IN PHOTOS: Sundays at Central, HK
HONG KONG – The streets were filled with cardboard boxes, Filipino snacks, and hundreds of women taking over a posh shopping area of Central, Hong Kong for their once-a-week gathering.
Today is Sunday, the only day most Filipino domestic helpers can truly rest.
It was my last two days in Hong Kong, and I wanted to talk to my fellow Filipinos. So far, the only ones I spoke with were tourists like me. For a whole week, there was not a single day I didn’t encounter Pinoys – either groups of friends, couples, solo travellers, or families vacationing or heading to Disneyland.
I got off at the MTR Central Station, four stops away from my hostel. Central Station is among the world’s longest train stations, catering to thousands of passengers every day. The train was packed, but the air-conditioning remained cool. My thoughts drifted to our very own MRT back home.
As soon as I got off the train, I heard a mix of Tagalog and Bisaya somewhere from the vast sea of commuters flowing in and out of the trains.
I was walking quite aimlessly, figuring out which exit to take, when I saw a group of women sitting on the floor in one corner of the station. Next to each woman was some luggage. I listened to their conversations, making sure they were Filipino.
I asked one of them what was inside their luggage, and she told me it’s mostly snacks and viands they miss from home. “We’re selling it,” she said in Filipino, “to our fellow Pinoys.”
By law, domestic helpers in Hong Kong should get one day-off per week.
Some employers follow this; others don’t. Then there are some who give domestic helpers two days off – such employers are rare and few, I was told.
Upon stepping out of Central Station, I saw rows and rows of women (and a few men) sitting on flattened cardboard, including balikbayan boxes. They were chatting, eating, playing cards or bingo, napping, and generally just socializing and having a great time.
Some women even invited me to join their picnics, “Tara, kain.” (Let's eat)
On normal days, this part of Hong Kong is buzzing with cars and shoppers – but not today.
I learned that certain places, including segments of Chater Road, are blocked off by the Hong Kong government for such gatherings every Sunday.
The overwhelming crowds of domestic helpers set against the backdrop of luxury brand shops provide a fascinating contrast. I had no words for how I felt.
In a way, the scene reminded me of evacuation centers where displaced families also make use of cardboard boxes as makeshift beddings and as partitions, separating their small designated spaces from other evacuees.
In other parts of the road, there was a group of Filipinos singing and dancing as part of their Sunday mass. There were women practicing their catwalk for an upcoming fashion show – this reminded me of the 2016 documentary Sunday Beauty Queen. And there were cooperatives giving talks on financial literacy.
While Central is mostly occupied by Filipinos, I was told that most Indonesians hang out in Causeway Bay. But everyone is welcome to join such gatherings, regardless of who they are, what they do, and where they’re from. Next to the Philippines, Indonesia provides the most number of domestic workers in Hong Kong.
As of October 2018, there are more than 210,000 Filipino domestic helpers in Hong Kong, according to the country’s immigration department as reported by Hong Kong News. The number has been steadily rising, with local media citing a 50,000 increase since 2013.
I walked some more and met women holding big flags, bearing names of different labor rights and migrant workers groups. These advocacy groups share the same mission – to protect and promote the rights of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).
I spoke with some members of the Association of Concerned Filipinos in Hong Kong (ACFIL), which claims to be the first Filipino organization established in the city in 1985. Together with other organizations like the Mission for Migrant Workers (MFMW), ACFIL wants to empower their kababayan by educating them, especially the new generation of Filipino domestic helpers, on their rights.
Services offered by such groups include counselling, temporary shelters, health check-ups, and “know your rights” seminars. They also raise awareness on violence against women, mental health, and women’s health.
It’s not Sunday every day
I met a 46-year-old woman from Cebu, a domestic helper in Hong Kong since 2005. She was supposed to retire and return home in 2017, but her child had huge medical expenses to pay, so she stayed.
“In 2019, I’m finally going home,” she said in Filipino. She didn’t want to publish her real name; instead, she wanted be known as Aquarius, her zodiac sign.
Thirteen years ago, Aquarius paid Php120,000 to an employment agency in Manila to work as a domestic helper in Hong Kong. She borrowed the money from a lending company – the debt was later on settled through monthly payments.
It was too late when she found out that the agency duped her.
“I learned that employers should shoulder majority of the agency fees. And by law, fees paid by domestic helpers themselves should not be more than ten percent of their first month salary.”
Some domestic helpers are unaware of such rules and fall victim to such scams, ACFIL said.
Like many OFWs, Aquarius didn’t want to leave her family behind, but felt that she had to for survival. “We were very poor, my husband was a jeepney driver, and we had three kids. If I didn’t leave, my children would have never finished school.”
“I couldn’t find a job in Cebu, wages were low, prices were high,” she stressed. “It was painful to leave. My youngest was a one-year-old that time, I still had milk in my breasts. I cried litters of tears.”
Now her eldest is a marine engineer, followed by an IT developer, and her youngest is about to enter senior high school. “It’s time to rest, Ma,” her children kept telling her to come home.
Aquarius endured several forms of hardships during her earlier years in Hong Kong because “she didn’t know her rights.” “I was overworked, I was 24 hours on call,” Aquarius narrated.
“I had no room or bed. Many domestic helpers only sleep on the floor of their employer’s child’s bedroom, in the kitchen, living room, or even the bathroom.” Some get cushions, some just use cardboard boxes.
Her employer also didn’t allow her to use the shower heater during colder months, hence her frequent bouts with cough, colds, and bronchitis.
“My employer would hide the stove, cooking oil, and rice from me for five years. Only giving me leftovers sometimes,” she shared. “I survived by eating instant noodles or the food my Filipino friends gave.” She dropped from 55 kilos to 35.
Under Hong Kong law, employers should provide domestic helpers with either free meals or a food allowance. They should also provide a “suitable and furnished accommodation and with reasonable privacy free of charge” either in a live-in situation or in a paid boarding house.
Despite having policies in place, abuse still happens.
These violations can be reported to the authorities; however, some Filipinos choose not to in fear of losing their jobs. Such fears stem from misinformation, explained Aquarius, who has since then become an active member of MFMW.
“Don’t be afraid to report,” she advised fellow domestic helpers. “Read about Hong Kong laws and our rights.”
After leaving her first employer, Aquarius moved on to work for kinder employers who respect her.
In the past decade, Aquarius observed, more and more Filipino domestic helpers are standing up for their rights – leaving less room for abuse. Hong Kong laws have also seen positive adjustments.
“It’s a fruit of our years-worth of activism,” she said.
TRAIN law, ‘mandatory’ fees, more expenses
In September 2018, the Hong Kong labor department announced a 2.5% increase in the minimum allowable wage for foreign domestic helpers, putting it at HKD 4,520 per month (around P30,278 as of November 2018).
This may seem a lot, but for those who are actually breaking backs to earn this, they say it’s barely enough – especially with the inflation rates and the TRAIN law-induced price hikes happening back home.
To send more money home, many domestic helpers scrimp on food and their own needs – as reflected by how simple (and low-cost) their Sundays are spent.
In October 2018, the Philippines passed a bill pushing for mandatory social security coverage for OFWs. If signed into law, this would mean an eight percent deduction (HKD 350 or P2,400) from domestic helpers’ monthly salary.
Along Chater Road, I met members of the Filipino Migrants Association (FMA) staging a small protest. “We reject this proposed mandatory SSS contribution,” they said.
“Us domestic helpers already have health insurance here in Hong Kong paid by our employers. We shouldn’t be forced to pay for another one back home, especially if we don’t want or need it. It’s additional burden for us.”
“Because of TRAIN Law, domestic helpers have to send twice as much money home,” members of the FMA added. “Now the Philippine government wants to demand even more money from OFWs. It’s not fair.”
With only a few hours left in their precious Sunday, hundreds of women began to pack their belongings, fold their cardboard boxes and protest posters.
Tomorrow, they would once again work for several long hours to meet their families’ needs back in the Philippines.
The sun has barely set, and yet many are already wishing for another Sunday. – Rappler.com
Fritzie Rodriguez is a writer and development worker.