Chatting and snacking with leaders of FDWs

Open Door and MFMW tour of Central provides in-depth experience of migrant community

Since the 1980s, countless hundreds and even thousands of Filipina domestic workers have gathered every Sunday to picnic in the parks, sidewalks and streets of Central, Hong Kong – a modern phenomenon perhaps not seen in any other city in the world.

They sprawl across cardboard mats purchased at dawn for five dollars; have their nails painted in the underpass beneath Connaught Road; nap in the shadows of the HSBC headquarters building; sing and dance in the middle of the road.

At 3pm on Sunday 7 June, a tour organised by Open Door, the KUC Peacemaking Programme and Mission for Migrant Workers (MFMW) departed from St. John’s Cathedral and made its way into these ubiquitous crowds. Most of the roughly 30 participants in the tour were from the Hiu Lai Church in Kowloon.

As part of the briefing before setting out to begin the walk, Doris Lee from Open Door explained that her organisation was formed by several employers of domestic workers, who wish to show their unity with them on issues which affect them both. One big problem for domestic workers is their negative portrayal in Chinese media, and she hopes the tour can help local citizens learn the reality of domestic workers’ lives, as well as learn to appreciate a different culture.

Norman Carnay, the grey-haired but ruddy-faced leader of the tour whose voice boomed out across the din, has been in Hong Kong since 1996, when he was elected to the Asian Students Association. He began started volunteering with MFMW soon after, and is now a programme officer and time-tested spokesperson in the activist community.

Carnay spoke about why MFMW organises or co-organises tours like this one:

“The idea,” he said, “is to develop more understanding, to develop harmony and solidarity between local people and migrants, and discovery their dignity, their humanity in this very very sensitive and controversial thing that is migration, that is domestic workers, that is modern-day slavery.”

On a first wade through Central, the masses of Filipinas appear to have strewn themselves out across the streets fairly randomly. In fact, there is a significant level of organisation. Most workers return to the same spot every week, within a larger group made up of people from their home districts in the Philippines. And if two people or a small group of people want to meet in a different place, they will sometimes use special pet names names for landmarks. The HSBC headquarters, for example, is known as “the Hong Kong bank”. And the statue of Sir Thomas Jackson, an ethnically Caucasian former banker in Hong Kong, in Statue Square has become – in a sign that the workers may have a truly divergent vision for the important downtown area – “the black man”.

“He’s actually not black, of course,” Carnay smiled, apparently in no hurry to press his case.

The workers also organise according to social, religious, political and sports groups. The main groups are social, followed by church-based ones.

In recent years, restrictions on the use of space in Central have forced workers to move away from their old meeting places. After Occupy Central, authorities filled the area underneath the open-air ground floor of the HSBC headquarters with stanchion posts and other miscellaneous supplies, out of paranoia that it would be re-occupied by locals if mass protests were to occur again. Now the workers who used to settle in there have been forced to stay just inside the building and around the base on the outside. And on a key stretch of Chater Road, where events are often held, it has been difficult recently for local groups to reserve space for activities because businesses have begun monopolising the same space as a venue for marketing their products and brand names.

Feliza Benites of the Filipino Migrant Workers’, co-leading the group, said: “Nowadays it’s very difficult to get a permit” for your organisation on Chater Road.

“When you want to set up, they say, ‘Oh, it’s too early.’ And then in the afternoon they say, ‘Oh, it’s too late’.”

The next big event on Chater Road sponsored by community groups will be on 21 June, when MFMW will host “Give Care to Caregivers”. In a whimsical turn on the employer-helper relationship, local residents will offer their services to the domestic workers. A  Chinese doctor will offer free acupuncture; medical students will give free check-ups; a chiropractor will work on your spine; and Disney workers will give free performances.

Near the end of the tour, participants sat in a circle on the pavement by Central MTR exit E to meet with domestic workers who also volunteer as leaders of their respective organisations.

Joy Gabotero, from the Association of Concerned Filipinas in Hong Kong, talked about the court battle she fought with her employment agency after consulting with MFMW on the illegal agency fee of 120,000 pesos she had been forced to take out in loans to pay after arriving in Hong Kong. The Philippines enacted a law in December 2006 outlawing employment agency fees.

“Luckily I won my case,” she said, suggesting that had only been because of her involvement with an official group. For tens of thousands of others who are less informed or proactive, rampant and illegal fees remain a crippling barrier to a normal life.

That dark allusion – as well as more substantial comments made by other volunteers – towards the end of the tour about the great human rights abuses occurring every day in the migrant worker community, far from being out of place, were a reminder that outreach is as important as ever. And as early afternoon stretched into early evening and the numbers of workers drinking, laughing, eating, and merrymaking seemed barely to have diminished, it was plain that there is still much outreach to be done, and much more to learn.

Scott Carpenter

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