July 3, 2014 12:00 am JST

Household workers follow an often hard, lonely path in Hong Kong

KENJI KAWASE, Nikkei deputy editor

HONG KONG -- On weekdays, the Central business district is aswarm with smartly dressed business professionals. On Sundays, however, the many offices and banks in this corner of Hong Kong close, and the sea of suits gives way to a different crowd -- Filipino household helpers. They gather in parks and other public spaces here to meet with friends and family, exchange information and just hang out. Central is their real-world social-networking site.

     There are about 320,000 foreign household helpers in Hong Kong, and roughly half of them are from the Philippines.

     Nancy, 37, is one of the household workers who spends her Sundays in Central. It is the only day of the week she is able to meet her husband, who shares her profession but works with a different family in another part of the city. In Hong Kong, foreign household helpers are required by law to live with the families they work for. So even married couples like Nancy and her husband cannot share a home.

     Like most of her colleagues, Nancy sends much of her salary home. In her case, it is to help pay for her daughter's college education. Her monthly salary is 5,000 Hong Kong dollars ($645), 80% of which is wired to the Philippines. She works 12-16 hours a day, six days a week. She cannot afford to spend much on herself.

     Nancy was a junior high school teacher in the Cagayan Valley of the northern Philippines. "You can't support a family on a teacher's salary. I had to look for a greener pasture." Her decision to come to Hong Kong in 2005 as a household helper was made out of necessity. She intends to stay for another 10 years because the job situation at home is "not getting better at all."

     Eman Villanueva, 41, is a 23-year veteran of the industry and a Central regular on Sundays. An active member of the Filipino community, he dedicates his time to promoting workers' rights, liaising with other migrant-labor groups and hosting small lectures in an alley next to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. He is trying to raise awareness among his colleagues about their rights and current affairs.

Sense of injustice

He said he feels strongly that they are not treated fairly in Hong Kong. They are excluded, for example, from an arrangement in which foreigners are entitled to apply for the right of abode after residing there for seven consecutive years. Of the dozens of issues Villanueva has taken up in his push for better treatment, he is currently putting extra effort into fighting illegal collection of agency fees and improving the severe working conditions of household helpers.

     Wilma, a 48-year-old household helper from Manila, shares Villanueva's sense of injustice. "There is no protection from our government," she said. Having spent 29 years in Hong Kong after dropping out of college due to financial difficulties, she has experienced more than her share of trouble, including physical threats, at the homes where she has worked. Volunteer groups have helped her in times of need.

     Villanueva is an activist, but like most of his compatriots, he also sends a big chunk of his income home. Each month, half of his pay of HK$4,010 goes to his mother, who lives in the northern province of Laguna. He married another Filipino household helper, Lalay, in mid-June, but they cannot live together because they work for different families. Although the conditions are far from ideal, Villanueva feels he has no choice but to stay and endure. "If we had decent jobs in the Philippines, we wouldn't be working here."

     He is skeptical about personally benefiting from the high economic growth back home. "If it (high growth) is really happening, more and more people should be going home, but I don't see any reverse migration."

    It is all about enduring for Nancy, as well. "Foreigners leave their country for vacations, but overseas Filipinos like us go back to our homes for a vacation," she said. "It really is a very big emotional burden for us."

     Perhaps the hardest part for her is being away from her family. "You miss everything in your child's life when you can't see them grow up." The unfortunate reality is that the very people who are helping drive the Philippine economic miracle -- people like Nancy and Villanueva -- are not able to taste the fruits of their labors. Yet faced with few options, they continue to work and dream of a brighter future.