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Hong Kong is their Home Too

For first-timers to this issue:

Something many people don’t know about Hong Kong is that most families here employ domestic workers.

Women are brought in - mainly from Indonesia and the Philippines, but also from Africa - to look after Hong Kong’s homes, it’s children, and the elderly.

Now, foreign domestic helpers represent 5% of Hong Kong’s total population, and barely any can live legally outside of their employer’s home.

AND, unlike an expat who works in Hong Kong for 7 years or more, no matter how long a domestic worker spends raising other people’s families in this city - and some women have been here for 30 years - they will never be able to apply for permanent residency.

Hong Kong’s housing crisis means offering up places to foreigners is unpopular, unless they’re the white kind of foreigners who come here for “real jobs”, or the wealthy Chinese kind of foreigners who come here to invest in properties they’ll never live in. 

Foreign domestic workers spend an average 75 hours a week working. They are expected to sleep anywhere that is available in their employer’s home: the living room, the pantry, the child’s bedroom floor.

Women have been doing this for decades in Hong Kong, for a lower minimum wage, set by the law than any other demographic. And for this whole time they’ve only been entitled to one day off per week. Most choose Sunday.

So on normal Sundays, Hong Kong’s streets are flooded with women eating lunch together, singing, dancing, chatting, dressing up, doing each others makeup. They know this city better than anyone else because they don’t have their own private spaces.

A few weeks ago, Typhoon Mangkhut travelled from the Philippines to Hong Kong - just like so many domestic workers have - and it took away this Sunday off.

The streets were off limits, so many of thesewomen just had to stay inside with their employers. Often by default still working. Or just lingering with nowhere to lie down because they sleep in the communal spaces of the house.

I think it’s a very untold struggle that came about as a result of the typhoon. Not to mention the worry for family and friends back at home in the Philippines who were devastated by the typhoon.

Hong Kong was lifeless that Sunday, and it’s not just because of the storm. It’s because domestic workers are an integral part of Hong Kong culture. They bring zesty grittiness to the city, and they are an international symbol of the selflessness and hard work of women that has the power to raise entire families out of poverty.

And Sundays are the day the veil is dropped and the city can’t keep pretending these women don’t exist. They’re the backbone of Hong Kong’s vibrant, busy commercial paradise. It couldn’t exist if someone wasn’t home keeping it all together!

It’s a great history to have - being the place that women come to, to make money, to put their kids through university, to build better communities at home. Hong Kong is a place where women who come from tiny villages become the trilingual powerhouses of a world economy.

But for some reason it’s not a story Hong Kong wants to write yet. And the silence really makes life difficult for these women. When nobody is watching, it’s very easy to suffer quietly. It’s very easy to be taken advantage of. And it’s very easy to be hurt.

I love this city. It’s a special place. It’s a melting pot. But it has a long way to come before it embraces its multicultural identity and becomes an inclusive and safe place for domestic workers.

The week after the typhoon, we had a public holiday. And students from the Domestic Worker Empowerment Program - more domestic workers who use their Sundays up-skilling through education - went out and cleaned up Hong Kong’s beaches.

Why? Because they live here too. Hong Kong is their home, and they want it to be safe and beautiful.

If only Hong Kong’s lawmakers felt that way about domestic workers as well...

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