Sunday, August 7, 2011


Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong are a well-organized and outspoken group, numbering well over 100,000.  So well-organized that they have inspired and assisted workers from other Asian countries to follow in their footsteps in seeking better working conditions in the former colony. So outspoken and effective that they became the envy and even the model for some in the Hong Kong women’s movement and democracy circles, in a society where even under British colonial administration (up until 1997), independent and voluntary organizations – hallmarks of democracy and an active civil society  - were not too well-known.

But the relationship of Filipino domestic workers with Hong Kong society is one recently fraught with ups and downs. Domestic helpers took some heat from the Hong Kong public following the bungled hostage crisis at the Quirino Grandstand last August 2010, in which eight Hong Kong tourists were killed.  Every now and then, there are outcries over proposals to increase the minimum wage for foreign domestic helpers, which falls far below the minimum wage for all other groups.

In some respects, resentment by local residents against their ubiquitous presence is understandable. It only takes a visit to certain areas in Hong Kong (e.g. Central, Victoria Park) on a Sunday to get a sense that Filipinas have re-colonized Hong Kong. When the Hong Kong economy is not doing well, foreign labor becomes an easy target of accusations that they are taking jobs away from the local population, even though those 3D jobs (the difficult, dirty and dangerous) are considered unworthy by locals in better times. This is probably true in almost any country or territory.

Once again, Filipina domestics have become controversial in Hong Kong after four of them filed separate lawsuits  questioning their disqualification from applying for permanent residency. The policy of the Hong Kong government is to allow the grant of permanent residency to foreigners who have worked continuously in Hong Kong for at least seven years. Some domestic helpers have helped prop up the Hong Kong economy for far longer than seven years, and in the case of all the complainants, for more than twenty years.

A debate has ensued in Hong Kong about granting foreign domestics this privilege, with those against it warning about opening the floodgates to tens of thousands of applicants while those in favor of granting them permanent residency arguing that to do otherwise would be an act of discrimination. (In contrast,  Filipino and other foreign professionals who also abound in the territory are not singled out as undeserving of permanent residency.)

I recall that in the run-up to the handover of Hong Kong from British rule to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the Philippine government was worried that the territory would open its doors to a deluge of mainland workers, displacing Filipinos and thus resulting in their return en masse to the Philippines and aggravating the unemployment situation. At that time, I was sent by the Foreign Service Institute to conduct research on the anticipated impact of the handover. I met with migrant NGOs, Hong Kong government officials, church workers, and a barrister providing legal aid to OFWs. My major research findings were that market forces would dictate a continuing demand for Filipino domestics, who employers would prefer due to their relatively higher level of education and English proficiency compared to prospective migrants from across the Guangdong border. In fact, Hong Kong immigration and labor officials informed me then that controls and quotas were being put in place to prevent the massive inflow of a workforce from mainland China. True enough, Hong Kong did continue to welcome Filipinos after 1997, including domestic workers, thus helping to preserve the pre-handover character of Hong Kong. 

Opposition to granting permanent residency to foreign domestic workers is based on inflated expectations that huge numbers will apply for this status. This reflects a gross misunderstanding of the nature of Filipino labor migration, as a temporary measure chosen by families to escape unemployment at home, hopefully leading to upward mobilty after migrants are able to send their children to school, provide better housing and living conditions back home and in some cases, save enough seed money to open up a micro-enterprise. It also exaggerates the attractiveness of Hong Kong as a place to settle down in. Hong Kong's impressive skyline and modern architecture serve as cover for often crowded and even dirty streets that many Filipino domestics are familiar with, while cramped living conditions are part of the reason they tend to converge in public spaces at every opportunity allowed them. Moreover, possibly due to the nature of the place as a business and commercial entrepot, the majority of Hongkongers may be epitomes of efficiency but they are not known to be the most pleasant or polite people, being driven more than anything else by pursuit of material well-being.  Contrast this to the affable, social and even spiritual nature of the Filipinos, particularly the many of provincial origin who end up as domestics.

I would guess that HK residents have little to fear if indeed domestic helpers are allowed to qualify for permanent residency.  Thinking once more of 1997, the presence of Filipinos helped secure Hong Kong from massive unskilled labor migration from the Chinese mainland when that was considered their biggest concern. Now some Hong Kong politicians are even calling on Beijing to intervene to prevent permanency of foreign domestic helpers, based on a misguided belief that most of those Filipinos even want to be there for the long haul.

One can only hope that the time will come soon when the Philippine government should be able to tell host countries that our citizens are welcome to return home anytime they choose, particularly in places where they feel they are not welcome.


Fan Day said...

i am afraid it is not a good time to talking about the residence rights for OFW in HK after the tragedy last year. Besides, the influx of massive of OFW, even thouth they probabaly choose to go back to the Philippines, probably change the populations structure of HK which is dominated by Chinese.

Aileen SP Baviera said...

Thanks for the comment! I agree that this is bad timing. Of course, this is not supported by the Philippine government, only an initiative of a few who have been there long enough and maybe don't have any more strong ties to the Philippines. I don't think it will cause new influx either, as that will be determined by the labor market.

megha Verma said...

Every now and then the aspiring Domestic Helper Hong Kong would call my sister and check about openings for domestic helper Singapore.