Malaysia is one of Asia's biggest employers of foreign labour. But recently, cases of deaths, abuse and forced labour have come to light. What is going on? Who is protecting these migrant workers?
Last Sunday, around 300 migrant domestic workers marched through Hong Kong’s central district before International Women’s Day, holding banners demanding better pay and conditions. Unable to march on Wednesday 8 March for fear of losing their jobs, they chose to give up their day of statutory rest, Sunday, to make a stand and make their voices heard.
As the peaceful demonstration, organised by union groups including United Filipinas of Hong Kong, set off from Chater Gardens, passersby stopped and took photos, while others pretended not to notice. Many of the women had gone to great effort with their signs, including “Domestic workers are not slaves” and “Our lives matter”.
It was no coincidence that the march was held on a Sunday: it is rooted in a tradition that is typically Hong Kong.
Since the early 1980s, migrant domestic workers have congregated in Hong Kong’s public spaces every Sunday and for public holidays. Tens of thousands of women sit on cardboard or plastic mats in the shadow of five-star hotels, major bank buildings and storefronts with luxury brand names etched across them in glowing cursive.
Around Statue Square, the Filipino community holds court and the streets are transformed into “Little Manila”, injecting noise and colour into the otherwise austere financial district.
Annie, 29, and Nilda, 36, met at the employment office, where they were both handing in their notice, roughly a year ago. An hour after meeting, the two women sat chatting on a raised concrete planter outside the MTR [Mass Transit Railway] station exit.
“I try to be outside as much as possible,” said Annie, “because my employer’s house makes me feel sad.” She had been in Hong Kong for five months of her two-year contract, but had made the decision to leave. “They mistreat me and don’t give me enough food. So on my day off, I have to stock up on snacks and canned goods to survive the week.”
Hong Kong’s domestic workers (also known simply as “helpers”) are required by employment law to “live in”. Nilda, who shared a room with her employer’s baby twins, described how she found this arrangement exhausting. Annie, meanwhile, lived under constant CCTV surveillance. “There’s a camera in my bedroom,” she said. “They monitor me all the time.”
In Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, living spaces are notoriously small. Still, the cheap labour of foreign domestic workers attracts even those employers who do not have suitable space in their homes to accommodate them.
There’s a camera in my bedroom. They monitor me all the time
For the 380,000, largely female domestic workers who fall under it, the live-in law can create overwhelming feelings of isolation, explains Hans J Ladegaard, a professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, who conducted research into domestic migrant workers’ abuse stories for his recent book The Discourse of Powerlessness and Repression.
It can also lead to sub-standard living conditions. “[In many cases] a domestic worker doesn’t have her own room,” Ladegaard explains. “She sleeps in the living room, the kitchen, or the bathroom. Workers are kept inside the flat 24/7, they cannot go out during the day.” On Sunday, many of the protesters held signs specifically calling for an end to the live-in law, which they compared to modern-day slavery.
A report published in 2016 by organisations including the Asian Foreign Domestic Workers Union described “serious gaps” in Hong Kong’s legal framework in relation to trafficking and forced labour. In surveys of Filipino domestic workers, the report found that 84% had paid illegal fees to a recruitment agency, leaving them with debts that cut into their salaries for several months, with some reporting that their passports were confiscated as collateral. Those taking part in the survey worked on average 16 hours a day, with nearly half reporting food deprivation.
Ladegaard first came across domestic workers’ stories while volunteering at a shelter run by the local NGO Mission for Migrant Workers. In his experience, the Sunday public assemblies perform an important function in connecting domestic workers to each other. “Newcomers would come into the shelter Sunday night or Monday,” he recalls. “That was simply because they would meet other domestic workers on a Sunday, and find out about their rights. They would hear ‘Your employer is exploiting you, abusing you.’”
One of the founders of Mission for Migrant Workers, Cynthia Abdon-Tellez, who came to Hong Kong with the NGO in 1981, explains that the Sunday gatherings are a lifeline even to those not suffering abuse.
“Most of these women are mothers,” she says. “Even if you don’t have problems with your employer, you have stress from being separated from your families. Six days a week you are inside your employer’s home: that one day is all you have to alleviate this. [The workers] speak a lot, they talk a lot. They sing their hearts out.”
People expect migrant workers to just be workers. What they don’t realise is that they are people too
On Sunday mornings, as people teem through Central’s Escher-landscape of connected buildings and pedestrian skywalks, the helpers pitch camp below. Space is claimed using anything from a circle of bags to a tent, and public ground is transformed into temporary venues for every possible social interaction.
Workers picnic, cut hair, hold protests, or even take part in coordinated dance routines. A group of women might host a roadside bridal shower, passing around a pristine white wedding dress as cars fly past. A pop fanclub might meet under brightly coloured banners, proclaiming their appreciation for the affiliated act with screams and laughter.
“We found each other on the internet, then we started meeting up,” says Cha Bordo, 34, a member of Jadine Lovers HK, a fan club for the Filipino pop duo Jadine. “We meet every week and we go to mass, then we explore beautiful places in Hong Kong.” She trained as a teacher in the Philippines, but left before she could take a job. Her club helped her adapt to living far from home. “We do everything together,” she says.
One smog-choked afternoon, under a busy flyover, a worker named Edna, 41, pulled Tupperware containers of macaroni and sticky rice out of a knock-off Fendi bag, and listened to Girlie, 27, tell a familiar tale of negligent employers.
For these women, caught between a home country with no economic plan but to export labour and a city that excluded them from universally held rights, every act of expression is resistance. In these gatherings, Hong Kong’s migrant workers openly flaunt their agency, their individualism, defying the city’s attempts, via standardised and restrictive employment policies, to treat them as a faceless whole.
“It’s important to say that they’re not all powerless victims,” explains Ladegaard. “There are migrant women who are empowered, who are strong, leading others, committed to NGOs. That’s the great promise of the migrant worker communities: they provide this support network for each other.”
In taking this network to the streets, the helpers confront those who would rather ignore their humanity for the sake of convenience. “People expect domestic workers to be just workers,” said Nicole Constable, author of Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Migrant Workers and Born Out of Place: Migrant Mothers and the Politics of International Labour. “What they don’t realise is that they are people, too.”
Constable, who has spent decades in contact with the city’s domestic worker community, remembers how, in 1992, a group of local residents tried to ban them from Central. This culminated in “the Battle of Chater Road”, a fierce public debate fought in newspaper editorials, during which the residents board failed to win public sympathy, eventually seeing their petition denied.
Today, Constable says, the gatherings are mostly accepted as part of the city’s cultural identity, thanks in part to the skilled advocacy of the Filipino activists, who then influenced the activism of a new generation of Indonesian helpers. The Indonesian migrant community, who tend to congregate to the east of Central around Victoria Park and the Causeway Bay area, are often the most vulnerable to abuse, being newer to Hong Kong than the Filipino community.
“Hong Kong does have problems,” says Constable, “but it is considered one of the best places in Asia for domestic helpers to get work.” Citing certain high-profile abuse cases and the UN-condemned “two-week rule” that requires workers to leave Hong Kong within two weeks of a contract’s termination, she admits the situation is not perfect, but believes there are ways that helpers and their advocates have been able to improve the situation.
Technology has also changed the shape of the Sunday gatherings, as well as workers’ lives in general. “In the 90s I remember people were forbidden from using phones at work, and there were huge lines for the payphone in Statue Square,” says Constable. “Now everyone has their own phone, and you can message and text in your home without having to make any noise.”
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Having grown up in Hong Kong, the festivities in Statue Square hold a special resonance with me, after first drawing me in as a child. Just over a year ago, on a return visit, I began interviewing migrant domestic workers on their “statutories” – including Annie, Nilda, and Cha. My experiences getting to know these women and their lives enabled me to write a song, Mahal Kita, meaning “I love you” in Tagalog, a language spoken in the Philippines. The song is a tribute to every migrant worker who took Hong Kong’s public space and made it their own.
Since first speaking to them, Annie and Nilda have left the city. Nilda got married in the Philippines, but eventually returned to her previous employers in Hong Kong to avoid new agency fees. Annie ultimately managed to find work in Singapore, though she hopes to go home one day, and train as a cook for cruise liners.
Cha, meanwhile, continues to live in Hong Kong. “Though people have tried, you can’t drive [the workers] away” from the squares, says Tellez. “It is where they feel at home. It’s where they can be themselves.”
Some names have been changed and last names omitted on request.
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