Hong Kong's foreign 'helpers' fight for equality

A controversial court case launched by two Filipino maids over the right to apply for residency has led to a polarizing debate in Hong Kong and put a spotlight on the rules foreign domestic workers live by and the discrimination they say they face.

Foreign domestic workers asking for equal rights and fair treatment

Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong hold a rally on Sunday, March 3, calling for abolishment of the rule requiring them to live with their employers. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

Every Sunday in Hong Kong, thousands of women spread out blankets and flattened cardboard boxes on the city's sidewalks, underpasses, and public squares, they sit themselves down on the hard concrete, and then they relax. 

It's not a luxurious or even comfortable way to spend a day, but they have no choice. They have nowhere else to go. These are the city's foreign domestic workers — the maids, the nannies, the "helpers" as they're called here — and because they are forced to live with their employers and have no homes of their own, they spill out onto Hong Kong's streets during their days off.

The ground-level plaza at HSBC's headquarters is a popular gathering place, where almost every inch of space at the base of the skyscraper is taken up. Across the street, there are more groups of women in Statue Square, and beside it, the underground walkway that connects Chater Road and Connaught Road is lined with women who are passing the time by socializing, playing cards, reading, and eating their picnic lunches.

Crowds of women who work as domestic helpers gather together on their day off in an underground walkway in Hong Kong and pass the time by playing cards and socializing. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

There are an estimated 300,000 domestic workers in Hong Kong, most are from Indonesia and Philippines, and regardless of how long they live here, they're not allowed to apply for residency. That sets them apart from other foreigners who come to this wealthy city to work and are eligible to apply after seven years.

"It's unfortunate there is this climate of exclusion in Hong Kong," says Norman Uy Carnay, an advocate with the Mission for Migrant Workers, a support organization. The residency rule is one of many that discriminates against domestic workers, he said, and that they're fighting to change.

Canadian lawyer

The right to apply for residency is at the heart of a court case that sparked an intense debate in Hong Kong, polarizing its citizens and leading to protests in the streets over the last two years.

CBC in Hong Kong

Meagan Fitzpatrick has been posted to Hong Kong to bolster CBC's coverage of a dynamic region of the world. Hong Kong is known as an international financial centre, but there is much more to it than that, and it has close connections to Canada. The city of seven million hosts nearly 300,000 Canadians, and about 500,000 people of Hong Kong descent make their home in Canada. Meagan is a senior online writer who covers national news and federal politics in CBC's Ottawa bureau. Follow her on Twitter @fitzpatrick_m

It's a landmark case that has widespread implications and has raised questions about Hong Kong's judicial independence from Beijing. But it has also put a spotlight on those women who gather on their cardboard boxes every weekend, the conditions they work under and the discrimination they say they face.

The legal battle started in 2011, when Filipino helpers Evangeline Banao Vallejos and Daniel Domingo took the Hong Kong government to court with the help of their lawyer, Canadian Mark Daly. Daly is a Manitoba native who has lived in Hong Kong since 1995 and specializes in human rights and refugee law.

Vallejos, who had worked in Hong Kong for 25 years, and Domingo won their case. The court agreed the immigration law was unconstitutional, an argument rejected by the government. The government and its backers — there was strong opposition to the case from the public — expressed concerns about thousands of domestic workers qualifying for residency and putting a strain on the city's health, housing and education resources. An interview request to the government was declined because the case is before the courts.

The government appealed the decision, and in March 2012, it was their turn to claim victory. Vallejos and Domingo didn't give up. They sought a hearing at the Final Court of Appeal, and it was granted. It was held for three days earlier this month, and the highly anticipated decision is expected within a few weeks.

'About equal treatment'

The case took an even more controversial turn when the government asked the top court to seek a ruling from Beijing to clarify an early interpretation of the permanent residency law from 1999.

If that request is granted, this case could widen to have implications for children born in Hong Kong to mainland parents. They currently enjoy what is called the right of abode, but that could change, depending on how this case goes. Some in the legal community are upset that the government has asked Beijing to get involved, saying it compromises Hong Kong's judicial independence.

Emmanuel Villanueva, a foreign domestic worker from Philippines, sits on the stairs of Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal where a landmark case on the residency rights of workers will soon be decided. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

"This is not only a case about the right of abode of one person, this is a case about equal treatment for foreign workers here in Hong Kong," said Emmanuel Villanueva, a domestic worker who volunteers with multiple support organizations. He is one of the few male domestic workers in Hong Kong.

The 40-year-old, who has lived in Hong Kong longer than he ever did in the Philippines, said having residency would bring many benefits, some as simple as getting a cellphone plan more easily. Workers would be able to search for better-paying jobs, they wouldn't have to renew their visas every two years, and crucial to their well-being, they wouldn't have to live with their employers.

Whether the residency battle is lost or won, the live-in requirement is something domestic workers will keep fighting to change. It is linked to many of their common grievances. They are supposed to have their own bedrooms, but space is limited in many Hong Kong homes, and it's not uncommon for them to share a bedroom with a family member, or to sleep in the living room. They have no privacy. They often work 12 to 16 hour days and are on call around the clock.

Another discriminatory rule according to the advocates is the one that gives workers only 14 days to find another job if they quit or get fired.  If they don't find one, they have to go back home.

Underpayment common

Domestic workers are also excluded from getting minimum wage, something that was brought in for all other workers two years ago. Their contracts instead stipulate a monthly wage of $519. Working six days a week, up to 16 hours a day, that wage could work out to about a dollar an hour. That's assuming the minimum salary is in fact paid.

When Sringatin first arrived from Indonesia 10 years ago the family she worked for didn't pay her the full monthly wage, but she kept her mouth shut.

"I was afraid to talk with anyone, because the recruitment agency always said you could not talk with anyone about getting underpaid," she said.

Sringatin (surnames aren't used by some Indonesians) works for a different family now and is active in fighting for workers' rights as the vice-chairperson of the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union. There are a lot of problems with recruitment agencies, she explained, including how much they charge. Many workers use their entire salaries for seven months to pay off their debts.

"It's very hard for us to get freedom from the agency," said Sringatin. Once the debts are paid, they start sending money home to their families. There is little left to save or spend on themselves.

Sringatin, a domestic helper from Indonesia, helps raise awareness about mistreatment and underpayment of workers, something she experienced when she first came to work in Hong Kong. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

Defeat at Hong Kong's highest court would be a huge blow to the workers and the advocacy groups who are fighting for them. They say they're not asking for a lot, just to be treated the same as other foreign workers who get the chance to apply for residency.

"We believe it is our right," said Cherry Narag, chair of the Filipino Migrant Workers Union. "I believe they are discriminating against us."

There are employers who are supporting their cause, but there are also many Hong Kong residents who are opposed to it. Narag is determined. "We always fight."