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."