A cardboard city of maids

Sundays are the day of rest for Hong Kong’s live-in domestic workers. They gather in some of the most unlikely public spaces, taking over streets in central Hong Kong, blocking the facades of luxury stores, and crowding the flanks of metro station exits.

They chat, gossip, nap, play cards, do karaoke, dance, eat and drink. They’re sometimes called the cardboard city because they bring flattened boxes to sit on or to divide their area from their neighbours. It’s quite a sight.

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The locations seem strange but in Hong Kong’s concrete jungle there aren’t a lot of places where you can hang out if you can’t afford an afternoon of cocktails or iced coffee.

The maids here don’t earn much. The minimum is about $500NZD/month in cash, plus room and board. That’s not a lot in a city that’s probably more expensive than New Zealand, especially when you consider that the whole point of their employment is to send funds back home.

There’s about 300,000 foreign domestic helpers living and working in Hong Kong – about a Wellington worth – and ethnically they’re split pretty evenly between Filipinas and Indonesians. The two groups make their own cardboard cities on Sundays.

Working in Hong Kong is a significant economic opportunity for women in the Philippines and Indonesia when they might otherwise be starved for employment. The money they earn goes a long way for their families at home. But the maid rooms built into modern Hong Kong apartments are matchbox sized, the pay is low, and the dislocation from family must take a huge toll on these women. They seldom have enough cash to head home, so you can understand them whiling away a Sunday with their country folk until their evening curfew.

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We heard about one ex-pat lawyer who was pleased with the opportunity that having a domestic worker provided her to work long hours and spend the other ones with her kids, rather than cooking and cleaning. This is an interesting solution to work life balance and, okay, on one level it makes sense. But it sure comes at a cost to her maid, who either hardly ever sees her kids, or doesn’t get the opportunity to have any.

Then there’s the government which, fearful it was hard to justify foreign domestic workers when Hong Kong’s unemployment rate spiked under the GFC, put a levy on maid’s employers and used it to fund the retraining of out of work Hong Kongers. They were trying to engineer an ongoing gap between the value of a local’s work, and that of a guest worker. It’s not likely that foreign maids will be able to pull themselves up very far by their bootstraps.

And so on they go, gathered in huge crowds on Sundays, enjoying the little freedom that they have each week, with just a little cardboard between them and the concrete.

2 thoughts on “A cardboard city of maids

  1. Heard some really interesting stories about how university-educated Filipinos can earn more as a domestic worker in HK than as a professional in the Philippines.

    Also interesting: Extreme gender skew (>95% women?) + social isolation –> disproportionately large number of lesbian relationships among Catholic domestic workers –> Gay pride stalls next to the Catholic anti-abortion stalls at events.

    1. Interesting. I heard the same thing about sexuality with reference to the Indonesian workers. I wonder if the Filipinas only identify as gay on Sundays.

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