“I pray to God and the burdens on my heart are lifted.” I am visiting with some workers from the Philippines who have gathered along with thousands of their countrywomen in Hong Kong’s Statue Square. There are groups enjoying each other’s company everywhere you look. Some are eating, visiting, playing cards, styling one another’s hair and trading romance novels. Others are praying, reading their Bibles and singing hymns. There are an estimated 120,000 female workers from the Philippines living in Hong Kong. Most are employed as maids for the city’s wealthy families. These ‘helpers’ ( the common term for domestic laborers in Hong Kong) are expected to work twenty four hours a day, six days a week, but government regulations dictate they must be given twelve consecutive hours of free time each Sunday. Since the women cannot afford to go to movies or eat in restaurants on their day off, they gather in Hong Kong’s train stations and parks or outside public buildings.
One Sunday morning I went down to the heart of Hong Kong’s business district to spend some time talking with the Filipino women in a central plaza there. One group readily agreed to let me take their picture and when I told them I was writing a story for a magazine they were happy to answer some questions.
The ten women I spoke with all come from the same rural area in the Philippines. They work in homes in different sections of Hong Kong but on Sundays they meet at St. Joseph’s Cathedral located in the Central district. After mass, which St. Joseph’s celebrates in Tagalong, the language of the Philippines, they gather on the porch of the near by Hong Kong law courts building. They spread newspapers on its cement floor to sit down on, and then spend the afternoon eating and visiting. They tell me they are devout Catholics and their faith in God is what helps them survive the separation from their families in the Philippines and the sometimes cruel and indifferent treatment of their employers. “I pray to God and the burdens on my heart are lifted” one woman tells me passionately, as she lifts her hands and eyes heavenward.
As we visit I discover some of the women in the group have been here for as little as four months while others have lived in Hong Kong for as long as twelve years. Most have young children at home and are university educated. They are nurses, teachers, physiotherapists, pharmacists, computer programmers and business women. They speak several languages. However they can make three times more money in Hong Kong than they can practicing their professions in the Philippines. They tell me they need money to pay for their children’s education. “To give our kids hope for the future”, one woman says. They all send a substantial portion of their salary home to their families.
There are many different church groups and organizations in Hong Kong which seek to serve the Filipina women working in the city. I spoke with Sue Farley who is on the board of directors for an outreach program operated by the American Baptist World Evangelism organization. They open the premises of a local Bible College on Sundays so the Filipino women can meet there and take part in Sunday School classes and a worship service. They have a fulltime director, a woman from the Philippines, who develops relationships with the women who attend and acts as an advocate for them when necessary.
Not all employers treat their Filipino maids as they should. “They really have incredible power over the women” says Farley. She tells me that sometimes the domestic helpers have already been taken advantage of by unscrupulous middlemen in the Philippines who charge them exorbitant prices for work visas and transportation to Hong Kong. As a result they arrive in the city already owing a large amount of money. If they land up with an employer who is not kind they hesitate to report them to the authorities. They need to keep their job to pay back their travel loan and send money home to their families who are depending on them. “It is not that difficult for employers to break their contracts with Filipino women”, Farley informs me. “And they cannot stay here in Hong Kong unless they have full time employment.” It is easy to see why often women tolerate the abuse of their employers rather than take legal action against them.
Farley tells me that some women are sexually harassed. One maid confided she slips a chair under the knob of the door in her room before going to bed, to keep her boss out. Others aren’t as lucky because they have to sleep on a mat on the kitchen floor. One of the Filipino women I spoke to said she sleeps on the floor between the beds of the children in the household where she is employed. That same maid told me she is often hungry. “I can only eat what is left over after my employers have had dinner.”
Ms. Farley says her organization will help the Filipino women lodge complaints against employers who violate the government regulations which apply to migrant workers. “We go to court with them or help them file petitions with the Labor Board.”
Ms. Farley is particularly impressed with the Filipino women from their mission who choose to spend their precious Sundays off reaching out to their fellow countrywomen. “They visit the parks and squares”, says Ms. Farley, “and invite others to our church services. They offer to pray with those who seem lonely and extend friendship and a listening ear to those who have concerns and problems.”
Another organization that provides assistance to the Filipino women is Bethune House, named after Canadian Norman Bethune. He was a medical doctor from Canada who cared for both Chinese soldiers and civilians during the war against the Japanese in the late 1930’s. Bethune died in China in 1939. Staffed by volunteers from a variety of Christian denominations Bethune House offers shelter and legal and pastoral council to migrant women who have been abused by their employers. It is one more way the Christian community in Hong Kong seeks to reach out to their sisters from the Philippines who are ‘strangers in a strange land’.
“We want to go home”, the group of women I talked with told me. “We want to be with our families. But until then God is watching over us.”
I admire the dedication and determination of the Filipina women who work as domestic helpers in Hong Kong. Their loyalty to God and their families is truly inspiring!