What one man did to make a difference for Hong Kong’s domestic workers

Group run by volunteers has taught 400 foreign domestic workers how to swim since being set up 18 months ago

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 July, 2016, 12:04pm
UPDATED : Friday, 01 July, 2016, 7:56pm

Edna Pilapil almost drowned in the ocean when she was just five years old.

The foreign domestic worker, now aged 36, was on a day out with her family near her home when she was pulled under the water by a wave.

“The water was up to my waist,” she said. “My brother asked me to go to the shore but the current carried me away. I was really scared. It made me really afraid. Luckily my dad came to get me. But childhood experiences are lasting.”

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Pilapil, from the Philippines, recently completed her second eight-week course with Splash, a society run by volunteers, which teaches domestic workers how to swim. She now feels confident in the water and can swim 25 metres.

“Being a domestic helper in Hong Kong, with all its limitations, it is really hard to learn a new skill,” she said. “Being taught by a professional coach is a very lasting experience. Not only is it a life skill, we get to meet new people. It is really nice. It is one of the best things that has happened to me so far in Hong Kong.”

Pilapil, whose seven-year-old daughter lives with her mother in the Philippines, has been working at a household in Kowloon Tong for the past five years.

“My childhood experience with water made me afraid to get into the pool,” she said. “Doing this was all about conquering my fear.

“This has made me realise that at this age I can do something new. It is like being set free. I feel like there is nothing to be afraid of. I am also more confident when dealing with different nationalities.”

And although she may no longer be eligible to take another free beginner course with Splash, Pilapil plans to continue swimming in her spare time.

“It is easy to fit into my one day of freedom,” she said.

Splash has taught 400 domestic workers to swim since it was set up 18 months ago. Most helpers sign up for a free eight-week course, where they learn to swim 25 metres unaided. But some have developed the confidence to try open water swimming, too.

The demand for places is high, with beginner courses often getting booked up within 20 minutes. Some swimmers travel for up to an hour and a half to their lessons because they are so keen to learn.

Founder Simon Holliday, a learning and development manager for a Hong Kong law firm, set up the enterprise after feeling compelled to support Hong Kong’s domestic workers. “It is a real pleasure to see the change in these women – it is transformational,” he said.

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“Swimming is a vehicle for someone for gaining confidence and self-esteem.”

Holliday learned to swim in his late 20s. In recent years, he has completed charity swims across the English Channel, and from Hong Kong to Macau. He said he finds swimming “good for the soul”.

The 37-year-old Briton, who has lived in Hong Kong for about two-and-a-half years, admits that part of the motivation for establishing the group was his personal guilt over how domestic workers can be treated in Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong is a brilliant place but it was a bit shocking to see so many women spending their only day off under commercial buildings,” he said.

“I think a lot of people have a sense of guilt. They are wondering what they can do. Most foreign domestic workers are treated like second-class citizens. I do feel bad about that. We are trying to build a community and treat each other as equal.”

The society is entirely self-funded, relying on donations and volunteers. It costs about HK$1,200 to rent a pool by the hour with a lifeguard, meaning the expense is manageable but places for beginners remain limited.

The group is set to become a registered charity, making it easier to apply for grants, but its founders say the process has been laborious.

Edie Hu, Splash’s chief fundraising officer and an art adviser for Citibank, said the society is now starting to teach underprivileged children to swim, primarily those living in Kowloon, as it continues to grow. But its reliance on donations means it cannot always meet the demand.

“Because it has been so popular, we have wanted to expand,” Hu said. “We get a lot of people asking to sign up – and we hate turning people away.”

Organisers of the project said they hope to take the programme overseas if it continues to thrive.

Hu said it had been inspiring to teach women to swim who “grew up around water, in places like the Philippines, but were never able to enjoy it”.

“It is empowering for them – it has opened up a whole new world,” she said.

“Many of them never thought they would learn to swim.”

Hu said the swimming lessons had created a network for the students, who often gathered for social events.

“[The atmosphere] is infectious. They are so happy to be there.”

Libby Alexander, the group’s head of operations, believes the empowerment comes from learning a skill that could potentially save your life, or even someone else’s life, in a crisis.

“There is a a large fear factor around swimming,” she said. “It is a life and death situation if you cannot swim.”

Alexander said it has been an eye-opening experience to see how being able to swim, a skill often taken for granted by Westerners, can boost a person’s confidence.

“You realise that swimming has not been a big part of peoples’ lives in so many parts of the world,” she said.

For more information and to donate, visit www.splashhongkong.org