Foreign domestic helpers could bring Hong Kong to its knees if they chose to
Yonden Lhatoo reminds those who consider foreign domestic helpers to be a nuisance and an eyesore when they gather in public places on their days off that this city would be in serious trouble without them
Whenever I manage to overcome weekend lethargy and jog along the Hung Hom promenade on a Sunday, I run past dozens of Indonesian domestic helpers at prayer near the ferry pier.
They sit cross-legged on the ground, occupying an empty, sheltered space adjacent to the main thoroughfare, and practise their faith on their one day off a week without getting in anyone’s way.
They have nowhere else to go. In fact, we have nearly 380,000 foreign domestic helpers, mostly women from the Philippines and Indonesia, in the same predicament every Sunday or public holiday.
They make do with any vacant space where they can socialise with members of their community, taking a well-earned break from the cramped homes they are forced to share with their employers under the live-in rule for foreign domestic helpers.
So it should have been a great leap forward for their human rights when a lawmaker, for the first time as far as I can remember, raised a formal question in the Legislative Council this week about providing them with better options, including the possibility of the government setting up centres in different districts for their convenient use.
But just look at the preamble to the question that Eunice Yung Hoi-yan asked: “During holidays, a large number of foreign domestic helpers congregate in public places, such as parks, footbridge passages and places under flyovers. They sit, eat and sleep on the ground, thus affecting the daily lives of the public, the operation of shops and the environmental hygiene in public places. The problem has persisted for many years and shows a worsening trend.”
Forget about an iota of sympathy, we need to clear them out because they’re a public nuisance and an eyesore? Oh, the humanity!
Yung is a political amateur with an obviously low emotional quotient, but it’s also significant that she hails from the pro-establishment New People’s Party, which regularly panders to employers over domestic helpers who can’t vote.
Outraged migrant concern groups in the city are protesting against her “racist and discriminatory” attitude, and not buying her party’s clarification that “Eunice is sympathetic to their situation”.
“No one wants to stay in public areas,” Indonesian workers’ leader Sringatin said. “The majority of us only have four to six hours to sleep, and one day to rest. We are forced to stay in public areas, in rain and heat.”
Labour minister Law Chi-kwong gave a non-committal reply to Yung, but made a feeble bid to put matters into perspective: “[They] assist local families in performing household chores and taking care of their children and elderly, thereby unleashing the potential of our local labour force and contributing significantly to Hong Kong’s development.”
This is an inconvenient truth for so many Hongkongers like Yung, especially those whose ready response to any talk about the mistreatment of domestic helpers is, “If you don’t like it here, go back to where you came from.”
Imagine what would happen to this city if they did indeed decide to “go back” en masse. Families’ incomes would be instantly slashed by half because working mothers, or fathers, would have to stay home to mind the children. And who would look after all those senior citizens you see being wheeled around or chaperoned 24/7 by domestic helpers?
Remember how 79 days of road blockades and civil disobedience in the name of fighting for greater democracy came to nothing during the Occupy movement? It simply wasn’t impactful enough.
In contrast, all these hundreds of thousands of downtrodden women have to do is camp out for a week at Tamar Park and refuse to work. They would bring this city to its knees.
Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post