26th February 2016
According to official statistics generated by the Hong Kong government, there are about 340,000 migrant domestic workers working in Hong Kong and they are mostly female. 90% of them are from the Philippines and Indonesia. In 2014, the problems they are facing became a heated topic on the media because of the Erwiana case. The incident led the society to start paying attention to the maltreatments and even physical violence adopted by the employers. Meanwhile, there are constant reports on migrant domestic workers abusing kids and elderly at home.
In 2015, Amnesty International Hong Kong supported independent journalist So Mei Chi and human rights photographer Robert Godden in publishing the book Strangers at Home: Migrant Domestic Workers in Hong Kong. The book explored stories between harsh employers and black-hearted domestic workers. During this month’s Human Rights Friday event, we invited the author So Mei Chi, domestic helper Parichat and a representative of Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Union (HKCTU) Tang Kin Wa to engage in a ‘living library’ dialogue session with the participants, which allowed equal, free and direct communication and questions-asking between the participants and the ‘living books’. We hoped to explore the stories of migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong, their employers and different migrant domestic workers organisations, to understand the joy and grudges in their relationships, and thus to reflect on how the policies have affected our migrant domestic workers and various economic and social rights as enjoyed by Hong Kong people.
According to laws in Hong Kong, migrant domestic worker must live with their employers. Undoubtedly, they face all kinds of situations in the family. They may even become involved in family conflicts. In many cases they inevitably become the middleman in the conflicts. Mei Chi believed that migrant domestic workers are like strangers at home, but they are in fact not strangers to the family because they are so closely connected to the family – they take care of the children, household chores, and the everyday life of the family. She also mentioned that the employers failed to grasp the precious opportunity to understand cultural differences between themselves and their domestic workers. When their domestic workers leave upon expiry of the employment contract, they do not only take their memories with the family away, but also the chances of cultural exchanges.
The problems that our migrant domestic workers faced are multi-faceted. The intertwined incidents happened back in their hometown is one of them. It has been more than 10 years since Parichat came to Hong Kong alone from Thailand. She worked for three employers. While she was working hard to bring home the bacon and to establish a comfortable niche for them, she had to handle various problems, such as her husband leaving the family and her daughter going astray. “Even when I go back to Thailand, back to the village that I grew up in, the big house I had once worked so hard for is empty. Everything has changed. I might as well continue working in Hong Kong.” said Parichat.
Through her sharing, we have a glimpse of the mental pressure that our migrant domestic workers bear as they work abroad, and the melancholy that they experience even when they return to the place where they come from.
As an outsider of the relationship between migrant domestic workers and their employers, representative of HKCTU Tang Kin Wa seems to be more capable of consolidating the revelations of Hong Kong migrant domestic workers movement to that of other Asian countries from a labour movement perspective. Hong Kong is a relatively free city among the many cities and countries in Asia. Migrant domestic workers account for a relatively large percentage of the total population of Hong Kong. This is why many concerned organisations about migrant domestic workers are rooted in Hong Kong. Tang believed that the overall circumstances in Hong Kong are better than that of other cities or countries, such as Singapore and Saudi Arabia. The organisations here are relatively more structured, but it does not mean the rights of our migrant domestic workers can be overlooked.
“A lot of employers, and even the Hong Kong government, still think that the housework carried out by the migrant domestic workers is nothing worth mentioning. They have overlooked the fact that household chores are also a vital part of economic activities – raw food would not cook themselves, clothes would not clean themselves – every detail in life has to be taken care of by somebody.” said Tang. “Many employers think that the work of their domestic workers is inferior to those of other industries. Such a strong concept of class probably explains why their rights are not valued. ”
The three living books adopted three different approaches to the situation of migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong. They believed that the first step to fight for the rights of our domestic workers is to understand them and to strengthen our communication with them. The vast majority of the families in Hong Kong and their migrant domestic workers are within the wider spectrum between harsh employers and black-hearted domestic helpers. Perhaps we can let our strangers at home become closer to us if both parties are willing to take a step forward.