Can Hong Kong please put a roof over our domestic helpers' heads on their days off?

Yonden Lhatoo says the migrant women who toil for our benefit deserve proper facilities in which to rest and recuperate on their days off

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 August, 2015, 6:23pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:41am

Hong Kong’s sweltering heat and haze took their toll on a large gathering of mostly domestic helpers from Indonesia celebrating their country’s national day in Victoria Park on Sunday.

Some 20 women collapsed under the blazing sun, and ambulances had to be called in to take nine of them to hospital for heatstroke.

This was an outdoor event organised by the Indonesian consulate, but it got me thinking about an old problem that nobody in this town could be bothered to fix: the lack of a proper venue where foreign domestic helpers can relax on their days off.

We have 330,000 maids in Hong Kong, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia, and the vast majority spend six days a week with very little to no privacy in the cramped confines of their employers’ homes. They get just one day off a week – usually Sunday – and that’s when we see them amassed in Victoria Park, Chater Garden and its surrounding areas in Central, or any available public space outdoors.

They sweat it out in summer and huddle together in winter on footbridges and under flyovers in undignified conditions, relishing the precious hours they get to throw off the yoke of servitude and enjoy the company of friends. And yet, to many passers-by, they’re an eyesore or a nuisance.

I’ve heard people say they “bring down the class” of upmarket venues. There have been shameful campaigns in the past to remove them from public spaces such as Chater Garden and Statue Square. How difficult would it be for our tycoons and celebrities to build a dedicated community centre or two for these women? I’m talking about those who have no qualms about blowing HK$100 million on a wedding in a city where nearly 20 per cent of the population live below the poverty line.

But more than our tycoons, many of whom make substantial donations to charity, our super-rich government has a moral responsibility to help.

It could be done without much effort if the bureaucrats in charge had the conscience and political backing as well as public support, although there’s a severe scarcity of such commodities these days.

Money is not the issue: Hong Kong is sitting on piles of cash that our financial secretary is saving up for that mythical rainy day which never comes. At last count, our fiscal reserves stood at more than HK$800 billion.

There’s plenty to spare for our domestic helpers. The government has wasted bigger bucks on white elephants in the past, and continues to pour cash into seemingly bottomless pits like the high-speed rail link to Guangzhou and the gigantic bridge linking Hong Kong to Macau and Zhuhai.

Just look at all the under-used clubs and sports facilities – catering to an exclusive, well-heeled minority – on prime public land that the government has been renting out to private organisations for peanuts under outdated agreements. Don’t tell me it can’t afford to do the same for a far worthier demographic who would benefit.

Like it or not, this city owes a huge debt of gratitude to the hundreds of thousands of women who leave their homes and loved ones to work as maids here. Yes, we offer them the opportunity to make more money doing menial labour here than they would get in more dignified professions such as teaching in their poverty-stricken home countries, but the benefits we reap make them indispensable. Without them, families’ incomes would be cut in half because both parents can’t go to work if there’s no one at home to look after the children or elderly grandparents.

I can’t understand Hong Kong sometimes. Our city gleefully embraced the so-called Ice Bucket Challenge that became a rage last year. It was to raise awareness and money for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease that most people in this town had never even heard of until celebrities began dumping buckets of cold water on their heads. Government officials joined in the fun.

No disrespect to sufferers of the disease and the philanthropists who chipped in, but charity begins at home, and here’s a more immediately worthwhile cause staring us in the face.