If you happen to be visiting or passing through Hong Kong on a Sunday and venture outside, you will hardly be able to miss the hundreds of thousands of primarily Filipino women sitting on cardboard boxes on the streets, chatting and sharing food among friends, in what appears to be one giant street party.
It’s an unusual sight, but come rain or shine, every Sunday, these women gather in the city’s parks, streets, underneath bridges, or whatever available space they can find to sit, share food and stories with their friends.
So who are these women? And why do they congregate every Sunday in this manner? These women are among the city’s 350,000 domestic helpers who come primarily from poorer Asian countries like the Philippines and Indonesia to work as full-time, live-in helpers to Hong Kong families. Sunday is their only day off – without living space to socialise with friends, they gather in streets and parks instead.
Ever since the 1970s, foreign domestic workers have been moving to Hong Kong and working as live-in helpers to address the city’s lack of daycare and cleaners. Their job is to clean, cook and look after children and the elderly. By employing a domestic helper, it enables both adults in a Hong Kong family to commit to full-time jobs, increasing their household income.
Under the terms of their contract, these foreign domestic helpers are obliged to live-in with the local families, often meaning that they are on-call 24 hours a day. They are paid a minimum wage of just HK$4,410 per month (US$565) most of which they send back home to support their families.
Compared to average monthly Hong Kong salaries, the pay that foreign domestic helpers receive is considerably less. However, it is still more than many of them would be able to earn in their home countries which is why they continue to come to Hong Kong to seek work. A great number of the helpers have to leave their own children in their home country in order to come to Hong Kong to look after other people’s children.
Due to the live-in rule and the lack of living space in Hong Kong, many of the helpers are left with no other option but to sleep in a kitchen, toilet, or corner of the living room. There have been numerous cases of helpers being abused by their employers and the existing live-in rule is now being challenged by helpers in court who say it leaves them open to such dangers.
For the time being though, the 350,000 foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong continue to live-in with their employers and are entitled to just 24 hours off a week. That is why you see these women sitting and chatting on cardboard boxes on the streets of Hong Kong every Sunday.
Recently, a British filmmaker Joanna Bowers made a documentary about Hong Kong’s foreign domestic helpers called “The Helper“. The film offers a window into the lives of some of the helpers living and working in Hong Kong and the maternal sacrifice that many make to work overseas.
Some critics feel that the current conditions foreign domestic helpers are subjected to is akin to a modern form of slavery. However, others argue that it offers these women employment and a higher salary than they could earn in their home countries.
So if you happen to be out and about in Hong Kong on a Sunday, you’ll know exactly why all these foreign women are sitting in the streets – it’s their only day off and they’ve well and truly earned it.
These helpers are the backbone to many Hong Kong families and their contribution to the city is invaluable. They deserve to be recognised for it more often. Truly, they are the unsung heroes of Hong Kong.