By: Mathilde Gattegno
Hong Kong is a dizzying, vibrant city with a tantalizing array of architecture, food, and culture. Six days a week, from Monday to Saturday, the city fills with a head-spinning bustle from the chaotic efficiency of the streets. Sunday doesn't exactly slow the city down much when it comes to intensity, but it is a special day for a usually hidden segment of the Hong Kong community: the domestic helpers. Hundreds of women will gather in public spaces at the end of every week to spend their lone day off of the week with their peers.
Those first to arrive in the morning settle the picnic base camp in their favorite spot — draping cardboard or plastic sheeting on the ground, bringing out food, and sometimes even playing music. They infiltrate most of the major public spaces of Hong Kong: streets, squares, bridges, underpasses … They give a new purpose to a plethora of spaces usually dedicated only to traffic, pedestrian or vehicular. All day long, they will hang out with friends, FaceTime their families, paint each other's nails and makeup, or engage in any number of activities together.
This hidden community of women numbers approximately 360,000 people in Hong Kong, coming in from a variety of Southeast Asian countries. With the growing and aging population of the city, their numbers should reach 600,000 individuals within the next 30 years.
Even as they play a central role in the Hong Kong economy, these workers are often forgotten, frequently facing racism and always ruled over by unfair and unequal laws. In recent years, domestic worker scandals have erupted in the media — like the case of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, a young Indonesian worker who was subjected to months of physical abuse by her employers — sparking firestorms of resulting protests and giving rise to associations devoted to helping this fragile population.
Still, people's awareness surrounding the hardships these women face every day remains tragically low. To help in finding solutions, British filmmaker Joanna Bowers set out to make a documentary highlighting the lives and the strength of Hong Kong's domestic helpers. For several years now, Joanna has worked to shine a light on women's stories, sharing the stories of China's cotton workers and of survivors of human trafficking in Nepal.
The project of making a full-length documentary in Hong Kong came together in 2015 when Joanna was introduced to the Domestic Workers Roundtable, which gathers NGOs, labor unions, and consular officials to discuss strategies for improving the lives of these women. Following that meeting, she launched a Kickstarter effort to fund the work.
That effort resulted in the new documentary "The Helper," which introduces viewers to the complex lives of Hong Kong's domestic helpers and provides a glimpse of who they are beyond their roles as domestics.
Working as a domestic helper is hard work, with long hours and underappreciated efforts, yet the salary remains attractive to helpers compared to what they can earn in their home countries. Many of these women come to Hong Kong or Singapore with dreams of paying off their family's debts, supporting their children's education, possibly one day building a home, or hopefully starting a business before returning home. While their plans seem straightforward at first, reality does not always play along accordingly. For example, in Hong Kong an insidious fraud is on the rise within the Indonesian domestic helper community in which the workers are tricked into co-signing loans against their wills. That and similar frauds are facilitated by laws preventing domestic helpers from getting official bank loans and the mounting pressures they face from their families to bring home more money.
Pressure on the workers also is intensified by the often terrible situations their families face back home, situations that can see families getting to the point of faking IDS for 14-year-old girls so they can send them to work in the rich city.
When cornered in difficult situations, domestic helpers now can reach out for help from assistance organizations such as the Mission for Migrant Workers, which provides shelter and assistance to workers who get pregnant or who have financial difficulties and provides consulting services to women who are fired or whose employers withhold pay.
One of the main goals of "The Helper" is to show that these women are not defined by their jobs as domestics. Beyond being helpers and taking care of a family in Hong Kong, these women have their own families somewhere, their own aspirations and goals. In their scarce free time, they gather in smaller communities, grouping together either by nationality, by religion, or by shared interests. They sing in choirs, they help other communities, they create works of art, and do incredible things together, usually with great passion and energy.
Some are part-time students, investing their free time in building a future career for themselves, like one worker who has earned bachelor's degrees in nursing and psychology — but this is not yet enough to allow her to make a living in her home country. Only after she graduates with a master's degree will she have the ability to earn enough in the Philippines to move back and settle there.
Some others arrive in Hong Kong already possessing abundant professional experience, as teachers, as business owners — but once in the city under a domestic helper visa, it becomes nearly impossible to switch tracks. That doesn't mean, though, that they simply forget their skills. They sometimes choose to invest their time and energy in charitable work or wait until they have saved enough money to pick up their previous careers again. The domestic helper visa is one of the least flexible visas that Hong Kong offers, with only 15 days to renew at expiration, no option for permanent residency after seven years as some other visas offer, and no possibility of bringing family members with them, among other limitations.
Although they are a key element of the city's life, they still face often negative public sentiment and blowback for their Sunday gatherings. They "invade public space" and "disrupt residents' lives" by "blocking ways and being loud." Similar debates boil over regularly in Hong Kong, but even people with good intentions can have bad formulations of their ideas and sound rude toward the domestic helpers. These debates usually fail to consider that most of these women are not necessarily choosing to spend their Sundays on the sidewalks of this very hot, very humid, and very wet city — for most of them there is no chilling-on-the-sofa kind of Sunday, as most often there is simply no sofa for these women, rather a mattress in a child's room. On Sundays they are simply not welcome to stay in the homes where they labor Monday through Saturday. This kind of Catch-22 situation faced by the domestic workers has given rise to debates over building community centers or other similar facilities that could shelter or hide the women, depending on the way the problem is presented.
For now, the city has made the decision to close off some main streets to traffic, so pedestrians can enjoy them to sit, stroll, or gather together. To replace the carboard used for protection and seating, design students have worked to craft modular furniture that could be used to provide a measure of comfort while also helping to keep the streets clean at the end of the day — but despite an abundance of ideas, few have yet reached even the prototype stage, much less achieving funding and implementation throughout Hong Kong.
But beyond the public policies and special issues, the one thing that needs to be changed first is the way these women are perceived. Yes, the job is hard, just like many others are hard, but if they were at least treated with dignity and respect, by their employers and the people in the city where they labor, if they were integrated into the public life of the city, then perhaps it could be just their jobs that are difficult.
With the growth of social media and the rise of interest in documentaries through platforms such as Netflix, it has never been so easy to walk in other people's shoes. "The Helper" comes to share with us, inform us, and increase empathy for these incredible women living and working in Hong Kong.
About the author: Mathilde is a Hong Kong-based French designer. She arrived in the city two years ago and has been writing about her impressions first for the Hong Kong Polytechnic Design School blog, then for herself, and now for other magazines too. Her studies at school ranged from architecture to civil engineering as well as urban environment design. The next project she wants to develop is research about the feeling of home among the young population of Hong Kong. All the work she does aims to improve people's lives by understanding and improving our surroundings. Follow her on IG: @saeades; on FB: Mathilde Univers Gattegno; and at her website: Mathilde Gattegno.