The cover story for the June 2017 issue of The Atlantic chronicles the life of an Asian woman who was an indentured servant for an American family. The story is written by Alix Tizon. Reading it I was reminded of a story I wrote about domestic helpers in Hong Kong for the Winnipeg Free Press.
“I pray to God and the burdens on my heart are lifted.” I am visiting with some workers from the Philippines who have gathered along with thousands of their countrywomen in Hong Kong’s Statue Square. There are groups enjoying each other’s company everywhere you look. Some are eating, visiting, playing cards, styling one another’s hair and trading romance novels. Others are praying, reading their Bibles and singing hymns. There are an estimated 200,000 female workers from the Philippines living and working in family homes in Hong Kong. These ‘helpers’ (the common term for domestic laborers in Hong Kong) are expected to work twenty four hours a day, six days a week, but government regulations dictate they must be given twelve consecutive hours of free time each Sunday. Since the women cannot afford to go to movies or eat in restaurants on their day off, they gather in Hong Kong’s train stations and parks or outside public buildings.
One Sunday morning I went down to the heart of Hong Kong’s business district to spend some time talking with the Filipino women in a central plaza there. One group readily agreed to let me take their picture and when I told them I was writing a story for a newspaper in Canada they were happy to answer my questions.
The ten women I spoke with all come from the same rural area in the Philippines. They work in homes in different sections of Hong Kong but on Sundays they meet at St. Joseph’s Cathedral. After mass they gather on the porch of the near by law courts building to spend the afternoon eating and visiting. They tell me their faith in God is what helps them survive the separation from their families in the Philippines and the sometimes cruel and indifferent treatment of their employers. “I pray to God and the burdens on my heart are lifted” one woman tells me passionately, as she lifts her hands and eyes heavenward.
As we visit I discover some of the women in the group have been here for as little as four months while others have lived in Hong Kong for as long as twelve years. Most have young children at home and are university educated. They are nurses, teachers, physiotherapists, pharmacists, computer programmers and businesswomen. They speak several languages. However they can make three times more money in Hong Kong (the government dictated salary is about $600 Canadian a month) than they can practicing their professions in the Philippines. They tell me they need money to pay for their children’s education. “To give our kids hope for the future”, one woman says. They all send a substantial portion of their salary home to their families.
Not all employers treat their Filipino maids as they should. “They really have incredible power over the women” says Sue Farley who works for an organization that provides support to foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong. She tells me sometimes the domestic helpers have already been taken advantage of by unscrupulous middlemen in the Philippines who charge them exorbitant prices for work visas and transportation to Hong Kong. As a result they arrive in the city already owing a large amount of money. If they land up with an employer who is cruel and abusive they hesitate to report them to the authorities. They need to keep their job to pay back their travel loan and send money home to their families who are depending on them.
Farley tells me some women are sexually harassed. One maid confided she slips a chair under the knob of the door in her room before going to bed, to keep her boss out. Others aren’t as lucky because they have to sleep on a mat on the kitchen floor. One of the Filipino women I spoke to said she sleeps on the floor between the beds of the children in the household where she is employed. That same maid told me she is often hungry. “I can only eat what is left over after my employers have had dinner.”
“We want to go home”, the group of women I talked with told me. “We want to be with our families. But until then God is watching over us.”