On Sundays, thousands of women flock together in Hong Kong’s Central district to create a community during their day of rest.
What strikes me most about Hong Kong is its population. Life in this city is like a layered cake, with shops, restaurants and living spaces crammed on top of each other in towering skyscrapers. Space is a rare commodity, with the average apartment being large enough to hold a sleeping space, hot plate and a bathroom that marries the square footage reserved for a toilet and shower.
In short, Hong Kong is an expert in utilizing every inch of space. Which is no surprise, as the 1,106-kilometre-squared city is home to 7.4 million people.
However, on Sundays, five per cent of Hong Kong’s residents make their home for the day in the city’s streets. Hong Kong’s urban landscape is where they find space.
These 370,000 individuals are domestic workers. Hailing primarily from the Philippines and Indonesia, the workers are typically employed by Hongkonger families as house keepers. Roughly 98.5 per cent of Hong Kong’s domestic workers are women.
“There is no place for us so we make a place here,” says Joy, who came to work in Hong Kong from the Philippines.
Her friend, Lynett, adds that where they have setup camp is in a perfect location. “It is so close to everything. We can do our shopping, buy our food and hangout with our friends. We all work at different places but can meet together here.”
Required by law to live with the families they work for, on days off — Sunday — the city itself becomes a place to relax, catch up with friends, take part in activities like playing cards, listening to music and painting one another’s nails, and also an opportunity to send gifts and money home.
“We applied to Canada first, because you can bring your family,” says Lynett. “Like, you could bring your daughter to Canada. But you can’t here.”
Domestic workers who come to work in Hong Kong from another country sign two-year contracts with their families. As of Sept. 27, 2019, the Minimum Allowable Wage for domestic workers was raised from HK$4,520 to HK$4,630 per month. Families are required by law to either provide food for their employees, or to offer a HK$1,121 monthly food allowance instead.
Other Hong Kong residents have a different minimum wage compared to what the municipal government refers to as Foreign Domestic Workers (FDW) Like Joy and Lynett. The Statutory Minimum Wage for non-FDW residents is HK$37.5 per hour. Additionally, employers must pay non-FDW employees HK$15,300 per month to be exempt from keeping track of the hours worked by their employees.
As migrant domestic workers live with their employers, there is very little protection from working exceptionally long hours. According to a study done by the Justice Centre Hong Kong — a non-profit who spoke to over 1,000 migrant domestic workers — some women speak with pride about their fortunate living conditions and respectful employers. Yet, many other women in the study said they experienced having to work endlessly, received very little privacy and were treated like second-class citizens.
Furthermore — while most expats who move to Hong Kong for work are able to apply for permanent residency after living in the city for seven years — migrant domestic workers are excluded from ever applying for permanent residency.
At the end of a two-year contract, migrant domestic workers are entitled to vacation leave. For many, this means an opportunity to see the families they moved to Hong Kong to provide for.
Angie, (above), has lived in Hong Kong for two years. At the time of our interview, her contract was ending and she is planning a visit back home to the Philippines for two weeks.
Rachel and Jezz, are also looking to returning to the Philippines when they have the opportunity. The women have been working as house keepers in Hong Kong for three years.
“Philippines looks dangerous in the news, but it is so beautiful,” says Rachel. “And the food is cheap. We might be poor, but we have lots of happiness.”
Photos and text by Sarah Comber.