The Dark Side of Migrant Labour in Hong Kong
Evening falls on Kowloon like a mood, gently at first and then with a sting that drains the day. Nathan Road swallows traffic by the mile and spits back noise and fumes as pedestrians push up against each other on the bulging sidewalk. Neon signs hang from buildings like over-ripened fruit, hawking seafood and spirits, Chinese medicine and the melancholy of girlie bars where light never dares to go.
This part of Hong Kong the British barely even owned; they just left their little marks as time moved them on. Step around the corner onto Jordan Road and the crowd drifts away. Look beyond the high-rise shadows and there – look now, or you might just miss it – is one of those reminders that past days are gone. An old house, a church, perhaps a school, the shape suggests authority once remembered. The Romans offered the miracle of concrete to the Mediterranean world; the British multiplied it rudely in the sweated tropics.
The house has a name now – Bethune – and it stands as a monument to social change in the empire’s dying days, when Hong Kong’s wealth, or the fear of loosing it, swelled the ranks of foreign amahs as the local middle classes sent their wives to work for ten, twelve, maybe fourteen hours a day. In the intimacy of private homes commercial contracts tear and fray, and as amahs became maids and then domestic helpers – as Filipinos were joined by Indonesians and many more besides – the unreasoned contrast between employee expectations and employer arrogance spilled out onto the streets.
Bethune House is a migrant women’s shelter, a refuge for domestic helpers who have been unduly dismissed by their employers. Some have been abused – physically, mentally, sexually – and others exploited, underpaid, overworked, stripped of rights. All remain in Hong Kong because they’re pursuing justice through the semi-formal Labour Tribunal or the daunting courts, if their cases ever go to trial. Their employers have new maids now, new victims, but these women are forbidden to work again until they’ve finished with their recourse to the law. If they leave Hong Kong their chance of restitution evaporates.
Walk with me now into the building, retrace the steps I took last night with my wife, daughter and friends. Trudge up the long flight of stairs to the second floor. Pass the suitcases jammed in where handrails should be, the women standing, waiting, expectant. Impermanence leaks into everything, but one woman has been here two years now with no real end in sight. The scene is much like the overcrowded transit lounge of a rundown bus interchange, but the Greyhound might never come.
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