Tribute to a Woman of Character
Good fortune comes in strange packages. I wrote Beth’s story earlier this week for the October newsletter of the Mission for Migrant Workers here in Hong Kong, trying to squeeze a great deal of detail into a small space, searching for the essence of what she has endured. Beth is a Filipino domestic helper who came to stay with my family and I after her employer’s fiancé abused and fired her. In trying to tell her story I came to realise that she not only had a hell of a heart hidden within a very shy and often withdrawn personality, but that she had given us a friendship to treasure.
Read on . . .
When Beth arrived in Hong Kong the situation seemed promising. Her employer lived with his fiancé in Discovery Bay, a tidy, quiet and often friendly district on Lantau island. But on the first night she had to sleep on the couch because the separate room mentioned in her domestic helper contract was a lie. And when her employer left for Singapore two days later her life descended into misery.
With the employer out of sight, his fiancé proceeded to assault Beth. The slightest mistake in any aspect of housework brought swift retribution, first in foul language and then in beatings on the arm. One day she was hit in the face with a book. Desperately worried about her own safety and how she would support her three-year-old daughter in the Philippines if she fled, Beth fell into confusion, made worse by constant hunger because she was only allowed one meal a day.
Less than a week after arriving, this shy, unassuming woman had a knife thrust at her face, and six days later she was dismissed. She sought help from the Mission for Migrant Workers and found accommodation with friends of the Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge. But she still had a struggle ahead.
The Lantau police dismissed Beth’s claim of assault in a form letter, citing insufficient evidence. Her employment agency resisted cancelling a loan it forced her to take in the Philippines to cover illegal placement fees, but eventually relented. Beth’s former employer ignored the case she presented to the Labour Department for unpaid wages, only appearing when it went to the Minor Employment Contract Adjudication Board. During the hearing he berated Beth for ‘running away’ and pressed her to apologise. He finally paid only part of the claim.
Beth has just filed an application for a change of employment status with the Immigration Department. In a month she should be able take up a contract with new employers – a fundamentally decent family. She has friends in Discovery Bay now, and elsewhere in Hong Kong. But more importantly she has hope.
This woman endured because she had to, and that endurance helped me realise why my children adore her, why she so easily became our friend. Behind everything she did was a calculation of what her child would lose if she didn’t. She might not have gained back everything owed to her, including the liberty of working without abuse, but it was enough for the moment. There would always be a better tomorrow.
The morning I sat down to write Beth’s story she had left an envelope on my desk containing a donation to Bethune House, for the sort of money that people usually give when they have well-paying jobs. When she’s working again she’ll be earning less than a twelfth of what I earn. Sometimes money really does change everything.