by Charlotte Brill
‘’My eyes were very painful’’, said an Indonesian migrant worker who was caught in a cloud of tear gas on her day off. This tear gas came from nearby pro-democracy protests, which rapidly intensified since they started in June 2019. Riddled with fear, over 380,000 Foreign Domestic Workers (FDWs), comprised predominantly of Filipino and Indonesian women, have found themselves caught-up in tense, violent and often sporadic politicised demonstrations.
The protests started peacefully in opposition to a proposed extradition bill which was perceived as an encroachment strategy to subsume Hong Kong into the Chinese regime, undermining the Sino-British “One Country, Two Systems” deal which officially ends in 2047. After evading the issue for months, Carrie Lam, the Beijing-approved Chief Executive of Hong Kong, finally withdrew the bill. For Hongkongers, this was too little too late, and the movement continued zealously rendering FDWs’ already vulnerable position fraught with added dangers and precarities to their well-being and employment.
With or without the protests, FDWs’ acute social and economic vulnerability exists; it is not simply a symptom of the socio-political unrest. Government prescribed Standard Employment Contracts fundamentally marginalise FDWs by insidiously bonding them to their employment with little to no protection or respite. It is not uncommon for employers to personally control and discipline their FDWs, including denying their statutory day off and even physically abusing them. Even if they could “escape” their exploitative employment, their employment is often economically essential for both themselves and their families, who may be dependent on remittances.
The rampant protests have certainly negatively impacted FDWs and illuminate the general experience of structural power imbalances and socio-political depravity. Before the protests, FDWs would “take over” and reimagine huge spaces on their day off, creating cultural communities away from home. It was a spectacular sight where notoriously “rich” areas, complete with designer brands and glamourous hotels, would be teeming with women sitting on carboard boxes, eating, laughing and gambling. The intensification of the protests has stripped them of this small luxury, exemplified by Filipina Daisy Martinez who, like many, is ‘’so scared about what is happening’’, that she tends to go home early or does not go out at all.
Some employers take advantage of FDWs’ fear of danger and exploit them further, often to enable their own participation in the demonstrations. They ask their FDW to remain home, seemingly protectively, then force them to work extra hours without compensation. This does not unequivocally evidence a repressive and unequal power dynamic; some employers genuinely care for the safety of their employees and, because ‘’Hong Kong people also suffered’’, some FDWs support the cause. Highlighted by accounts of protesters guiding FDWs to safety, there seems to be a subtle solidarity between the two demographics.
Regardless, FDWs identify the lack of demands for labour and migrant rights as a detrimental strategic flaw. Considering the large population of FDWs in Hong Kong, a combined force could considerably invigorate the anti-government resistance. This exclusion of the migrant voice and experience is indicative of xenophobic and ethnonationalist sentiments commonplace in Hong Kong. Eric Lai, from the Civil Human Rights Front, told VOA that protesters want a democratic society, an accountable government and balanced power between the state and the people. By “people” he does not mean all people in Hong Kong, he specifically means native Hongkongers and other legitimate citizens, a status which FDWs are barred from attaining.
It would be unfair and hyperbolic to denigrate this narrative as chauvinistic as their cause is, after all, just and important. The movement is, however, guilty of silencing FDWs who, aside from being economically essential, are “part of society… [with] valid issues affecting [them] without the protests, that the government would have to address’’, as an Asian Migrants Coordinating Body spokesperson poignantly put it. They are paradoxically both visible and invisible according to Hong Kong’s needs and wants. Visible in that their invaluable labour is regularly exploited and invisible in that their personhood and entitlement to rights and a voice is emaciated.
Interestingly, FDWs are being bribed by pro-Beijing politicians to report their employers’ involvement in demonstrations via flyers, exemplified by ex-Hong Kong leader CY Leung:
Masato Kajimoto called this information pursuit ‘’psychological warfare’’ because it both teases FDWs with potentially ingenuine sums, sometimes considerably more than their monthly legal minimum wage, and evokes fear of surveillance among employers. It is unexpectedly subversive, whereby FDWs, usually under heavy surveillance, are given a new power to turn the tables on their oppressors. Although, this is likely to exacerbate animus between FDWs and employers, further endangering their employment. Ultimately, they have no real choice but to maintain their subservience as there is no current route for FDWs to make their voice heard and respected in this fight for democracy without damaging their prospects.