Hong Kong has a conflicted relationship with the foreign domestic workers who have become indispensable to the city’s functioning -- and who are now the subject of Filipina photographer Xyza Cruz Bacani’s latest series. More than 330,000 foreign domestic helpers, hailing from the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, live in the semi-autonomous territory of nearly 7.5 million people, as of December 2014. They have a minimum wage -- but are only allowed to work on contracts that bar them from gaining full residency, no matter how long they stay. They cannot apply for visas for their spouses or children, since the conditions of employment do not allow them to have "dependents." Should a family member also obtain a Hong Kong work visa, they cannot live as a family, since by law, a foreign domestic helper must reside with her employer. And even if the rules require that the helpers have “suitable living accommodation with reasonable privacy,” in many cases the dismal size and condition of their actual quarters do not even cause a scandal anymore. Some sleep on mattresses on the floors of kitchen corridors, others in cupboards, some in the bathroom or with the children, others yet under makeshift canopies on tiny balconies.
Occasionally, though, a major jolt shakes the whole of Hong Kong out of its distracted stupor over the domestic help issue. It happened with the case of 24-year-old Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, whose employer, Law Wan-tung, was jailed for six years after beating her unconscious, punching her so hard that her teeth were fractured, depriving her of food, twisting metal tubes from the vacuum cleaner in her mouth, and other violent criminal acts. Law’s lawyer, Graham Harris SC, offered this defense of his client: her acts were not “one of the very worst of its kind [sic].” He recalled the case of Chan Mei-ying, a 51-year-old woman who was jailed for four months for scorching her helper’s hands with a hot iron, after she messed up a blouse. Doubtless on Law's mind was the case of Tai Chi-wai and his wife Au Yuk-shan, who are serving a lengthier jail term for attacking their domestic helper with bicycle chains, hot irons, paper cutters, shoes, and hangers.
Even so, women from Southeast Asia still stream into Hong Kong to work to earn enough money to send their children back home to school while they take care of someone else’s children. They do so to keep a roof above the heads of their parents and to look forward to a better future, built by their own hard-working hands. Bacani captures all of this -- the hard work, the joy, the resilience, the abuse -- and in so doing, she demands that we face a reality from which Hong Kong usually averts its eyes.
–Ilaria Maria Sala
Above: The Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge is a temporary shelter that serves distressed foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong. It first opened its doors in 1986 and was established under the Mission for Migrant Workers, an outreach program of St. John’s Cathedral. According to the director of Bethune House, Edwina Antonio, since it commenced operation the shelter has served more than 20,000 migrant woman and their children.
Xyza Cruz Bacani via ChinaFile.