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."

Life and Style
A teenager boy wakes up.
life
Life and Style
Researchers have said it could take only two questions to identify a problem with alcohol
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Critics say Kipling showed loathing for India's primitive villagers in The Jungle Book
filmChristopher Walken, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johanssen Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale
Life and Style
Playing to win: for Tanith Carey, pictured with Lily, right, and Clio, even simple games had to have an educational purpose
lifeTanith Carey explains what made her take her foot off the gas
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Duncan Campbell's hour-long film 'It for Others'
Turner Prize 2014
Life and Style
food + drink
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hadley in a scene from ‘Soul Boys Of The Western World’
musicSpandau Ballet are back together - on stage and screen
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'
tvCilla review: A poignant ending to mini-series
News
i100
Life and Style
Bearing up: Sebastian Flyte with his teddy Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited
lifePhilippa Perry explains why a third of students take a bear to uni
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Alan Sugar appearing in a shot from Apprentice which was used in a Cassette Boy mashup
artsA judge will rule if pieces are funny enough to be classed as parodies
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

LSA (afterschool club) vacancy in Newport

£40 per day + Travel Scheme : Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job: Our client ...

Trust Accountant - Kent

NEGOTIABLE: Austen Lloyd: TRUST ACCOUNTANT - KENTIf you are a Chartered Accou...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: randstad education are curre...

Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: You must:- Speak English as a first lang...

Day In a Page

Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style