Early in the morning on a street in Hong Kong’s Central district, workers rushing to offices, hands occupied with briefcases and Starbucks, pay little attention to a woman in dark colors holding a package.
“I am waiting for my friend from the Philippines to give her something to carry to the Philippines to give my son, ‘’ said the woman, who identified herself only as Angela. The 47-year-old Filipina has worked in the city for 12 years for different employers – none, she says, as bad as her current one.
The woman of the house, she says, is pregnant and does nothing. Angela awakens at 6 am to clean the toilets, the floors and the windows. At 8 am she readies the son for his third year of school. A whole load of cooking, cleaning and caring for the son are on Angela’s shoulders. Her workday ends at 1 am after having given the housewife a to-do list for the following day’s tasks. She does these services on a half-empty stomach.
“She has six CCTV cameras in the house, in the kitchen, in the corridor, in my room. I am not comfortable with it. For example, when you eat in the kitchen because you are hungry they come and say ‘Why, why you are eating this meal?’ That bread is for me not for her. They do not give me enough food.”
She is deprived of a free day as well. On Sunday, she is free from noon until 5 pm. However, she does not speak up about the situation. ‘’I do not want to argue because I do not want to have a bother in Hong Kong. I still keep quiet,” she said.
Angela is hardly alone. While Hong Kong is famous as a cutting-edge business center with prosperous people, fancy cars and skyscrapers, it is also a dream destination for thousands of other Asians to carve out a different kind of career.
“There is a misconception in the social media because some (domestic helpers) wear beautiful clothes and go to many places. So we think ‘Wow, Hong Kong is a beautiful place and relaxing.’ But in fact, it is very different and difficult,” said Maria, another Filipina domestic. She is one of 1,049 domestic workers surveyed by the Justice Center Hong Kong, a nonprofit human rights organization, which has outlined in exhaustive detail the tribulations a disturbing number of domestic workers face.
The center’s newly-released report called, “Coming Clean: The prevalence of forced labor and human trafficking for the purpose of forced labor amongst migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong,” catalogues the violations of domestic workers’ rights.
Some 336,000 Hong Kong employees are registered domestic workers. The vast majority of them are women exclusively from Asian countries, the preponderance of them from Indonesia and the Philippines. According to the survey, every sixth domestic worker—56,000 of them – has been exploited.
The Hong Kong government cites regulations that include a compulsory day off a week, a fixed monthly wage and minimum food allowance. According to the rule, the day off may be flexible but it is mandatory to grant the worker 24 hours’ rest each week without disturbance. They also are expected to have a week’s paid annual leave. The allowable wage is HK$4,210 monthly. Employers should provide the worker either with food or an additional allowance of at least HK$995 per month. Many low paid workers from other countries, mainly Asian, are attracted by these rules and leave their countries for what they expect is a better life.
The Justice Center’s report, however, says these regulations are fanciful. There is no follow-up inspection to make sure the employers hew to the rules. The activities of agencies recruiting domestic workers for Hong Kong are not under control as well, leading to widespread fraud and abuse. There is no system to check whether those organisations have upheld their promises.
“The agency will, of course, say good things. Most of them are lies. The contract said ‘you will have your own room.’ The reality is sleeping in the kitchen or living room. [I have been] sleeping in the living room for four years,” said Rose, one of the surveyed domestic workers.