Hong Kong's Maids and the Manila Massacre

Will Hong Kong employers of foreign domestic helpers now favor Indonesians more than Filipinos? That is worrying many Filipino migrant workers, both in the territory and those back home hoping to get jobs in Hong Kong.

As a result of the recent bus hostage tragedy in Manila, rumors are rife that some employers will even lay off their Filipina helpers out of anger. Already the community of Filipino workers in Hong Kong has reacted nervously to racist displays aimed at them by the locals in public places like shops, restaurants and parks.

At one eatery on an outlying island three domestics sat down for a meal the day after Monday's botched hostage crisis in Manila claimed nine lives, eight of them Hong Kong residents. They were met with abuse by the proprietor who called them stupid, their police crazy and their president idiotic. Shocked, they stayed on, said sorry, ordered their meals and kept their heads low – to the consternation of one of their Western employers who said the women should have walked out in disgust.

But she obviously did not understand Filipino psychology —one does not engage in confrontation but instead tries to pacify an attacker by ignoring the unpleasantness with quiet actions and soft words. (This also could be said about the recent hostage crisis, where unfortunately, a lack of firm and focused leadership, coupled with unruly and inept police action, resulted in mayhem and tragedy.)

Racism by Hong Kong residents towards Southeast Asians in the past has usually been covert, but no longer, at least not this week when anger over the tourist deaths in Manila is still raw.

Over the past couple of years, Indonesian women have begun to outnumber Filipinas who, for some four decades, always used to top the numbers of foreign residents in this metropolis, which terms itself “Asia's World City.” This would seem to indicate that the Indonesian economy is in the same dire straits as that of the Philippines, and that Jakarta has no qualms about shipping the country's women out to earn hard cash, just like Manila has been doing with great success since the 1970s. The Indonesian authorities apparently saw how remittances from Filipino women working abroad have kept their country's economy afloat over the years and decided that Jakarta too can cash in on the export of this human commodity.

An NGO observer once commented that, in the same way that a Christian country like the Philippines first began to ship out its women with scant attention to their protection and welfare abroad, a Muslim nation like Indonesia similarly seems to have no compunction about using its women to save the nation from deeper poverty. The humanitarian agencies trying to battle human trafficking find their work grow more difficult by the year.

Earlier this year Hong Kong's major English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post, ran a report about the gulag-like centers in Jakarta wherein Indonesian women, before they are shipped to Hong Kong, are sequestered for a few months for crash courses in Cantonese and the procedures for remitting their wages back home. It not only highlighted the rotten conditions in the centers but also the extortionate practices by recruitment agencies in both places.

The expose produced reactions from Jakarta and its consulate in Hong Kong, which declared that legislation ensuring women's human rights was being considered by the Indonesian government.

The nationalities that traditionally ranked next to Filipinos in Hong Kong used to be Thai, Sri Lankan, Indonesian and Nepali. Today the Indonesians are the most popular. It's well known here that this is so because some Hong Kong employers find these women more docile than the Filipinas, mainly because the former are often unaware of their rights. Hence the reports among NGOs of frequent underpayment of wages, working beyond the allowed number of hours and employers' refusal to grant the mandated day off each week.

Many of Hong Kong's Western employers of maids have preferred hiring Filipinas because of their knowledge of English and their amiable service-oriented reputation. But Hong Kong's middle- and lower-middle classes who don't know English find the Cantonese-speaking Indonesians eminently more suitable for their needs.

In the Philippines today, the early euphoria over the election of a new president looks to be ebbing, and tourism, which never matched the numbers in the rest of Southeast Asia, will diminish even more. A sad commentary for a country with a sad history of adversity that has long dealt with problems of poverty and corruption. For Indonesia, it will probably mean not just more tourist numbers but also more jobs for the vulnerable members of that society — poor women.

This is reprinted with permission from the Jakarta Globe, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement.