Making ends meet ... abroad

A sizeable sector of Hong Kong's labor pool - Filipino women -copes with declining wages and little protection.

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The biggest show in Hong Kong takes place on Sunday along the asphalt of the central business district. Usually bustling with white-collar workers talking into cell phones, the city undergoes a dramatic metamorphosis on this day. Tens of thousands of Filipino women working here as domestic helpers take their one day off to visit in the streets.

They camp in front of the city's ferry docks, across from the deserted Stock Exchange, or at the entrance of one of the 200 banks that populate this Asian metropolis. They sit all day on the ground, rain or shine.

Today a woman brings a guitar. Another brings a cake. The crowds talk, laugh, tell stories, share photos of their families back home. For years these Sunday gatherings have afforded the women temporary relief from the chronic loneliness that comes with being a domestic worker.

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With an economic recession, low social status, and separation from their families, these women find little comfort either from Hong Kong or their own government.

Hong Kong is host to an estimated 180,600 domestic workers from the Philippines, according to the official census, a figure that is probably even higher if you take into account the number of women who toil illegally. After Manila, Hong Kong has the planet's largest Filipino community.

The women gathered along the streets, ranging in age from 20 to about 55, all speak English well. But today they stick to Tagalog, their native tongue.

Plane loads of them left their homes to find jobs in Hong Kong, very often leaving behind a husband and children. Some of them even have university degrees, but it does not matter. They cannot make ends meet in their home country because a doctor in the Philippines earns roughly as much as a domestic worker in Hong Kong. Clearly, they prefer being a maid to a poverty-stricken life in the Philippines. And for many families back home, the income provided by these women provides their only life support.

"I came here in 1987 because I needed to work abroad to help my family and so I send back 90 percent of my paycheck to them," explains one woman sitting on a blanket.

Another woman, named Lucy, tells me that the Sunday gatherings are like "oxygen" for them because the living conditions in Hong Kong are emotionally suffocating for many of her fellow workers. Add to that a not-so-subtle strain of racism, and living conditions that are spare at best. In the bourgeois hills of Victoria Peak, for example, the maids' rooms are so narrow that it's difficult even to fit a bed there. The women make do by curling up on small, makeshift mattresses.

A major topic of discussion among domestic workers these days is a recent wage cut they were handed by the government, designed to help Hong Kong citizens cope with the recession. Since Britain handed Hong Kong over to the Chinese government, the median household income has dropped by about 5 percent.

The 5 percent wage reduction - from $498 per month to $485 - was introduced in February and applies only to new contracts signed. Predictably, news reports in recent months have told of unscrupulous employers firing current employees in order to hire cheaper ones.

Meanwhile, the grievances of these women barely register on the the city's list of concerns, and it isn't difficult to see why. People are more concerned about their own financial woes. This is perfectly understandable, but it cloaks the fact that the wage cut appears to be motivated more by politics than by true austerity measures.

It's not as if Hong Kong's domestic workers are a charity case. They are there because there is an established market for them. They speak English perfectly and evidently fill a niche that mainlanders can't or won't take up. Nonetheless, they comprise not only the cheapest labor pool in Hong Kong, but also the least protected.

According to Connie Bragas-Regalado, chairwoman of the United Filipinos in Hong Kong, the Phillippine government bears as much the responsibility for this situation as does the Hong Kong government. As the country's most profitable export, overseas workers yield the Phillippine government extraordinary benefits. Yet the government pays scant attention to them and seems more interested in its banana trade.

There are many people in Hong Kong who think domestic workers should just be quiet and appreciate that they have jobs. But the women who congregate on Sundays, in the heart of this city by the sea, have every right to protest salary cuts just like any other group of working people. Likewise, they fully deserve protections from both their own government and the Hong Kong government.

As the sun squeezes behind the horizon and twilight settles on this city, the laughter and the chatter of the Filipino maids laces the air. For a few more hours, no doubt, they are home.

*Shinan Govani, who recently visited Hong Kong, is a freelance journalist living in Toronto.

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