It’s a typical sunny Sunday in Hong Kong. And as usual, many domestic helpers are gathering together at the Statue Square, sitting, lying and chatting on mats, just enjoying their only day off in a week.
It has been two years since a Filipino domestic helper failed in her court battle to get the right to live in Hong Kong permanently, in a case that incited passions on both sides. Domestic helpers now say their working conditions are better, they have more choice in picking their employers and the salary is higher than before. But at the same time, few say that they want to remain here long term.
Violeta Aguilar Desamito, a Filipino domestic helper in her 40s, said it is her thirteenth year in Hong Kong. “I think things are getting better. Hong Kong people now treat us fairly enough and the salary is much higher than before. Also, most of us do not have to pay for the illegal agency fees now, and the agency fees are less,” Violeta said, with a bright smile on her face.
Erruly Bececa, another domestic helper from the Philippines, thinks so too. “I have heard some experience from other domestic helpers in the past that some are not treated very well by employers, like they do not have enough food to eat, their working hours are too long or the accommodation is bad etc,” she said. “But for now, employers are more civilized in Hong Kong and they are friendly to their helpers.”
She said that her boss gives her extra 500HKD every month as a bonus and there is also an extra wage at the end of the year if she does well. “I worked for my boss for six years and she is a very nice woman,” she said firmly.
According to a report by Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor in which 2,500 domestic helpers were interviewed, at least 25 percent of the helpers said they had experienced violations of their contracts, and more than 25 percent had suffered physical and verbal abuse. Another survey conducted by Mission for Migrant Workers said that 18 percent of the 3,000 foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong who were interviewed claimed physical abuse and six percent claimed sexual abuse.
“There are signs that this situation is changing, as lobbying and advocacy have become common practices for non-governmental organizations. This has led to some progress in promoting and protecting the rights of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong. However, reality appears bleak for the 320,000 of them who remain susceptible to exploitation and abuse, because the city’s much-vaunted rule of law is only applied to part of the population,” Rachel Tsao said in her independent research, “An Interdisciplinary Study of Psychology, Law and Politics on Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong”.
According to Jenna Chan, a sales consultant of Jen`s Employment, an agency supplying domestic helpers, the market of domestic workers in Hong Kong is still big. “The amount of helpers we supply is continuously rising these years. We introduce tens of helpers to different employers each month,” she said. “And the salary of domestic helpers is growing too, with an increase of about 200 HKD in these two years, which is now 4210 HKD every month,” Jenna added.
Jenna explained how these days the domestic helpers that have more power to choose, but not the employers. “As far as what I see, the employers now usually don`t ask for many requirements,” she said. “On the contrary, it is the domestic helpers but not their employers that now post more requirements when they are in a bi-directional selection.”
Unlike Violeta and Erruly, Gina Viray seems like a newcomer to the community. She sat alone among the crowds of domestic helpers and did not talk to the others. “Yes, I am new here and I just got there for like one month. I don`t know anyone,” she said.
When asked about the life here, she whispered in a cute tone: “Actually I am not satisfied with my employer aha! I do not mean they are not good persons. Actually they are very nice to me. But the thing is sometimes they are too strict on some issues! For example, they told me to pick up the children at noon, if I passed a little, they would be angry!”
As Chan said, their agency has met cases in which the domestic helpers just proactively want to terminate an agreement with their employers. Reasons can range from a difference between their work content and what was settled on in the agreement to a personality conflict between the helpers and employers. However, terminating a contract can take two months, during which time they will be sent back to their hometowns and have to wait for a new contact. And Gina verified Chan’s point, “I know that changing employers takes a long time, but I still think it is worth doing,” she said.
In a 2013 court battle, Evangeline Banao Vallejos, a Filipino domestic worker who had worked in Hong Kong for 17 years, failed in her application for Hong Kong permanent residency. The case at the time caused a heated discussion over whether domestic helpers should have the same rights as other foreigners who are eligible to apply for permanent residency after working in Hong Kong for seven years.
Two years passed since the case ended and it seems like Vallejos` experience no longer resonates among her compatriots.
Violeta said even though she had worked in Hong Kong for 13 years, she never wants to live here. “For me, I have never thought of becoming a permanent resident in Hong Kong. The reason why I left my hometown for Hong Kong is that I can earn more money to support my family. If I got a Hong Kong permanent residency, I have to pay for all the fees such as the fancy house rent, which means my life costs will arise and at the same time I can make less money,” she said.
Erruly holds the same attitude as Violeta. “For me, I prefer to live in Philippines,” she said. “My families are all there.”
When told that if she got permanent residency in Hong Kong, she can bring her whole family to Hong Kong, she responded: “Even though, I still do not want to live in Hong Kong. Because, you know, it is a city where almost everything is just too expensive! My family and I just cannot afford this kind of life.”
Erruly added: “Actually I know it is unfair that workers from other nationalities and industries can get a chance to become permanent resident in Hong Kong after years of work, whereas our domestic helpers can not. But that is not a problem for me. I just work here, but I do not want to live here.”
As for Gina, things seem to be more interesting. “I am 37 years old and I am still single,” she said. “I enjoy this kind of life. I never thought to stay here. Canada might be better and I am planning to move to that country.” She explained her plan of having a “colorful experience” with an excited tone in her voice.