I grew up in Hong Kong, where for the first 14 years of my life, I lived happily with Mary, a domestic helper from the Philippines. She was in her mid-twenties, and before coming to my family, she worked for a Saudi Arabian household. There, she had been abused and prevented from leaving the home at all.
The work she did for my family was similar to what nannies and cleaners do in Australia; mostly house chores like cleaning and grocery shopping, as well as taking care of me and my sister. Throughout my childhood, my relationship with my mother was quite formal, mostly based on conversations about school and social etiquette. My domestic helper, on the other hand, was considerate, with a caring heart and a happy attitude, concerned for my wellbeing.
Each night we would eat dinner together at the same dining table and my sister and I shared our bedroom with her. She taught me how to speak English in our daily conversations. Sunday was her day off, and she would go to church and picnic with her friends. As a kid, I was aware that she was different because she was Filipino, but I saw her in the same way I saw my family and schoolmates.
When I was 14, she returned home to get married. I remember crying when she left. As sad as I was, I appreciated the time she spent with my family, and I was happy to see her forming her own family. She now lives in a large farmhouse in her hometown. This is a common trend. Many domestic helpers I have met come to work for high salaries to pay off their children’s tuition, or to hopefully create a better living standard for their families in the future.
As much as my family and I respected and treated her as a part of us, I have always known that sadly, many domestic helpers are viewed as a lower part of society. I saw some of my friends’ families treating their domestic servants differently. Many would call domestic servants ‘Bun Mui’, a degrading slang word that means ‘Pinoy girl’. I also distinctly remember my mother showing her a news segment on TV once about how domestic helpers are not eligible for gaining Hong Kong residency, no matter how long they work for their employers. I remember saying “That’s unfair,” as a young kid.
Since the 1970s, domestic helpers have featured in the ‘Hong Kong way of life’. The popularity of foreign domestic helpers sprung from Hong Kong’s booming economic situation with a rapidly growing workforce. To meet this need for low skilled labour and simultaneously combat a high unemployment rate, the President of Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, implemented the labour export program in 1974. This program encourages citizens to work overseas and send remittance payments back to their family in the Philippines. Over the decades, as the economic realities have changed, the countries have also added levies and certain limits on this dynamic international labour market.
Hong Kong has a competitive working environment; parents have to rely on others to take care of children or elders and housekeeping. According to the Department of Immigration within the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administration Region, there are nearly 320,000 foreign helpers residing with their employers in Hong Kong as of 2013. The government strictly regulates the employment of foreign domestic helpers. Citizens with monthly incomes of $2150 AUD and above – which are lower than the median income (roughly $2968 AUD) – are eligible to employ a helper. Therefore, it is affordable for many middle classe people, who make up more than half of the Hong Kong population, to hire a foreign domestic servant.
However, the state of foreign domestic helpers is incredibly vulnerable. They rely on foreign domestic service agencies, called ‘brokers’, who deduct additional recruitment and training fees from their salaries. During this time, they are short on money and rely solely on the benevolence of their employing family. The weak protection afforded to foreign domestic helpers can lead to victims of verbal, physical or even sexual abuse by their employers. In January this year, the tragic story of an Indonesian helper in Hong Kong named Eriwana Sulistyaningsi revealed the abuse perpetuated by her employing family,
The working environment and structure of Hong Kong cannot survive without the help of domestic helpers in the foreseeable future. Though to be honest, in cities like Hong Kong one can only but dream about equality for minorities.