Were Hong Kong’s Maids The Real Targets of This Racist Soccer Incident?

Last June, a soccer match between Hong Kong and the Philippines turned ugly when some Hong Kong fans, incensed at having lost the game, threw water bottles at Filipino spectators and called them "slaves." At the time, witnesses said that the targets of the abuse were primarily women and children. The Hong Kong Football Association ...

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Last June, a soccer match between Hong Kong and the Philippines turned ugly when some Hong Kong fans, incensed at having lost the game, threw water bottles at Filipino spectators and called them "slaves." At the time, witnesses said that the targets of the abuse were primarily women and children. The Hong Kong Football Association downplayed the incident, saying that their fans were provoked into an altercation. On Friday, FIFA ruled otherwise, fining the association about $33,000 for not keeping their fans in check.

Regardless of whether the Hong Kong fans were provoked, the incident has fairly sinister undertones, given that Filipinos comprise a significant marginalized underclass in Hong Kong. About 300,000 Filipino and Indonesian women work as maids in the city, commonly regarded as indispensable to Hong Kong households. Yet these domestic workers lack many basic labor rights and are subject to laws that make them vulnerable to abuse and mistreatment.

Maids must live with their employers, for instance, which breeds all manner of ills. (In 2012, a famous Cantonese singer shamelessly bragged about the fact that her maid slept in a trundle bed above her toilet.) They are only entitled to one day off per week. Their minimum wage is about $500 per month in one of the most expensive cities in the world. And unlike other foreign workers, they can't apply for permanent residency. Because their immigration status is directly tied to their employment status, they have little recourse if they are mistreated by an employer. Maids who do report abusive employers aren't allowed to work again until their case is resolved, and as a result, many are forced to return home.  

Last June, a soccer match between Hong Kong and the Philippines turned ugly when some Hong Kong fans, incensed at having lost the game, threw water bottles at Filipino spectators and called them "slaves." At the time, witnesses said that the targets of the abuse were primarily women and children. The Hong Kong Football Association downplayed the incident, saying that their fans were provoked into an altercation. On Friday, FIFA ruled otherwise, fining the association about $33,000 for not keeping their fans in check.

Regardless of whether the Hong Kong fans were provoked, the incident has fairly sinister undertones, given that Filipinos comprise a significant marginalized underclass in Hong Kong. About 300,000 Filipino and Indonesian women work as maids in the city, commonly regarded as indispensable to Hong Kong households. Yet these domestic workers lack many basic labor rights and are subject to laws that make them vulnerable to abuse and mistreatment.

Maids must live with their employers, for instance, which breeds all manner of ills. (In 2012, a famous Cantonese singer shamelessly bragged about the fact that her maid slept in a trundle bed above her toilet.) They are only entitled to one day off per week. Their minimum wage is about $500 per month in one of the most expensive cities in the world. And unlike other foreign workers, they can’t apply for permanent residency. Because their immigration status is directly tied to their employment status, they have little recourse if they are mistreated by an employer. Maids who do report abusive employers aren’t allowed to work again until their case is resolved, and as a result, many are forced to return home.  

Incidents of abuse are plenty. Most recently, in September, a couple was arrested for torturing their Indonesian maid until she couldn’t work anymore. It’s one in a long line of cases. On Thursday, Hong Kong domestic workers took to the streets to protest such cases of abuse, and argue for greater labor protections. But it’s an uphill battle — and one not aided by Hong Kong’s soccer fans decrying Filipinos as something less than human.

Catherine A. Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy.

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