Public Holidays Hong Kong

The other Occupy Central

Not much of a day off

A COMMUNAL sit-in of sorts blocks the streets of Central, the main financial district of Hong Kong. The assembled crowd is peaceful. Some play cards or paw at their smartphones. Others lie under umbrellas, catching up on sleep. While the world in recent weeks has come to know the alliance of electoral-reform advocates who call themselves Occupy Central, this is something different. And it has been going on for years.

These participants are foreign domestic helpers, called “amahs” locally. There are about 320, 000 of them in Hong Kong, almost exclusively female and mainly from the Philippines and Indonesia. Many spend their single day off each week sitting on flattened-out cardboard boxes, acquired from trolley carts pulled around by local entrepreneurs. Some build elaborate temporary houses with room partitions and outer walls. Anywhere else in the world this cardboard city would raise eyebrows, but not in Hong Kong.

For a few weeks, small fortune has favoured the weekend influx of such house maids who take up the pavements, overpasses and public squares of Central on a typical Hong Kong Sunday. The pro-democracy students have largely spared the main business district; their protests have mainly affected the nearby government district of Admiralty, the shopping district of Causeway Bay to the east, and the Mong Kok area of Kowloon on the opposite side of the harbour.

Foreign domestic-helpers represent about 8% of the workforce in Hong Kong. But their unequal treatment is enshrined in law, which denies them the higher statutory minimum wage (SMW) mandated for local residents. In October, just after the Occupy protests began, Hong Kong's labour department announced that the minimum allowable wage (MAW) for foreign maids signing new contracts would be increased by HK$100 (US$13) to $4, 110 per month. Employers’ representatives reacted angrily at the perceived largesse; the equivalent figure in Singapore is HK$3, 000. But the maids had been hoping for much more. The MAW was HK$3, 860 in 1998, and has moved up and down since.

The current rate of HK$30 per hour is being reviewed. Some are calling for an increase to HK$36 for 2015. But even at today’s rate, any Hong Kong resident doing a maid’s shift—8 hours a day, 6 days a week, 294 days a year (they get 7 days’ annual leave and 12 statutory holidays), would earn a minimum of HK$70, 560 annually. A foreign maid could be paid as little as HK$49, 320.

This difference is partially offset by the provision of food and accommodation to the foreign workers; free shelter counts for a lot in Hong Kong where property is notoriously expensive and cramped. But few envy these perks. Dinner-party stories do the rounds about maids sleeping in cupboards and above bathtubs. Some maids have their own tiny rooms, but in larger households helpers sleep together in bunk beds.

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