If you come to Hong Kong and happen to be here on a Sunday, you will most likely notice there are thousands upon thousands of young women that seem to be camped out all over the city. Every outdoor space, whether it is a park, a promenade, a patch of shade between two buildings or a paved area under a highway, anywhere that has a bit of space becomes maid territory for the day. Anywhere they can, they spread out a picnic blanket, or cardboard boxes, and create a little spot to spend the day with other maids. They sing, they dance, they paint each other’s toe nails, they play cards, they sell crafts, they exchange clothes, they share snacks, they gossip and relax. This is the maid’s day off, and reason they are all outside is the simple fact that in Hong Kong, they have absolutely nowhere else to go.
The first time I came to Hong Kong I had no idea what all these women were doing outside. I thought, are they attending some kind of event? Is there a protest going on? I kept looking around for some kind of festival going on, but found nothing. What are they all doing out here? I kept wondering.
There are about 300,000 or so domestic workers (also called maids or nannies) in Hong Kong at any given time, living with local families (yes, in those tiny 450 square foot apartments!), doing the domestic work that the families themselves don’t have time to do. Living in the world’s most expensive housing market means the average Hong Kong woman cannot even fantasize about having the luxury of staying home for a year to take care of their newborn. Women here only get 10 weeks maternity leave as well, and there is no option of getting extra benefits from the government, so they are back to work within weeks.
The maids in Hong Kong, like I mentioned, mostly live full-time with the families who sponsor them, though some people hire the maid, fly them in, and actually pay for them to live somewhere else in a flat-share with other Philippino maids so that the family can maintain their privacy at home instead of having a stranger be with them 24/7. But as you can imagine, this means paying your own rent, plus paying hers, so for most part the maid lives with them.
The majority of domestic workers come from the Philippines, though increasingly there are more Indonesians. Hiring a maid is a big commitment, because you sign a contract with the government, sponsor them, pay to fly them in from whatever little village they come from, provide medical and dental and so forth, and give them a ticket home once a year. The average salary for a maid, who lives with you 24 hours a day, seven days a week (though Sunday is off), taking care of your kids, changing the diapers of your 90-year-old grandmother, and walking Fluffy and picking up dog poop, is HKD 3,740 a month — just under US $500.
The maids’ only day off is a Sunday, and they can do with it as they wish. However, if you consider there are a third of a million maids living in someone else’s house, that means that they don’t exactly have anywhere to go on a Sunday. There are a few places that officially become maid territory on a Sunday. The Central business district, for example, has a number of small parks and open spaces, as well as the big Victoria Park in Causeway Bay. Enterprising young businessmen throw a blanket on the sidewalk and hawk cheap clothes to the maids who, just like anyone else, wants to do a bit of shopping, and put on something nice to look cute. Jollybee, a Philippino fried chicken chain in Central, does brisk business just outside of World Wide House, a huge shopping center that is now dominated by Philippino businesses, though don’t ask me how they afford the rent there.
As you can imagine, not having a place of your own comes with a few challenges. For example, during the week, you can walk through any office complex or shopping center and use the bathroom if you need to. But on Sundays, the fancier office centers lock up their bathrooms, specifically so that the maids don’t use them. Don’t ask me where all of these maids go when they need to pee, because public toilets can be hard to find in Hong Kong. I suppose they have figured out where is maid-friendly and where is not.
Maids in Asia don’t have it easy because if you think there is racism in the US, you haven’t seen racism til you’ve seen Asian racism! There is a strict hierarchy in Asia about who is on top and who is on the bottom. You may think all Asians are the same, but you try calling a Japanese person ‘Chinese’ and see how vex they will get! Singaporeans think they are better then Hongkeys, Hongkeys think they are better than mainland Chinese, Thais think they are better than their poorer neighbors in Myanmar and Laos, Malaysians think they are better than the Indonesians, and so on and so on. Mostly it is economic but also cultural. Ethnic and class bias is incredibly strong in Asia, where some countries are only now rising out of poverty. People who have only recently found themselves on top and always keen to abuse those they now have power over.
But it isn’t only in Asia. I saw the same thing for those few months I spent in Dubai. In any developing area, workers from the poorer areas who go to work in a richer country often find themselves as victims or in physical danger. This is especially true for women. When you can essentially buy a human being to be your servant/worker/slave for less than $500 a month, their life has little value and they have little protection. Domestic workers and migrant laborers may find themselves falling out of windows, murdered, accidentally killed on the job, physically abused, raped, thrown in jail without representation, and so on. Indonesia, for example, is set to stop sending maids to Malaysia after a rise in abuse cases. But most countries don’t want their young able-bodied young women to stop going abroad to work because of how much money they send home (they estimate Philippino maids sending money back home accounts for over 20% of GDP!)
I can’t say how ‘bad’ it is in Hong Kong. However, recently there was a landmark case where a Philippino maid won her day in court. Other expats, like me, here on work visas, get permanent residency in Hong Kong after living here for seven years. This of course does not apply to Philippino maids because while Hong Kong would love the rich business people to stay for good, they do not want to give equal status to the maids. Maids are only supposed to be maids, full stop. But this woman woman won the case, and got her permanent residency. So perhaps things are set to improve, at least here in Hong Kong. In the meantime, I suppose they will keep doing their thing on a Sunday, in whatever little patch of space they can find for a few brief hours.