BBC World Service Magazine
Of the 233,000 domestic servants in Hong Kong, roughly half are from the Philippines and the rest, like twenty two year old Bibid, come from Indonesia. Usually on a Sunday they gather in the Central district and the nationalities sit separately, but on this Sunday in honour of International Women’s Day, they joined forces, first for a dance performance, then speeches and then a march.
Bibid had recently run away from her employer and this was her first visit to the centre of town. She had been working in a hilly district in the New Territories and was given 5 days off in the last eighteen months. However she met Eni the secretary the Migrant Workers Union who encouraged her to escape (without her belongings) and had arranged for her to live with twenty-four other women in a two-room shelter.
Bibid said she was taking her employers to a tribunal because they had “tricked” her into doing hard agricultural work. Domestic servants are officially categorised in Hong Kong as ” foreign domestic helpers” precisely because they are not allowed to have “jobs.”
There have been letters to Hong Kong newspapers complaining about the Sunday gatherings of maids in Chater Square and “the litter and loitering”. This objectification and ridicule was shared by one British expat who told me, “You hear them twittering”. The atmosphere this day seemed to be one of festive but committed protest – but the only other reporter there was from a student paper.
Hong Kong is a good starting place for my global two part series on maids (airing at the end of June) as it guarantees equal protection under its labour laws. According to Human Rights Watch, the “norm is for governments to exclude domestic workers from these laws altogether”. Employers in Hong Kong have to sign a contract promising to pay a minimum salary, with 24 hours off each week, but Bibid said she got half the legal wage. Last year a monthly levy of $HK400 was imposed on households who employ a live-in servant.
Speakers at the demonstration said angry employers took that levy out of their wages. Banners also protested about the “two week rule”. Once a domestic worker’s contract terminates, she has to find another job in fourteen days or else she’s deported and then has to reapply to an agency charging seven months salary in dues.
Bibid held her banner high as the march ended at a government office and it fell to the tiny union leader Eni in a pink headscarf, to hand over their petition but since no official was there, she gave it to a reluctant policeman. As the crowd split away into groups, Bibid said she was possibly going to face imprisonment as the tribunal might claim that she had knowingly taken on agricultural work without a visa. She might be in jail for six months and then be deported but she insisted that this day had reinforced her commitment to fight for her rights.