Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Filipina Workers

Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Filipina Workers

Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Filipina Workers

Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Filipina Workers

Synopsis

As middle-class Chinese women have entered the Hong Kong work force in unprecedented numbers over the past two decades, the demand for foreign domestic workers has soared. Approximately 150,000 individuals now serve on two-year contracts, and the vast majority are women from the Philippines. Nicole Constable tells their story. Interweaving her analysis with anecdotal evidence collected in interviews with individual domestic workers, she shows how power is expressed in the day-to-day lives of Filipina domestic workers. Filipina guest workers flooding into Hong Kong are implicitly compared to Chinese domestic workers and found wanting. Local, cultural, and historical factors influence their treatment, as do preconceptions about gender, ethnicity, and class. Constable explains how domestic workers are controlled and disciplined by employment agencies, by employers themselves, and by state policies such as the rule against working for more than one employer. The forms of discipline range from physical abuse to intrusive regulations including restrictions on hair length and the prohibition of lipstick. Filipina workers resist oppression through legal action and political protests, through their use of household or public space, and through less confrontational means such as jokes and pranks. Some find real satisfaction in their work, Constable says, and she warns against any simplistic characterization of domestic workers as either empowered or oppressed, class-conscious or unaware.

Excerpt

Sundays in Central District are a spectacular sight. There in Hong Kong's most celebrated financial district, amidst awesome high-rise structures, towering hotels, and dwarfed colonial government buildings, crowds of domestic workers, mainly from the Philippines, but also from other regions of South and Southeast Asia, gather to socialize, to attend to personal matters, and to escape the confines of their employers' homes and their mundane weekly routines of domestic work.

On Sundays in Central the noise is louder, the colors brighter, and the crowds more overwhelmingly female than on other days of the week. Filipinaswho gather in Statue Square on Sundays and public holidays have been described as "one of the most colourful and cheerful features of life in Hongkong" (Donnithorne 1992), "the vibrant colours of their plumage . . . as striking to the eye as their incessant chatter is to the ear" (Flage 1987). Foreign domestic workers line the sidewalks and elevated walkways that connect the Central Post Office to the Star Ferry and Blake's Pier, and they gather in groups under the shade of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank -- one of Hong Kong's most famous capitalist monuments -- across the road from the square. On hot and steamy summer days, scores of women cluster under the trees in Chater Garden, along Battery, Path, and in the parking lots and roads leading up toward Saint John's Cathedral, Hong Kong Park, and Government House. Along . . .

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