City Weekend

One night trying to sleep like a foreign domestic worker in Hong Kong left me irritable and groggy

Reporter Rachel Blundy beds down in a cramped space just like many domestic helpers

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 June, 2017, 9:31am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 June, 2017, 10:39am

At a house in Kam Tin, I laid out a mat on the floor with a couple of blankets and a pillow in a space no bigger than 170cm by 80cm – about the size of the average bathtub.

I could already feel how tight the walls felt around me, and the humiliation of sleeping next to shelves of food and household tools. The room was dry but hot, so I felt no option but to keep the door open, despite the lack of privacy from the adjoining living room.

‘Little progress since Erwiana’: activists slam lack of government action over poor sleeping conditions for domestic workers

This week, for the purposes of a social experiment, I decided to bed down in the storage cupboard for one night to help me understand the cramped sleeping conditions endured by many foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong. I wanted to know how it might feel to sleep in such a confined space.

From the outset, I knew this would only give me a glimpse of the difficult life facing many foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, but I considered it would still be a useful way of highlighting the accommodation problems they face.

I hadn’t endured a day of chores as a foreign domestic worker would, but after a day of work I was tired yet unable to sleep. I felt tense and uncomfortable. I longed for my single bed at home, a moderately large room in a shared rented flat in Prince Edward, Kowloon,

Watch: Rachel Blundy beds down like a foreign domestic helper

In order to film my experience, we had to keep the lights on, but to be honest the idea of lying in such a tiny, darkened room filled me with dread.

I started to drift off just before midnight, but suddenly heard the unmistakeable scuttling sound of a cockroach near my feet. I sat bolt upright and saw the insect scurry behind the shelf. To my embarrassment, my heart was pounding.

I read for a short while to calm my nerves, but the damage was done. I heard the cockroach once again near my head at about 1am, and once again read for a short time to calm myself. I must have eventually slept, but it was hardly peaceful.

When I woke up just before 8am, I felt stiff and sweaty. I spent the rest of the day in a groggy and irritable daze.

I can’t imagine the pain some workers feel when they are forced to live like this day after day, often getting less time to rest than I did.

I felt humbled by my experience. Having a decent, private place to sleep is such a basic human right, and in Hong Kong anyone who employs a foreign domestic worker must be able to provide suitable sleeping accommodation, at least until the live-in rule is abolished.

Thousands of Hong Kong’s foreign domestic workers are sleeping in horrendous, coffin-like spaces, including storage rooms, balconies, closets and toilets, a recent study by campaign group the Mission for Migrant Workers suggests.

The survey indicated that 70 per cent slept in a shared bedroom, typically with their employer’s children, but the rest were forced to sleep on mats in other parts of the home in conditions reminiscent of a less developed country.

Not one of the workers surveyed, almost all of whom were women, indicated they had their own bedroom, despite being contractually entitled to “suitable and furnished accommodation” with “reasonable privacy”.