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Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong

How one woman is giving a voice to Hong Kong’s Filipino domestic helpers

From pushing for rights and proper education to shedding light on various issues faced by her community, veteran journalist wears many hats

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 December, 2017, 4:03pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 December, 2017, 4:03pm

Daisy Mandap is a force to be reckoned with: she is a vocal defender of domestic helpers’ rights, a leading figure in the Filipino community in Hong Kong and editor of The Sun, the city’s only paper whose contributors are made up of Filipino domestic helpers.

Sitting in The Sun’s cosy North Point office, Mandap rolls off a number of urgent issues affecting Hong Kong’s domestic helpers, one of the most vulnerable groups in the city.

More than 90 per cent of the local Filipino population, about 189,000 people, are domestic helpers, she says. Abuse from employers, lack of education for their children, and exploitation from shady employment agencies sit high on the list.

But now, despite the serious issues they face, and, as Mandap claims, a lack of police action, more and more stories about domestic helpers are making the headlines.

More of them are also finding their voices through activism and writing for Mandap’s English-language paper, which was founded by her journalist husband, Leo Deocadiz, in 1995.

Mandap, who is also an accomplished journalist and lawyer with degrees in both fields, moved to Hong Kong to pursue a career in journalism 30 years ago, citing the rampant corruption in her native country that made it impossible to maintain integrity in her line of work.

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Since then, she has worked for a number of international media outlets including CNN and ATV, before taking up the role of editor at The Sun in 1999. She was also a member of the government appointed Committee on the Promotion of Racial Harmony for six years, and was awarded a Community Service award by then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen in 2010.

“Being with this paper goes beyond putting out the news, the headlines, the articles that are published,” she says. “We are proud of having brought a lot of the problems domestic helpers face to the attention of the government.”

What first inspired you to take up the role of a newspaper editor ?

My husband started it, he’s a publisher. Long before we came here, we thought of setting up a newspaper. At the time, there was no way of communicating among members of the Filipino community in the city. We were really hoping to start our own paper but the printing costs were high. My husband finally saved up for it to get started.

At the time, there were a couple of thousands of Filipinos in Hong Kong, most of whom were domestic helpers. If you want to have an impact, you have to reach out to as many of them as possible. Leo also decided that it should be free, so we were the first free publication in Hong Kong for the Filipino community and it’s been like that for the past 22 years.

What are the differences between working as a journalist in the Philippines and in Hong Kong?

In the Philippines it’s pretty well-known that you can get offered bribes. My husband and I were journalists there for a long time, and we decided it was not the way for us. The pay wasn’t good enough to start a family. The Standard then went to the Philippines and recruited journalists from there, and we were finally paid what we were worth. During that time, there was a big demand for experienced English-speaking journalists in Hong Kong, and they all came from different places. It was a good time for us. Yet in Hong Kong, you’re not as highly regarded as a journalist, whereas in the Philippines you have a lot of clout, especially if you’re with a national daily. It’s a give and take.

Domestic helpers march to demand legal protection from abuse

What have been some of the highs and lows of your editorship since 1999?

We have really made an impact on the community. We were the ones who helped the first children of domestic helpers get the right of abode granted to them by immigration authorities – they came to us. Authorities eventually gave them Hong Kong identity cards when we threatened to take the case to court. It’s the more humane thing to do – they were born here, this is the only place they’ve known.

Before, they went to local schools but there was discrimination because they didn’t have an HKID, only because they were the children of domestic helpers. You feel bad for them because my own children never had this difficulty from birth. Because of our efforts, immigration granted rights of abode to two dozen children at least. They then get a permanent ID if they live here with their parents until the age of 11.

The difficult part is not getting the kind of response you expect from the authorities, when you work so hard to help workers. We have been helping victims of illegal recruitment. I have brought them to the police station, for example, and the police wouldn’t take their statements.

At North Point, there was a group of domestic helpers who were rescued at the height of winter. We picked them up, fed them and housed them. I took them to the police station the next day and argued for the police to take their case seriously. Eventually, the police went after their recruiter who had previously made them stay at Macau airport for one whole month, waiting for flights that never came and eating leftovers.

These are the things that I wish mainstream media would really pay attention to.

Police inaction makes our job really frustrating. Plus there’s the fact that there are so many Filipino domestic helpers who are abused and you don’t see them getting the kind of justice they should.

Many Filipino domestic helpers are abused and you don’t see them getting the kind of justice they should

What other issues do the Filipino community face in Hong Kong?

The overwhelming majority of Filipinos in Hong Kong are domestic helpers. The Sun is a paper for the entire Filipino community, but most of our stories are about domestic helpers simply because they need the most help.

But the biggest problem for Filipino children is education. They don’t have the same quality education as other nationalities, since the few purely English language schools are band 3 (lowest level schools in the system). There are only a few Filipinos who could afford to send their children to international schools.

Because of that, they don’t get the kind of education that will help them compete with locals. That’s why you see a lot of Filipino kids working at bars in Lan Kwai Fong. A lot of them are forced to go to the Philippines too, since they don’t pass the qualifying exams’ language requirements for a university education in Hong Kong. For them to go up the social ladder, they really have to go to a local university. But if they go to university in the Philippines, their degrees are not recognised here, so it’s really difficult for them to move ahead.

Illegal recruitment is a big problem for domestic helpers – they are being enticed by registered employment agencies in Hong Kong to places like Russia with no real jobs waiting for them. But they go, because Hong Kong looks the other way. If it was really serious about cracking down on agencies, a lot of the problems would go away. The workers pay the agencies so much to come here so they put up with the abuse. We have heard of people being raped who were too afraid to complain because they were indebted to the agencies.

Domestic helpers also face problems because immigration authorities do not allow them to live outside their employers’ homes. They are then made to sleep on top of washing machines, in toilets. It happens because you have very restrictive policies towards domestic helpers. Living with their employers should be an option, not a requirement. In my 30 years here, I’ve seen the rights of migrant workers diminished instead of improved.

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Do Filipinos face a lot of racism and discrimination in Hong Kong? How has this affected you?

You find racism everywhere. I look very Filipino, so immediately they think I’m a domestic helper, which shouldn’t be a bad thing in itself. But there is so much discrimination against domestic helpers – you get shouted at, called stupid because you agreed to be one. But a lot of domestic helpers are actually college graduates. You can’t be a domestic helper here unless you’ve completed high school education.

When I was working at publications in Hong Kong, I was only promoted up to a certain point. You had to serve the locals, or before the handover, the British. There was no way you could aspire to the highest positions in the company you were in.

People also judge domestic helpers for coming from a very poor background

People also judge domestic helpers for coming from a very poor background. It’s true – a lot of them are poor, but it shouldn’t be a reason for anyone to look down on them. On the other hand, you do appreciate that the government allows domestic helpers to freely stay in public places in Central during their days off, and they are legally entitled to rest days. So that’s relatively better than in the Middle East, for example.

We tell domestic helpers that if they allow themselves to be abused from the beginning, they get used to it and they should really try to resist that. I think we’re doing well, comparatively, because our workers are among the most vocal of migrant workers in Hong Kong.


Pork knuckles, bowling and marching against Marcos...

Who is an inspirational figure in your life?

I had a lot of mentors who helped me in my early writing career, but I never really felt like following in the footsteps of anyone. I like certain leaders of the country, but they have flaws. Because there’s so much corruption in the Philippines, it’s very difficult. But I admire the past president, Benigno S. Aquino III, because he was not corrupt.

Another inspirational person is Sheila Coronel, my good friend and contemporary as a journalist who is now dean of the Columbia University’s school of journalism. She set up the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. She’s done so well, I’m really proud of her. We used to march against [former Philippine president] Ferdinand Marcos in our undergraduate days!

What hobbies do you like to do in your spare time?

I still talk to a lot of domestic helpers who reach out to me for help. You can never be away from work because of the internet. Every day, I get messages from domestic helpers with their problems. Leo and I used to play golf and tennis a lot – it’s more on and off now. We still go bowling here too.

What’s your favourite dish?

I like crispy pork knuckles and rice flour dessert! It’s cooked over live coals and it’s very difficult to find in Hong Kong. During Christmas it’s always something you grew up eating. Here, I like simple Chinese dishes like char siu – Hong Kong is the best place for this kind of dish. Even if we have Chinese restaurants in the Philippines, it’s not the same.

Favourite holiday destination?

Manila, just because a lot of our friends are there. People always come and go in Hong Kong. I also like travelling to the US, because that’s where my kids are.