Chinese threat to silence the sparrows

Hong Kong handover: Foreign maids fear their livelihoods will be taken away, writes Jojo Moyes in Hong Kong

It is one of Hong Kong's more bizarre sights: the weekly congregation of tens of thousands of Filipina maids in the heart of the colony's Central District. Chattering and singing, sitting on plastic bags as they share food, braid hair or exchange magazines, the women have been nicknamed "the sparrows of Statue square" because of the noise they make.

To the locals, the maids, or amahs, are a nuisance, forcing the weekly closure of main thoroughfares and leaving the centre of town coated in litter. Efforts to move them elsewhere have proven fruitless, and there is a prevailing belief that wherever a small group congregates, more will follow.

This is one of Hong Kong's longest-running domestic problems. Most of the women have one day off a week - a day their employers do not want them to spend around the house. They cannot afford to spend money, so they meet outside. For many, the weekly meeting is their only reminder of a homeland they see once a year at most.

"This is what keeps me going," said Edith, who has lived in the colony for four years, looking after a Chinese family of four. "I have to work from 6.30 in the morning until my employers go to sleep. I have only one day and I need to see my friends to be happy."

Edith left a two-year-old daughter with her mother to come to Hong Kong. She sends home the equivalent of pounds 150 a month from her monthly wage of pounds 400, so they might eventually set up a restaurant. Until recently she "freelanced" on her day off for a British expatriate family who paid her pounds 50 for a day's cleaning, but she said she got "too tired and too lonely".

Edith's living conditions are very different from those of her employers. She sleeps on a foldaway bed in a laundry room (One of her friends, she says, sleeps on a mattress in a bath) and lives on a mixture of packet noodles, cabbage and meat that she buys from the market and cooks herself. If her employers have a dinner party she is allowed to eat what is left.

These employers (she will not name them) are much kinder than her first ones, she says. They locked her in when they went to work, for fear that she would go out and leave their baby alone at home. "I could have died in a fire!" she says.

In Hong Kong, nearly all expatriates have their own amah horror stories. But now, living conditions are not the amahs' main concern. More worrying for them is what will happen once Hong Kong reverts to Chinese rule. Many believe that they will be forced to leave and be replaced by women from mainland China.

This is a daunting prospect, not only for the women but for economy of The Philippines. There are an estimated 140,000 Filipina domestic helpers in the colony, out of a population of 6.2 million. Most of the women, many of whom were graduates and professionals in their own country, are supporting families. The money that domestic helpers send home accounts for a large proportion of the Philippines' gross domestic product. Such is the importance of the part they play in the economy that President Fidel Ramos has personally thanked the women, through the medium of the many magazines which cater for those who work abroad.

Statements by Hong Kong's chief executive-designate, Tung Chee-hwa, and by China's President, Jiang Zemin, that the women will still be welcome, have failed to reassure them.

Many Filipino labour organisations in the colony believe that even if the incoming government supports the status quo, many Chinese families will switch to employing Chinese-speaking maids. And while many expatriate families prefer English-speaking Filipinas, the number of Western expatriates coming in on lucrative packages is dwindling.

Many like Edith fear that they will be forced to return to poverty in the Philippines, or seek employment in other countries, such as the Middle East. But a catalogue of reported human rights abuses, including the case of a 15-year-old maid, Sarah Balabagan, who was convicted of murder after she stabbed an employer she claimed was trying to rape her, has left many of the women uneasy about the prospect.

Some women have already made their own contingency plans. Released from their contract of employment (Filipinas need to be "sponsored" by an employer to remain in the colony) they have become an invisible domestic army, sleeping in each others` quarters and undercutting their legitimately employed sisters through advertisements placed in supermarkets.

"I don't want to go to another place. In Hong Kong I work hard but my family knows I am safe," says Edith, whose employers, she says, are happy for her to remain.

She glances at her friends, who are sitting on the pavement, playing cards underneath the window of the exclusive Mandarin Oriental hotel. "Here, if I get homesick, at least I have many friends."

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to US
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidates on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday

Actress sees off speculation about her face in an amazing way

News

Florida mother launched a petition to ban the sale of the dolls

Arts and Entertainment
film

Marvel has released first teaser trailer week early after it leaked online

Extras
indybest
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
News
i100
Voices
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voicesVicky Chandler: Zoella shows us that feminism can come in all forms
Life and Style
health
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Front end web developer - URGENT CONTRACT

£250 - £300 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: **URGENT CONTRACT** Our...

Health & Social CareTeacher - Full time and Part time

£90 - £140 per day + Mileage and Expenses: Randstad Education Leeds: Sixth for...

History Teacher

£95 - £105 per day: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Plymouth i...

SQL Developer - Cardiff - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits and bonus: Ashdown Group: SQL Developer -...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?