torsdag 1. desember 2011

Maids in Hong Kong: Homeless every Sunday

The space under the HSBC building is popular.

Every Sunday, year-round, Chater Road in the center of Hong Kong Island is closed to traffic. The space under the HSBC building is cleared and the escalators are stopped. Instead the space is dominated by maids. Every place near the metro station Central where there is a few square metres of available floorspace, a maid will have rolled out her carpet and put up camp.

About 300.000 foreign housekeepers are working in Hong Kong. Most of them are so called «resident maids» – living in their employer's house. Sundays are their day off. That means they are not allowed to stay at home. They are thrown out. Therefore they spend the day outside – in every weather and season.

– In the summer it can get horribly hot. There is no aircondition here. And winter days can get cold.
Lalit C. smiles. She has made herself quite comfortable under the HSBC building, with a pillow under her head and a thick blanket to sit on. She has been a foreign worker in Hong Kong for two years. Almost all her Sundays have been spent here. She is not allowed to return home until 8 PM.
Her friend Lorna has to stay out even longer. Her boss demands their appartement for himself for 13 hours, from 09 AM to 10 PM, even when it's raining like this Sunday. But that don't make them complain.
– This is better than our working days. This is our home every Sunday. You can call it a kind of picnic, Lalit says.

From the outside the maid's quarter seems quiet, a pocket that the buzzing sounds of the city can't reach. As soon as you step inside though, you discover that the place is not quiet. On the contrary.
The air is full of sounds, of voices, laughter, singing, dices being thrown, knitting needles, and music blasting out of radios.
The maid's Sunday is not just a picnic. The weekly day off is also a day to go shopping, to meet friends and relatives, play games and do your hobbies. On sunny days there is group dancing in the middle of Chater Road. Other women do crosswords, play Scrabble, bingo, cards, or flock around portable TVs.
Christina July, Lenta and Devina start their day singing in the church Life in Christ Fellowship. Afterwards they go to Chater Road to practice new songs for next weekend. The lyrics are handwritten in a sketchbook.
– Come rain or sunshine, we are here, Christina July says.

On rainy days you can find maids on most places with a roof.

Not all employers throw out their maid on her day off. They don't have to. Most of them will go out voluntarily. The more than 100.000 Filipinos go to Central, and the almost as many Indonesians go to Causeway Bay further east.
A glance into an apartment inside the new luxury skyscraper in 31 Robinson Road explains a lot about why. Even though the flat is priced at almost 2,2 milliond USD, the maid's room» is a sad sight. It's situated behind a sliding door on the kitchen: a closet of 1,80 x 1,20 meters and a tiny bathroom. That is not a place to relax.
The rules from Hong Kong Labor Department define a minimum standard for the income of those who will emply a maid, and the department has set a minimum wage for the maids of 3.740 Hong Kong Dollar (481 USD) a month.
The emplyer must also arrange and cover accommodation. But the rules do not specify what kind of accommodation it must be.

A few years ago a survey (sorry, I've lost the URL) showed that many maids lived in rooms reminding of storage sheds. Many host families refused them any privacy. One maid told that she was not allowed to read on her room. If she kept the lights on for more than 15 minutes, the wife in the house would enter the closet and turn it off.
The situation is not much better now. For Lalit C. «home» is a bunk bed in the same room as the grandmother of the house, who «snore both here and there», according to a giggling Lalit.

Most maids from The Philippines are relatively young when they come to Hong Kong. Many of them have husband and children back home. Still they choose to stay for years - it's been estimated that 120.000 foreign maids have been in Hong Kong for at least seven years - for the simple reason that the work allows them to send money home.
Marlene is a little luckier. She's not separated from her husband by a several hours long flight. She and Nael even share the same employer: she is maid in their house, he is caretaker in their summer house. Her boss even lets her stay at home on Sundays. Still, she goes to HSBC.
– As soon as I get home I will think about work. Here I can relax, she explains. This Sunday Nael is also off duty. That means they can see each other twice this week. Normally they only see each other on Thursdays.
Marlene and Nael have lived almost five years in Hong Kong. Their children of 12 and 13 remain in The Philippines.
– We talk to them on the phone, Marlene says. – It's hard. But we must make the sacrifice. Here we earn lots of money that we can send to the kids.