways.” 

Admittedly though, supporting the rights of migrants and recognizing their contributions is not a popular issue among locals. Tsui said that he first encountered migrant solidarity during the 2005 World Trade Organization Ministerial Meeting, in which representatives from dozens of countries converged in Hong Kong to speak out against free market capitalism and unfair trade treaties. 

“I could see how determined they were to oppose the WTO, something which even the locals could learn from. So I got into contact with some migrant support groups and started to learn more about them,” he said.

Migrant worker movements are nothing new in Hong Kong. The convergence of their existing community activism with the current situation speaks volumes about migrant workers as sympathetic members of the larger Hong Kong community and also about China’s interventions becoming internationalized. Migrant workers, as noted above, see familiar trends in how China approaches their home countries and its perceived efforts in Hong Kong. A blow against the extradition law in Hong Kong is a victory against the growing dominion of China in the Asia-Pacific. That’s a thought many migrant workers bear with them every time they march.

Michael Beltran is a freelance journalist from the Philippines.