It is 6:30, a cool morning in Mei Foo Park.
With her right hand, a Filipino maid is pushing under the trees the wheelchair of an elderly man she is looking after. With her left, she is holding a mobile on which she is talking animatedly in Tagalog with a friend.
It is a scene repeated every day across Hong Kong, whose residents employed nearly 358,000 domestic maids as of the end of March this year. That is one for every 7.3 households.
Such is the demand for them that, in April, the government signed an agreement with Cambodia to open a new source of supply.
The first 1,000 are undergoing an intensive three-month training, studying Cantonese, Chinese cooking and caring for the elderly. If all goes well, a total of 10,000 will come each year.
The government looked to Cambodia after Myanmar banned its women from working here as maids over concerns of abuse and exploitation. The first 100 arrived here in early 2014.
The two largest suppliers are Philippines, 193,000, and Indonesia, 156,000.
The governments of both countries have expressed reservations about the maids’ work here, citing their inability to control abuses and guarantee good treatment for their citizens.
But Indonesian President Joko Widodo told a Hong Kong newspaper ahead of his visit last weekend: “We are happy that workers in Hong Kong are protected by strong laws. I observe that they receive salaries that are pretty good compared to other countries. I believe many are happy to be working in Hong Kong.”
This strong demand is testament to the important role the maids have played in Hong Kong’s economic success since the city started importing them in 1974.
“The ratio of domestic maids per household is one of the highest in Asia,” said Leung Mai-ling, a company manager.
“They have been essential to the liberation of women in Hong Kong, giving us the chance to pursue our professions, gain a high position and earn a good salary. In most western countries, affordable and convenient domestic help is not available.”
The main beneficiaries have been educated women. By the mid-2000s, over half of married mothers with a college degree in Hong Kong employed domestic maids.
“Without them, would Hong Kong have so many women executives, financial officers and senior civil servants and teachers?” said Leung.
“We do not see this in Japan and South Korea, where women are similarly well educated. Would Carrie Lam be able to become chief executive if she had not employed maids?”
The economics are simple. The minimum wage for a domestic maid is HK$4,310 a month; to this must be added the price of an air ticket home each year and some other costs.
So it is profitable for any woman who earns more than HK$10,000 to employ one; in addition, there is the comfort of knowing that her children or parents are being cared for.
Wong Keung, a secondary school teacher who employs an Indonesian maid to help look after his two children, said that the system in Hong Kong had worked very well.
“The maids cannot get the right of residence after seven years nor do their children if they are born here. Without an employer, they cannot stay here. I like the regulatory system.
“Our city is densely populated. We cannot afford a large new group of citizens with their families. The rules are strict and should remain so,” he said.
Advocates of the women do not agree. Cynthia Abdon-Tellez, general manager of the Mission for Migrant Workers, said the law on living in the employer’s home should be reviewed.
“They face high levels of stress, living in someone’s house 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They do not have a place or people around them to vent their frustrations. The use of a phone is limited sometimes or even prohibited.”
She also called for the job description of a maid to be clearer and more specific.
But this is not going to happen. The government is firmly on the side of the employers. And there is no shortage of women in south and southeast Asia willing to do the job.
For example, the average salary of a Cambodian is HK$1,200 a month, compared with HK$4,310 a maid earns here.
Most people expect the number of Filipinas to fall and that of other nationalities to rise.
“I am seeking a maid to help look after my elderly parents,” said Wong Mei-sam, a lady in her 60s. “I do not want a Filipina. They have been here too long and know the system too well.
“They speak English, enabling them to work in restaurants, hotels and elsewhere; their mind will not be on the job. Many look for westerners to marry.”
The system has worked well and will persist for many years.
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