Monday, January 19, 2009

Sunday out in Hong Kong; domestic helpers

Image of Filipino workers lining the elevated walkways of Hong Kong's central district. They will stay here, in groups, all day.Dear Gentle Reader,

Every Sunday in Hong Kong the elevated walkways and squares are packed--with people sitting down.

No, it is not a strike; this is the freest land of capitalism around.

Nor are the Jonas Brothers or Christina Aguilera giving free concerts.

No, this is generally the one day that domestic workers get off in Hong Kong.

Technically they are called FDHs, Foreign Domestic Helpers.

For less than 450 USD a month I can have a live-in domestic helper sleep and work in my home.

If I provide a roll up mattress (she would provide pillow, sheets, and a blanket) for the kitchen (thoughtfully designed to be as wide as camping mattress for one person) and food for her (which she cooks, as well as the nicer meals she would prepare for me and any guests I have) then I am considered to have done her a good turn, by providing a good job, in Hong Kong at least.

She would work all week for me, except Sunday. Domestic workers get one day off, normally Sunday.

Don't misunderstand me. The provision of a place to sleep is fantastically valuable in Hong Kong, and is not to be underestimated.

Land is insanely expensive here in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is far more expensive than Tokyo (I have lived there) or New York (I want to live there, and I have seen the Bloomberg financial data on rent rates globally).

Many people live in significantly reduced circumstances here, in Hong Kong. The provisioning of shelter and food means that 450 USD (almost) can go straight to paying for the flight to come here, the debt to the placement agency, and, eventually, to the "let me earn a better life for myself and my family" fund.

Also, many people have the wherewithal to, and some do, provide their staff with better accomodation, and nice bonuses. But that is not required, and they are not in the majority.

The only perk that all domestic helpers can count on is one day off a week to socialize with each other.

Typically, domestic helpers congregate together in various public spaces around Hong Kong.

Image of Filipino domestic workers setting up for the day in a group on the ground. When it is cold, like today, they might sit on a newspaper for the ten hours that they sit here.
Some spots, such as the elevated walkways, or the ground floor atrium of HSBC's flagship banking centre, resemble swallows nests if you stand, close your eyes, and listen.

Image of Filipino domestic workers setting up for the day, in numerous huddled groups, under HSBC's flagship banking complex in Hong Kong in the outdoor foyer. It is much darker, but this space stretches out to the street on the other side of the block, and it is full of Filipinos.

The number one country in terms of sending domestic helpers to Hong Kong is the Republic of the Philippines, followed by Indonesia, and then Thailand. There are apparently about 140,000 Filipino domestic helpers legally in Hong Kong, and the same number, combined, of Indonesian and Thai domestic helpers.

The Philippines has 90 million people, making them the 46th most populous country in the world. They also have 9 million citizens living abroad, about 11% of their domestic population.

Anecdotally, Filipinos who I have talked to tell me that they generally support 7 people in the Philippines.

Remittances from overseas (usually domestic) workers is about 10% of the total GDP of the Philippines. Approximately 16 Billion USD was sent back to the families in the Philippines in 2008; that is the aggregate sum contributed by people maknig 450 USD per month. Almost 1 of every 10 dollars earned in the Philippines was actually earned by a Filipino working abroad, likely a domestic helper.

If the anecdotal stories are correct, and domestic helpers support 7 people each in the Philippines, then 11% of the population would make 10% of the GDP and support 77% of the people in the Philippines. Again, if that is true, I would definitely want to be born into the more lucrative 12% of the population that controls 90% of the GDP...

Filipinos usually have a husband and children in the Philippines, even though they only get home to see them once per year. In the Republic of the Philippines, the average life expectancy is 70 years, but the median age is just over 22 years; this is a young country.

Image of Filipino domestic workers lining the streets of Hong Kong on a Sunday.
So, every Sunday, the young domestic helpers break free of their cages, flutter their wings, and sing their songs with one another.

And, though I do not speak Tagalog, the sound of their talking is usually joyful, not mournful. These are people counting their blessings, not enumerating their sorrows, though they can do that too.

Which should provide a lesson to us all. Especially those of us with computers and desks and beds and private space... and the wherewithal to live with the ones we love.

More reasons to enjoy all that you have been blessed with, no matter how difficult some days may seem.


As usual, with Junosmom, I am cohosting My Town Monday (MTM) until Travis Erwin completes his phoenix trick and takes this task back.

To contribute to the rebuilding of Travis' home, razed by flames, visit here.

But, now, and here, are glimpses of other people's towns around the world this Monday...

If your MTM post is not here, drop me a note and I will include you.


Clair Dickson said...

Hi-- My MTM post is scheduled to launch at 11p (Eastern Standard Time). Thanks for taking this over for Travis.

As for your post-- that's some incredible culture shock. I like the idea of providing jobs... but I'm not sure if providing a cot in the kitchen is really adequate.

Cloudia said...

Chris: Thank you kindly for including me in MTM this week.

Great post today! Salamat ("thank you" in tagalog). I have many Filipino neighbors here in Hawaii. A large group the "Sakadas" came here in the mids 20th century to work in the sugar mills. They continue to come and go, and stay. They are an important part of our state. Ben Cayetano, our last Gov was the 1st of Filipino roots in the USA.
Boat Kittys sends a friendly "Ahoy" to Pommes! Aloha to YOU & our Heroine

Junosmom said...

Fascinating, Chris, and glad you explained the positives along with the realities. It saddens me that the moms, however, are without their children. Perhaps because I am without mine right now. No, it has always bothered me. A similar situation in the US with the hispanic population.

Barbara Martin said...

Excellent post, Chris.

My MTM post is up.

debra said...

Greetings, Chris. My post will be up at in 2 hours--midnight in my neck of the woods. I will be back later to read here. Now it is time to fold laundry and to let the dogs out.

Reb said...

Chris, firstly, thank you for hosting in Travis' place. It is fascinating to read about another culture so different from what we in the west are accustomed to.

I have an MTM post up this week.

Sepiru Chris said...


I also like the idea of providing jobs, and I also think that a rolled out foam mattress (we are not even talking cots here...) is inappropriate. That said, some master bedrooms in Hong Kong are big enough to squeeze a double bed in, and only open the door half way afterwards... Some are not.

(Your Heroine and scribe have a fairly decent-sized place, thank goodness, or your Hero, Pommes the wondercat, would go insane.)


You are more than welcome, as always. It is interesting to hear of the Sakadas and your last Governor. Pommes rowrs appreciatively back.


I fully agree, it is a significant social problem and must be yielding long term consequences in the Philippines.


You are welcome.


Get some sleep! I know what missing it is like. Tomorrow is a great day, I know, I am already in it thanks to the wonder of the international date line...

Reb, You are welcome. I think Junosmom and I both see this as doing a little something for Travis, although it started off as a one month gig for Christmas.

I will get you up, and thank you to you and everybody for letting me know about your posts. This way is much easier for me.

Cheers and Tschuess,

Mary N. said...

My post is up.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Always interesting to hear from you, Chris. My MTM post will be about Martin Luther Kings' speech in Detroit in 1963. Thanks.

Barrie said...

What a fascinating post! Also, I enjoyed all the comments you left on my blog. Thanks for helping with the MTM posts. Mine will post after midnight.

Glennis said...

Excellent post, makes you feel for these workers, but most likely the majority are quite happy with their life. We in our small part of New Zealand the wine producing area of Marlborough also have many thousands of migrate workers from many other Nations working in the vineyards, doing much the same thing; sending most of their earning home to family, and also congregating together on a Sunday, the day off for them.

Barrie said...

I forgot to say thank you for the interview link. THANK YOU!

Sepiru Chris said...

Cheers Mary,

I have you up.

Hello Pattinase,

I refer back to you, tomorrow! I am looking forward to reading your post about Martin Luther King as soon as I can see it.


Thank you, and you are up too. (You are more than welcome, too. I hope it drives more traffic.)

How on earth did you stumble upon WD-40? Hey, do you know why it is called Nylon? Invented simultaneously for Dupont by two competing teams, one in New York, the other in London.


Well, I know that the woman earn more here then they would in the Philippines, but I do not think that the work as a foreign domestic helper is truly enjoyed.

They are essentially indentured servants.

And their employers understand the vast leverage that they have over these individuals.

They are frequently required to go far beyond the legal limits, be that offering their bodies, not just their labour, or labouring far beyond the limits set by the law.

Usually society's marginalized groups are unable to avail themselves of niceties like legal protection.

There was a case in Hong Kong the other day where a woman was fined 3000 HKD (300 euros, 400 USD, prob 700 NZD) for slapping her maid so hard that her maid's face and lips bled.

That maid was five minutes late getting up. The court took two thirds of the fine and gave the maid one third.

I am betting, as a Barrister, that her legal fees exceeded 1000 HKD. That would not pay for fifteen minutes of my time.

I do not think that maids truly enjoy their required career, but they do not complain.

Tschuess all,

debra said...

I never knew I could find my Filapina beauty on your site, Chris :-)

Sepiru Chris said...


I shake my head.

I keep trying to block these things on google adsense, that said, I have not seen the interior of that particular ad.

Is it decent or indecent?

I have made a whopping 86 cents in the last eight months, so I cannot stop now...


Barrie said...

You're Canadian! Me too!

Sepiru Chris said...

Dear Barrie,

Canadian geese, unite!

(I knew you were from your blog entries!) Well met, fellow Canuck.


Sepiru Chris said...

PS, Barrie,

I still want to know what led you, creatively, to WD-40... ...if your are willing to share...


Junosmom said...

Got this from Travis Erwin
I plan to get back in the groove myself next week but for now here are a couple of links.

Lauren -

and Gary sent me an email sayinghe was going to post a MTM, but i don't think it is up yet.

gary -

Lauren said...

Hi, my name is Lauren. I did a My Town Monday Post on Chicago. More History and high level related.

Lauren said...

Hong Kong sounds like a very interesting city. I have never been, but have spoken to many people who have and they have all enjoyed it. That is amazing that someone can have a live-in domestic helper for 450USD. So interesting to learn about what it is they do. It is sad to think that this situation makes them happy because it makes me wonder about their situation before that.

Heidelweiss said...

That's a great post. I really don't understand how I get so caught up in thinking things aren't "going well" for me or are "hard" for me when there are people in the world that would give anything to be living my life, or yours or probably anyone who comments on this blog. The fact that we actually have the luxury of sitting in front of a computer instead of working every waking minute would be astounding to them. I REALLY must get a grip on my negative side. Now.

Junosmom said...

Chris, please link to Passage of a Woman

This is my cousin, Robin.

Sepiru Chris said...

Hi Junosmom,

Thank you for the links, I have them posted in.

Hello Lauren,

We have you up too, thanks for the note!

Again, Lauren, (I have said this earlier in the comments) I do not think that domestic helpers are truly happy with that. Lots of them have university degrees. But there is only factory in the Philippines, and not much of that, even before the financial meltdown.

But, they do seem to look on the bright side of life...


I am so glad that you enjoyed the post.

Pain has a way of mutating our views on things. Back pain is especially debilitating...

Hope all is well in your world today.

Tschuess to you all,

Travis Erwin said...

Chris, Thanks for everything including taking over the MTM links. I plan to jump back in this next week.

Gary Rith Pottery Blog said...

Thank you for your visit via Barbara Martin! You have a totally interesting blog and things to say!
--Gary Rith (Ralph? :) )

Sepiru Chris said...


You are welcome; just doing my little bit to keep things going for you.


Sorry, I had just visited Raph's giraffe site (another of Barbara's award winners) and I tend to be dyslexic with non-historical people's names.

My wife is tremendously helpful at parties, reminding me who I am and whom I am talking to. Sorry again.

Quite serendipitous though, your pottery mug work when the radio came on with the inauguration... (See, I pay attention to the important bits... the content).

Good thing you have a sense of humour.