Every single day, Maria wakes up at 6 a.m., right at the crack of dawn. The first thing she does is to walk over to the big windows in our living room facing out to the mountains and breathes in the fresh air. She probably has the best record of what sunrise looks like out of anyone I know. She returns to her room to get ready. She splashes cold water on her face to jolt her body awake. She stares at herself in the mirror for a few seconds, examining the wrinkles on her face that have just started to appear. However, she doesn’t allow herself much indulgence—she quickly gets dressed in her daily uniform of T-shirt and sweatpants and puts the kettle on. My mother gets up for work at 6:15; by the time she gets out of bed, a cup of hot Oolong tea is waiting for her on the dining room table.
It is an inconvenient reality that back at home, in Hong Kong, most families, from middle class households living in council estates to casino tycoons in their mansions up on The Peak, employ domestic helpers, commonly called “maids”, who largely come from the Philippines. Behind the flashy lights of the neon signs and the resplendence of the skyscrapers lies a reality that is seldom addressed by both locals and onlookers from abroad. The domestic helper industry is so popular that there are scores of agencies that help in this process. They are widespread enough that most women in the country are able to contact one nearby if they want to seek work abroad. These agencies fly women over from their homes to these “halfway houses” in Hong Kong, where they would be groomed and prepped for interviews with potential employers, hoping that they would be impressive enough to be hired at the end of the day.
Maids are a formidable presence in Hong Kong, comprising five percent of the population. Every Sunday, which is usually when they have their weekly day-off, maids flock to Central, the most expensive district in Hong Kong and take over massive areas on walkways and parks and set up little cardboard compartments with their group of friends. It feels a little like the adult version of playing fort. Some of them are gossiping energetically in Tagalog; some of them just want to lie there and gaze up at the sky. The juxtaposition of their makeshift cardboard rooms against the gleaming metal towers is almost poetic—this is representative of just how out of place and disadvantaged the Filipino diaspora is in the bustling metropolis that is Hong Kong.
When I try to explain to my friends the fact that my family has a live-in maid who cooks and cleans for us, I can’t help but to be tripped up by the problematic connotations of this reality. Maids are legal aliens who are allowed into the homes of families in Hong Kong through a complex layering of work visas, contracts of employers and agencies, and most of all, societal norms. They are paid minimum wage—the lucky ones might receive bonuses for their good work. They work here, where the minimum wage is higher than that in the Philippines, in the hopes that the money they send back home can lead to a better life for their families. They do not have political agency or the right to own any property.
There is a deep-seated racial “master-labor’ power dynamic between the Chinese employers and Filipino maids in Hong Kong. Time after time, stories break in the news detailing the abuse and exploitation of domestic helpers around the city. Maids are essentially placed in a double bind. When they complain about discontent with their living or work conditions, their employers can threaten them with termination and send them back home. Some of this tension is also gendered. There are many instances where the matriarch of the household puts undue pressure on the maid because she feels threatened by the new female presence in the house, who in many cases develop a deeply intimate relationship with the children of the household. This is a normalized reality in the place I call home.
Grace Shiella A Estrada, the chairperson of the Progressive Labor Union of Domestic Workers in Hong Kong, said, “When I signed [the] contract, it seemed like I was also signing a verdict admitting I will be in prison for two years.”
A number of helpers have spoken of long working hours, lack of sleep and proper resting space, and poor diet as a result of the live-in arrangement. One of Maria’s friends had to be “on-call” 24 hours a day. Even when she was asleep in the deep hours of the night, the children of the household would go into her room and turn on the light, asking her to change their bedding because they had peed themselves.
When I was younger, it really confused me why Maria wanted to come to Hong Kong.
Being from a rural area just outside of Manila, the only source of income of Maria’s family was the small agriculture business her husband owned. She has two kids, RJ and Christian. Despite the fact that she received a bachelor’s degree in Hotel Management, she was unable to secure a job that could support her family because of the unfriendly job market in the Philippines. One of her cousins had told her to consider contacting an agency so that she could find work abroad, but she did not want to leave her family behind and deprive her children of the maternal care they would need. By conventional standards, they were doing okay. Her husband planted rice, which is never in short demand. They could even afford to buy farm animals; they had three chickens and two cows. Christian, the eldest son, even got into a competitive elementary school in the area.
I came to develop a very personal relationship with Maria. I called her Marithes, which was a combination of her first and middle name, Maria Theresa. I used to give her a long hug every night before I went to bed. One night, when I was ten, I went to Maria’s room to say goodnight. I saw that she had been crying. Her eyes were red and puffy. She told me that she really missed home. I asked her why she decided to leave. I felt her hold me more tightly—so tight that I could hear her heartbeat. She told me that in 2008, everything went awry. A pest destroyed the majority of rice crops Maria’s husband had grown that year. One of the cows wandered onto the road and was hit and killed by a passing truck. Their house was basically ruined by a flood, and the roof, made of metal plates, was caving in. They couldn’t afford to send Christian to the good school. But the final straw was when her husband attempted to hang himself. She had found him just as he was trying to muster all of his willpower to kick over the stool under him. She told me that she spent two hours after that crying with her husband on their bathroom floor. The next day, she took the bus into Manila to sign up with an agency.
I learned that it was never really a choice. It was the only thing she could do given the circumstances. It is discomforting to know that for many maids, this is the best career path for them, given the circumstances. At the crux of the issue is that they are involuntarily submitted to a career of subservience and lack of agency—many maids do not even have any exposure to resources that will advocate for their rights as workers and as human beings. Tragically, the organizations that do exist, such as the Filipino government, often neglect the rights of their own people, choosing ignorance as the more convenient route to deal with problems.
One thing I often forget about Hong Kong is how different cultural norms can be. Since leaving home at 13 for boarding school in England, and now college in America, I have been exposed to the Western standards of what’s acceptable and what’s not. Because my most formative years were spent in generally liberal-leaning areas in the West, I have come to think that these standards are the ones we ought to uphold. But how are we to judge a place like Hong Kong, where the vast majority of the population knows no different, and have just come to accept the domestic helper industry as it stands?
I like to think that we treat Maria well. She always has a place at our dinner table, and she gets twice the number of vacation days as the average maid. She has the liberty to experiment with her cooking—from time to time she serves us her favorite Filipino dishes such as Chicken Adobo or watermelon vinegar salad. She tells me all the time that she really likes working for us. I suppose I feel comforted by that reassurance.
The senior management team of the Nass has posted a response to this article, which can be found here.
Michael Yeung has published a follow-up to this article, which can be found here.