“They’re spoiling the market for the rest of us”


Members of the filipino community in Central, Hong Kong, photograph by Steve W

From Le Monde Diplomatique:

Béatrice, a Franco-Belgian expatriate, lives in the gated community of Stanley Knoll, named after the explorer Henry Morton Stanley, in a house that overlooks Hong Kong Bay. She, her French husband Paul, a senior executive with a French bank, and their four children have lived here, half an hour from the heart of “the most free economy in the world”, since 2005. She does not have a job, but does humanitarian work for a French NGO, swims in Stanley Bay and plays tennis. They need a maid to help with their house and children. “Lennie is so devoted,” says Béatrice. Leonora Santos Torres looks after the children, cooks and cleans. She is one of the 290,600 foreign maids currently working in Hong Kong. Like most of them, she lives in a room measuring less than five square metres, on call day and night.

Béatrice has not set foot in a supermarket for four years, and says she feels “liberated” by not having to do domestic tasks. She is still surprised when the maid dries her swimsuit as soon as she returns from the beach. Béatrice and Paul pay Leonora $650 a month to be available 24 hours a day, six days a week, a quarter of the cost of such help in France. “It’s $144 more than the minimum wage for maids in Hong Kong, based on at least 10 hours’ work a day,” said Béatrice. They add $80 a month for food, because Paul does not want Leonora helping herself from the fridge. “That’s the law in Hong Kong,” said Béatrice. “$650 is a good salary. Some expat families pay $860-$1,000 a month. They’re spoiling the market for the rest of us.”

Leonora, 47, is from the northern Philippines province of Luzon, and has a diploma in telegram transcription. She left three of her five children in the village of Calatagan in 1999 to work in Hong Kong to support her family. “Every month I send four-fifths of my salary, minus the Western Union transfer charge [$3.5 per transaction], to pay my three children’s university fees. Education in the Philippines is so expensive we have to make sacrifices.” “Sacrifice” is a word you hear again and again when talking to Filipino maids. “We are usually not free to come and go in our employers’ homes, the food is rarely enough and we have to be completely dedicated to the family. Many of my compatriots live in terrible conditions,” said Leonora. They may be verbally or physically abused, subjected to their employers’ whims, underpaid and exploited. According to the Hong Kong Labour Department, 10% of domestic workers lodge complaints against their employers every year for non-payment of wages, infringement of contract, ill treatment or sexual harassment (25,000 complaints a year). Leonora was badly treated by a Hong Kong family (“They wanted me to give up my day off”) before she walked out after six months, then by a Chinese family she was with for six years, where the grandmother used to beat and insult her. Her current employers are good to her, she said. Many domestic workers don’t dare complain because they only get 14 days to find a new placement, or leave Hong Kong once a contract has terminated.

“It’s in their genes,” said Béatrice, explaining her employee’s devotion. “Filipino women are very good with people. It’s in their culture to be devoted. And they love children. That’s what they enjoy doing, because their lives are not much fun. What keeps Lennie going is her involvement in the parish.

“Filipino maids for export”, Julien Brygo, Le Monde Diplomatique