Maids stay away from pay march

A RALLY and march by foreign domestic workers in Central yesterday to demand a higher wage increase was attended by only about 300 people - less than half a per cent of the domestic workforce.

But thousands of other helpers watched from the sidelines, some terrified that their employment contracts would be terminated and they might be sent home if their employers saw them protesting.

All the helpers the South China Morning Post spoke to yesterday expressed dissatisfaction at last week's Government recommendation that the $3,200 minimum wage for foreign domestics be increased to $3,500 in their first pay rise in two years.

''Of course, I am not happy with this situation,'' said Stella, who was playing cards with her friends in Chater Garden while the speeches and songs continued in the background.

''Our wages are not as good as they were two years ago, and already it is harder to pay for my children to live in the Philippines,'' she said.

''But what can we do?'' she shrugged.

''If my employers see me waving a banner when they watch the television tonight, then I do not think they would like me to work with them anymore.'' She said she would not dare to go on strike.

Others agreed: ''We do not have the strength to fight this; if we complain, they [the employers] will just bring somebody else from the Philippines,'' said Rosa, who has been in Hong Kong for three years.

''But, even if we cannot fight back, it does not mean they have the right to not treat us fairly,'' her friend, Vilma, said.

The two were later seen egging on the singing, chanting procession as it made its way slowly up the hill towards the Central Government Offices.

''This does not disappoint me at all,'' said Asian Domestic Workers' Union (ADWU) chairman Remy Borlongan, who led the march.

''I know that many of these people are supportive of our fight. But we come here as economic migrants, and many of them are afraid to speak up.

''But, after this rally, more of them have become aware of their rights. The Government has suggested a wage rise that is not fair, so we will continue to fight for more.'' One of the protesters, Maria, who had a hand-written sign around her neck that read ''$3,800 NOW'', said her financial situation was difficult.

''I try to spend no more than $1,000 every month in Hong Kong; the rest goes to support my family,'' she said.

''The trouble is, the money disappears very quickly now. On Sundays, we buy all our meals and pay for our transport. It's our only chance to relax, and sometimes it costs $150 or $200 for the day,'' she said.

She said inflation had hit her pocket in the Philippines as well. During her last visit, she had discussed with her husband how they could afford school fees and new school books for their children.

''We did it, but I could not afford to go out at all for several Sundays.'' The rally, which was organised by the ADWU, was also attended by other trade union leaders, including the chief executive of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, Lee Cheuk-yan.

''I am ashamed to see what the domestic workers have been offered by my Government,'' Mr Lee said. ''I am ashamed of some employers in Hong Kong.''