There are more than 330,000 of them in Hong Kong. Foreign domestic helpers have been living with us for decades, taking care of everything from our kids to our laundry.
Yet many of us take them for granted. We cannot quite put ourselves in their shoes or understand their loneliness and anxieties, the feeling of working in a foreign land, far away from their home and family.
Living in the city for over six and a half years, Sydney-born artist Katie Vajda was deeply struck by the case of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, the Indonesian maid who suffered months of physical and mental abuse in the hands of her Hong Kong employer.
Vajda has been using photography to highlight the neglect, abuse and obscurity of Hong Kong’s domestic workers.
Through her art, she wants to help in promoting the rights and welfare of foreign maids in the city.
“I hope that people of this city can show greater empathy and care towards the minorities,” says Vajda, the winner of the 2014 Hong Kong Human Rights Arts Prize by Justice Centre Hong Kong.
Problems faced by Hong Kong foreign helpers emerged as the photography major’s area of interest in her university assignment.
To Vajda, the conditions of Indonesian maids are the most fragile of all. It is the common practice of recruitment agencies to impose excessive charges on them; the fees can be as high as the equivalent of the maid’s wages for the first 10 months of employment.
Maids do not have a say at all as they need to secure the job for their family.
“It’s so ironical to have such a slavery-like system in an affluent and modern city like Hong Kong,” Vajda laments.
Vajda worked with Mission For Migrant Workers and interviewed the maids of her friends in order to get a genuine picture of this particular group of minorities in our society.
She also referred to studies by Hans Ladegaard, a former English professor at Hong Kong Baptist University who volunteered at Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge and conducted extensive research on domestic helper abuse in Hong Kong.
Vajda found that domestic helpers are always in a vulnerable position.
For instance, if a helper gets sacked by her employer, she must come up with a new boss in two weeks’ time or else she has to return to her home country.
This policy discourages maids from voicing out difficulties at work or coming forward in the face of domestic violence.
Vajda’s award-winning photo entitled Can You See Me Yet? is a series of two portraits featuring former domestic helper Efa Sultiane, who wears a dress with a checkered pattern that is identical to design in the background and resembles that of a luxury fashion brand.
The double picture tries to convey the plight of domestic helpers in an affluent society like Hong Kong, where they are treated like an invisible workforce with their rights and welfare largely ignored.
Advertising is a visual language in Hong Kong. One portrait shows Sultiane posing like a model in an advertisement, while in the other, she is wrapped up in the same fabric that makes up her dress.
Vajda says she wants to express in the picture the abuses suffered by foreign maids under the roof of their rich employers.
Vajda believes that art can connect people from all walks of life, expanding the room for communications and even challenging people’s prejudices.
Most of the Vajda’s collections related to Hong Kong domestic helpers have not been published because her subjects fear that their employment prospects might be jeopardized if their faces go public.
Vajda understands their concerns and takes great care in protecting their identity.
Gender equality is also a major theme in Vajda’s works.
“Gender inequality is a worldwide phenomenon where most of the decisions are still made by men,” she says.
In her portrait series entitled 20 Girls, Vajda aims to give a hand in promoting gender equality in society.
Twenty girls from Hong Kong, including Vajda’s daughters, are featured in the collection, where the pink photo frames represent the boundaries imposed by society, softening the images of the tough-looking girls.
Vajda has also heard of the case of Celine Yeung, whose photo book featuring provocative — some say racy — photos of the six-year-old girl created much controversy at the Hong Kong Book Fair.
Vajda says let children be children; society should never impose gender stereotypes or media’s reasoning on children.
Vajda is also looking forward to becoming a permanent resident in Hong Kong.
She says every democratic country has its own problems so Hong Kong is not alone. She says she is not unaware of the narrowing democratic space in the territory, especially with regard to freedom of speech and the press.
She believes freedom of expression is “the key quality accounting for Hong Kong’s prosperity”.
Nevertheless, she remains hopeful about Hong Kong’s autonomy, adding that she has been greatly moved by the passion of youth in last year’s pro-democracy protests.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept. 11.
Translation by Darlie Yiu
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