Foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong deserve a proper place to meet on their days off
Albert Cheng says a legislator’s insensitive remarks nevertheless highlighted a real need in Hong Kong – our 380,000 foreign domestic workers should have somewhere to meet, rest and enjoy themselves, rather than being forced to gather in public spaces
Lawmaker Eunice Yung Hoi-yan’s observation in the Legislative Council last week that foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong affected the city’s “environmental hygiene” by gathering in large numbers in public places during holidays has ignited a firestorm of criticism.
To be fair, Yung was addressing a known fact; however, the responsibility for the “problem” lies not with the workers who contribute to Hong Kong’s economy and stability, but with the government and employers who give them no choice but to gather in public spaces.
Since the Hong Kong economy took off in the late 1970s, foreign domestic workers have become a key contributor to the smooth running of society. Without their help in doing housework, and taking care of the old and the young, the female labour force would not have been unlocked. These foreign workers laid a solid foundation for the city to transform itself to a prosperous service economy.
A lot of Hong Kong people acknowledge their contribution and, in return, are willing to accept the “problem” raised by Yung. Hong Kong people see domestic workers congregating in public spaces, but they take a lenient attitude to any inconvenience caused.
According to the figures provided by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, in the past three years, only a total of 40 complaints were made regarding domestic workers causing a public nuisance. The small number of complaints shows Hongkongers’ tolerance towards the workers.
Watch: What’s it like to sleep like some foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong?
Hong Kong today hosts about 380,000 foreign domestic workers, who make up 5 per cent of the population. They are mainly from the Philippines and Indonesia. On Sundays and public holidays, they gather in such numbers that businesses now provide goods and services to tap their buying power, such as the foreign exchange services and shops selling ethnic food. Popular hang-out spots like World-Wide House in Central and Victoria Park in Causeway Bay turn into a “mini Philippines” and a “mini Indonesia” during the holidays.
This is not unique to Hong Kong. Around the world, ethnic minority groups establish themselves in certain parts of a city, creating cultural and economic value for their host society.
Mindful of Hong Kong’s reputation as an inclusive and diverse city, the government should help foreign domestic workers establish themselves here. However, in response to Yung’s concern at the Legco session, the Secretary for Labour and Welfare, Dr Law Chi-kwong, said a former school site in Kennedy Town had already been turned into a centre for foreign domestic workers, and there were no plans for any more.
But why not? In fact, since Central has become a main gathering place for domestic helpers, why not turn PMQ or a similar venue in the area into a centre hosting cultural activities for the workers? It would be a win-win solution: the workers would have a fixed gathering spot on holidays, and PMQ, a creative hub housed in a former compound for police officers, would draw in more people. After all, businesses at the PMQ could use a lift.
We should not ignore the needs of these workers, who are valuable members of our society, too. Over the weekend, about 150 workers took part in a protest march against Yung’s discriminatory remarks. As suggested in a commentary in the Post, if the domestic workers came together and staged a strike for one week, the impact on society would be equivalent to that of Occupy Central.
Last but not least, all things change. With the booming economy in Asia, countries like the Philippines and Indonesia are going to become prosperous one day. And with the low wages Hong Kong offers to foreign domestic helpers, they will not choose to work here. The number of Thai workers here have already dropped over the years. If the racism and discrimination towards these workers remain, one day, they, too, will leave Hong Kong, just like the Thais.
So, Hong Kong people, please treat your domestic workers well.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. [email protected]