Hundreds of domestic helpers marched through Hong Kong on Sunday, demanding recognition of their labour rights ahead of International Migrants Day on December 18.
“They say it’s all about luck. If you’re lucky you end up with a good employer, if you’re not...” said Rachelle Ann Dalo with a shrug.
The 28-year-old Filipina sat with three of her friends on the curb by the Prada store on Chater Road on Sunday, among the sea of other domestic helpers enjoying their day off.
Nearby a protest was under way with several hundred domestic helpers dancing and chanting, some wearing masks of Philippine president Benigno Aquino, red santa hats and waving posters.
“We are workers, we are not slaves! Legislate working hours now! No to levy! Wage increase now! Scrap the two week rule!” they yelled.
“I value the contribution of migrant workers to the people, not just economically, but for society here in Hong Kong,” said 38-year-old Rey Asis, an NGO worker with the Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants.
Domestic helpers are looking for higher pay, the abolishment of high fees imposed by employment agencies and their own governments, social inclusion, as well as a stop to exploitation by employers, which is exacerbated by rules such as mandatory live-in requirements and the two-week rule, which means once fired a domestic helper must find a new post within two weeks or leave Hong Kong.
“I know what it feels like to have your employment held over your head,” said Dolores Balladares, spokesperson for the Asian Migrants Co-ordinating Body.
The 42-year-old has been working as a domestic helper in the city for 18 years. “To clean all day and not be able to say no to what your employer asks because you know they can let you go.”
Many migrant workers are attracted by the promise of income far in excess of salaries offered in their home countries.
A domestic helper’s roughly HK$4,000 per month basic salary is three month’s living allowance for a family in rural Indonesia.
It’s even considered a good salary for educated Filipinos, as it was for 28-year-old Dalo and her friend Rosmarie Agacaoili who both have degrees in environmental science. “I’d rather live in the Philippines, but the economic situation there isn’t good,” said Dalo.
“It’s too corrupt,” chimed in Agacaoili. “It’s easier to find a job if you know someone who works in the government,” added Dalo.
Dalo and Agacaoli say they have been lucky to find good employers, but that it’s not always the case.
Foreign domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse worldwide because they are often not covered by labour and industrial relations laws, according to a 2010 report by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
Even in Hong Kong, where there are ordinances protecting the rights of labourers, the “private” nature of domestic work makes enforcement and monitoring of such laws difficult, says the IOM.
It’s an issue the UN and the International Organisation for Migration are trying to highlight.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon recently said in a statement for International Migrants Day: “As budgets tighten, we are seeing austerity measures that discriminate against migrant workers, xenophobic rhetoric that encourages violence against irregular migrants, and proposed immigration laws that allow the police to profile migrants with impunity.
During economic downturns, it is worth remembering that whole sectors of the economy depend on migrant workers and migrant entrepreneurs help to create jobs.”
The dependency is clear in a city like Hong Kong, where roughly 300,000 foreign domestic helpers are looking after children, cooking, cleaning and caring for elderly family members.
This means roughly one out of eight households in Hong Kong employs a domestic helper.
The IOM estimates 214 million people have migrated to other countries, compared to 150 million in 2000. (Not all are employed as domestic helpers)
Remittances they say have also increased exponentially, from US$132 billion in 2000 to an estimated US$440 billion in 2010.
The actual amount, including unrecorded flows through formal and informal channels, is believed to be significantly larger.