In Hong Kong, finding yourself lost in an impenetrable, moving mass of people is hardly rare. That’s why, in search of a subway stop on a recent Sunday, I failed to notice that I’d joined a protest march. It wasn’t until the woman next to me offered a sweet bean cake and a petition to sign that I realized that I was surrounded by Filipina women. Some 6,000 angry Filipinas, I was later to learn.
I’d only moved to Hong Kong a couple of weeks before, but already I recognized my fellow marchers. Six days a week, these migrant workers are the city’s “domestic helpers” — amahs in Cantonese — earning about $450 a month as maids, nannies and cooks in nearly 200,000 Hong Kong households. On Sundays, thousands of Filipinas take over the commercial hub, the Central district. They swarm sidewalks and elevated walkways to spend their sole day off picnicking, playing cards, singing and swapping gossip. If you linger long enough, as I did my first week, you’re sure to be offered tea and snacks.
For a couple of past Sundays, however, the amahs have also marched. They’re protesting new legislation in the Philippines that requires maids who work overseas to undergo two weeks of official training and tests. The $300 associated cost comes out of the amah’s pocket, which is what has Hong Kong’s Filipinas up in arms. They’re quick to note that they already pay the government placement fees while, at the same time, Hong Kong officials cut their minimum wage by $50 a month two years ago. “How will we afford this on our small salaries?” asks Dolores Balladares, the march’s organizer. “Our government just wants to make our lives more burdened and more miserable.”