HONG KONG (WOMENSENEWS)–She was in the middle of this city’s streets, outside Hong Kong’s Central Station, with no money, no extra clothes and no idea where to go.
All she had was her wallet, her mobile phone and an Oyster card, a pass for Hong Kong’s city train system.
Alexa – not her real name– didn’t have any relatives or real friends in Hong Kong. As she walked around wondering what to do she remembered she had a card in her wallet, given to her by another Filipina domestic helper who said it had a number to call in case of emergency.
She dialed and got through to the Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge. The voice on the other line quickly told her how to get to the shelter, a nondescript bungalow built in the backyard of a church with dormitory rooms that have double deck beds.
She spoke with Women’s eNews in a small common space at the shelter, which is outfitted with clean, basic modern furniture. At the time at least 17 women – Indonesians, Bangladeshi and Alexa– were taking refuge there.
Bethune House Executive Director Edwina Antonio says the shelter, established in 1986, helps about 500 abused female migrants a year. Common cases of abuse, she says, include breach of contract, rape and verbal abuse.
Antonio, who spoke with Women’s eNews at the shelter one afternoon in April, says no one gets turned away. “We provide at least immediate and temporary accommodation even for just one night,” she says. If the shelter is full, Bethune House recommends the guest to another organization in its network the following day.
Many guests need shelter because they have nowhere else to go after employers terminate their positions or they decide to escape.
In addition to accommodation, the shelter provides counseling and legal and mediation services. Life skills trainings — foreign languages, swimming, handicrafts, self-defense and cooking –are also offered, in hopes of helping distressed women become overall more empowered as individuals.
Bethune House, Antonio says, also gives these workers a chance to stay and work things out. “Before, when women were terminated they slept in public parks, abandoned buildings, while others were forced to go back to the Philippines without fighting for rights or pursuing cases against their employers.”
September 2014 Arrival
Alexa, now 31 years old, arrived in Hong Kong in September 2014, leaving the rainy days of Manila, the capital of the Philippines, to join at least 300,000 other Filipina domestic helpers in Hong Kong.
Like many others she had plenty of reasons to want to come. In Hong Kong the minimum monthly wage of about $530 is roughly five times the average monthly salary of a domestic helper in the Philippines. However, while the government requires one rest day per week, it does not have maximum working hours for domestic helpers. Some helpers, according to Amnesty International, work for an average of 17 hours a day.
The job market for domestic workers expanded in the former Crown Colony in the late 1970s when a booming economy drew more women into the paid workforce. “Women started going out of their homes to work so they needed helpers to watch over their children, their elders or to clean their homes,” Antonio says.
In 1981, she says, Hong Kong opened the market to foreign domestic workers and stories of workers being terminated and abused in other ways started to emerge. In response, local churches founded the Mission for Migrant Workers, an ecumenical charity backed by the Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran, Old Catholic and Roman Catholic Churches. Set up with a focus on helping Filipina domestics in Hong Kong it now also helps workers from Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan and India.
The Mission also decided to build a shelter–the Bethune House–for abused helpers. “It took the mission five years because it needed space and funding,” Antonio says.
The most recent high profile case of domestic helper abuse in the city is that of 24-year-old Erwiana Sulistyaningsih. One of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2014, Sulistyaningsih arrived in Hong Kong in 2013 from Indonesia and endured eight months of torture at the hands of her Chinese employer, a mother of two children. While forced to work 21 hours a day, she never received a paycheck.
Bethune’s Antonio says abuse could be curtailed if domestic helpers were not forced to live with their employers. Instead, they can be given common shelters, which they can share among themselves, she says.
Yearning to Earn More
Before she moved to Hong Kong Alexa longed to earn three-to-five times more than she would as a helper in Manila.
Home is a makeshift detached house constructed out of a hodgepodge of scrap materials in the province of Bicol, a 12 hour drive from Manila. Her dream was to get her family out of poverty. She has four siblings; her youngest brother is an epileptic and her mother is a widower.
With the help of a recruitment agency, she found a job with a Chinese couple, a businesswoman and her husband. Her responsibilities included taking care of the couple’s two sons, 10 and 14 years old.
Alexa says her female employer turned her dreams into a nightmare. “She would shout at me often even if I did as instructed.” While payment was not a problem, she was also forced to work long hours and did not always get a rest day during the week.
One evening, Alexa ate the family’s leftover fish for dinner. “There was barely anything left. Just fish bones. But she fumed at me. She said I should not eat just anything on the table unless I am permitted to.”
Another time when she did not understand her employer’s instructions for a kitchen task Alexa says the woman hit her with a bunch of vegetables that were lying on the counter.
The woman’s husband was kind to Alexa, often apologizing for his wife’s temper. This, Alexa suspects, might be part of the problem. “Some of the neighbors’ helpers say that maybe she’s jealous of me because [otherwise] I really don’t know why she’s always fuming at me even if I do what she tells me to.”
Starting to Feel Unsafe
One day, the woman threatened Alexa. “I want to kill you but I will not. I have friends who can do it for me,” she quotes her former employer as saying.
Alexa started to feel unsafe and sought permission to leave and asked for her remaining salary, but her employer refused to give this to her.
One day, in April, her employer told her to go with her to the market. Instead, they wound up at Hong Kong’s Labor office where her employer accused Alexa of breach-of-contract.
Unable to reach a compromise at the Labor office, Alexa’s employer kicked her out. She told her not to go back home with her and that her job was over.
As of early May, Alexa had been at the Bethune House for three weeks, waiting for the government to decide the case she has filed against her employer to claim her salary.
Despite all this, Alexa says going home is not an option because there are no gainful opportunities in the Philippines. “I can’t afford to go home. I am still supporting my family.”
She also holds out hope that other Hong Kong employers will treat her well. So for now she stays at the shelter, taking advantage of the chance to pull her life back together and prepare for whatever comes next.
If the Bethune House hadn’t opened its doors, Alexa says she would have slept on the pavement or in the park. “I am just so thankful to them because I really had no place to go.”
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