It’s Sunday and jet lag is working in my favor so I am up early to catch a ferry bound for Lantau Island to get a head start on the weekend crowds. Shortly after descending into Hong Kong’s Central District for the first time I notice hundreds of women laying blankets or pieces of cardboard boxes on sidewalks. Is this some type of sit in like protest in the making or the prelude to a weekend event? Eager to catch the boat I keep moving.
The crowd of women has reached a critical mass when I return in the late afternoon. The powerful sound of thousands of female voices speaking in a tonal tongue unfamiliar to me resonates. It’s not Cantonese because they are not Chinese.
The women line the overhead walkways, which traverse Hong Kong Island’s Central District, four and five deep. They also fill Exchange and Statue Squares. Small cottage industries have sprouted on the concrete ranging from make shift nail salons to food and clothing sold swap meet style. The mood is festive, music is playing and some women dance.
The next morning when I report to work colleagues explain this is how Hong Kong’s domestic helpers, often referred to locally as Amahs and who are predominantly Filipina and female, spend their one day off every Sunday.
The lives of domestic workers in Hong Kong resemble something like this: They live with their employers and work morning until night six days a week. They wear many hats; nanny, cook, house keeper and also run errands. They keep the households of well heeled Hong Kongers and privileged ex-pats running for paltry pay. Room and board are provided and they are typically paid a mandated minimum wage of HK$3,480, about $450 a month.
More often than not these women are well educated and fluent in English but due to the dire state of job opportunities in The Philippines they seek overseas employment. Many have children they have left behind with family and send back a large portion of their wages to support them all. They are the migrant workers of Hong Kong.
In 2006 overseas Filipina workers worldwide sent over US$10 billion home accounting for 11% of the country’s GDP, according to the Asia Sentinel.