Sunday, 30 January 2011

Meet the people who run Hong Kong

Here they are. On Sundays they live along the walkways in cardboard houses.

You should see these houses! Flooring and walls are the bare minimum. Some walls are stitched into place with cut outs for doors. Each house contains maybe a dozen people.

These houses are built each Sunday morning by the Filipina maids who work in Hong Kong. They're dismantled, flat packed and wheeled away each Sunday evening.

During the week, their occupants do the difficult and dirty work. Look after the baby, do the school run, wash the laundry, cook the family food, fetch and carry, clean floors, scour bathrooms and scrub toilets.

The social network is impressive. The women congregate to cook and share food, exchange letters and news of home, hold prayer meetings, take language lessons, give each other hair cuts, wire money back to distant families, sew clothes, play cards, host parties, celebrate birthdays, dance, listen to music, tap away on laptops, and talk.

They sit along all the walkways, in public parks, along roadsides and, best of all, under the HSBC building, the cathedral of financial power. Their voices echo right up into that central space. Everytime I pass, I hope they remind everyone how Hong Kong wouldn't exist as it does without them.

Of course they don't have many rights, so they can't interfere in the actual management of Hong Kong, even though they make up a large chunk of the population. They can't apply to be permanent citizens, their employment contracts can be fierce, they must live in the house of their employer, and the visa applications to work here are expensive and demanding.

People are people, huh? regardless of their who, what and where. I'm sure there are many kind employers in Hong Kong who make sure their maid is rewarded, has time off and enjoys their home. I'm sure there are some crap employers too. People who use unscrupulous employment agencies, who remove passports, set the maid to work long shifts and don't worry too much about minimum wages.

The low social status of the Filipinas troubles me. I wonder what is the support for them, outside of their own Sunday networks, when they need to escape an employer. I wonder about wages for migrant workers, employment conditions, and freedom of movement. I wonder too about a culture where a mother must pass over her child to another, then travel to seek work in Hong Kong to wire money back home.

Given all that, I don't like to see the Western men, cruising along the cardboard cities, peering in, elbowing each other. I don't like the way I hear the women talked about, the way they're written about, the way I see their role and status easily linked online to sexual availability, the way they are assumed to be at everyone's beck and call, and the way they sometimes seem hidden, in broad daylight.

I have to take a lot on trust. I find myself trusting that private employers don't make a jump in a relationship from fair paid service to exploitative and abusive slave labour. I have to trust that employment contracts from commercial chains, hotels and service industries are honourable and transparent. I have to trust the Hong Kong government to deal honestly with one of Hong Kong's largest employment sectors, and to treat female migrant workers fairly.

Some might say, these Filipina women, they don't do themselves any favours. They come from a service oriented culture. They seem keen to please, work hard at the jobs they have, avoid confrontation, smile, and readily over share their feelings. I sat on the ferry the other day, and was startled to hear a young Filipina girl fall quickly into describing her emotional life to a Western man who sat next to her. I thought, language like that gives any chancer the opportunity to take an advantage. But he didn't. He merely listened and said 'I hope you have a better day tomorrow'.


Rachel M. said...

Thanks for giving them a voice Grit.

nappy valley girl said...

Very pertinent post.
The Filipinas have sat in that same spot for 30 years - before the HK Bank building was built, they sat in Statue Square next door. I don't remember the cardboard houses though - that must have evolved more recently.

When I lived there we had 2 Filipina maids (not at the same time). Both of them were lovely. And both ended up marrying Western men and moving to Canada or the UK. At the time, a teenager, I just assumed they had fallen in love but your post makes me think about it again....

MadameSmokinGun said...

Another reminder to myself that my ancient rotting hovel is actually not so bad. It's withstood a couple of hundred years of storms and floods so far - and an explosion from a nearby fireworks factory that made us all decide to stay in after all that day. The mould is probably what's keeping it together - and I dare say a tad tougher than a couple of strips of sellotape. And no leering men peeking in. I don't know I'm born eh?

Nora said...

Another reason for me to count my blessings.