by Adrian Bonifacio, ’13
The skyline of Hong Kong reads like an issue of Fortune 500. Samsung, HSBC, Phillips, Hitachi, COSCO—their buildings reach out from the bay as if to form the fingers of the capitalist invisible hand, now made so conspicuous by its flashing neon lights. Thanks to the boom in its economy after WWII, and especially after the 1980s transition into a largely service-based economy, Hong Kong has become one of the richest regions in all of Asia. But, as with many other developed capitalist economies, the United States far from excluded, inequality runs rampant. An article published earlier this year exposes the literal cages some citizens are forced to live in. The article reminds us that poverty and desperation can be easily hidden from our consciousness by a high-figured GDP. In this way, the stories of another “imprisoned” population living within Hong Kong are also absent from our fields of vision: those of migrant domestic workers.
I shared my life with Filipina domestic workers for just under three months this past summer—singing, learning, laughing, rallying, dancing, picketing, and of course, eating. But the majority of the time I spent with them was spent being humbled. Forced to leave their countries by a government busy shining the shoes of multinational corporations instead of developing the economy for the masses, these migrant workers left their lives behind to make sure their families can make it. But abuse runs rampant in this system of labor export. Workers told me that the government taught them not about their rights in Hong Kong, but only their “duty” to contribute to the Philippine economy through remittances. I heard countless cases of illegal placement fees charged by recruitment agencies that caused workers to sink into debt. Permanent residence, voting rights, inclusion in the statutory minimum wage, the right to live outside of employers’ homes—all things the government does not afford the over 300,000 migrant domestic workers helping form the backbone of the economy. And then there was employer abuse. One woman recounted the day her employer forced his dogs to attack her while he filmed it for future viewing pleasure. Another about the spoiled food her employer left for her to eat everyday. Still more about an employer who beat the domestic worker for throwing away one grape that fell on the floor. My co-workers would come in to talk about “another” rape case that had been filed, as if underpayment of wages, refusal to let workers out of the house, and twelve-hour working days weren’t enough. And to think that this is the dream job for many women in the Philippines striving for a dignified life with their families.
Yet despite the uphill battle, these women are not helpless—far from it. After their employers are asleep and the lights are off, these women start dialing numbers on their cell phones and signing on Facebook. Not to chat, but to organize. Past-midnight conference calls to create agendas for Sunday gatherings (Sundays are workers’ only off-days), long threads of messages on Facebook to plan for educational discussions, creating propaganda material for the next rally—these women continue to work long after their jobs as domestic workers are complete for the day. Sundays are packed with meetings, practices, protests, and solidarity building in the heart of Hong Kong Island’s Central business district, where a majority of Filipina workers gather every week. (My Sundays were spent in front of three-storey tall Cartier building listening to Know Your Rights education, attending meetings of the migrant worker group I integrated with, and preparing for the group’s welfare program re-launching.)
The number of politicized migrants is growing, despite the transient nature of the population. Indeed, migrant workers in Hong Kong are proud to have formed some of the only trade unions in Asia run completely by migrant workers themselves at the grassroots level (the Filipino Migrant Workers’ Union, Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Union, and Overseas Nepali Workers’ Union just to name a few). This development allows them to represent each other in labor tribunals in cases of abuse by employers, a huge step for a population that scholars have said to be impossible to organize in the first place. And these women do not limit themselves to fighting against the injustices they face in Hong Kong. As long as they are forced to work outside their own countries, migrant workers will march the streets to call their fellow country-folk to join the struggle.
Marching alongside these migrant workers are the different community organizers who came from the Philippines realizing the need to spread the revolution abroad. Living and working with these organizers everyday taught me lessons I’d be hard-pressed to find within Stanford. Although they work non-stop in progressing the migrant worker movement in Hong Kong—an activist’s schedule at its finest—they never forget that they are serving the people, that they are to stay supporting from behind rather than being the face of the movement. And they hold true to their words. On Sundays, the migrants themselves are the ones recruiting, consolidating their members, and developing their own political education, only with the occasional guidance of a community organizer. This is a fight where the people are in charge.
It has been two months since my summer “fellowship” ended. I use that word because it is the one Stanford used to give awardees some sense of privilege even before the summer began. But in Hong Kong, the migrants and community organizers use the word lubog, a Tagalog word which could be translated as “submerged” or “immersed.” This, I feel, is a much more appropriate word. Only after I had been submerged in the movement, immersed by the people’s love and struggle did I feel privileged. Privileged not because I had been chosen over others to receive the fellowship, but privileged because I had the opportunity to learn from migrants and organizers who I have come to love so dearly. Their lives are a testament to the ability to stay political and militant no matter whatever else we are faced with—whether having to study for a midterm or having to heed an abusive employer’s every beck and call. Looking through my Facebook newsfeed every Sunday and seeing the pictures and statuses posted by my Hong Kong family, I am reminded that no matter how much I put into the struggle, it is never just for me. It is for the people.
Paglingkuran ang sambayanan! Serve the people!
If you would like to hear more about my experiences in Hong Kong, please come to the report back event, “We are Workers, We are Not Slaves! Human rights and grassroots organizing of domestic workers in Hong Kong,” hosted by the Pilipino American Student Union. It will be held on Wednesday, November 14th from 6:00-7:30pm at Okada dorm lounge. Dinner will be provided so please RSVP responsibly: http://www.facebook.com/events/168009476656858/?ref=ts&fref=ts. Hope to see you there!
Adrian is a senior majoring in International Relations and co-terming in Sociology, and is interested in migration and economic development. He has been a member of the Pilipino American Student Union at Stanford for four years, and is currently a co-chair for its cultural performance committee, Kayumanggi. Adrian also serves as the education officer for political youth group Anakbayan Silicon Valley, which serves the Filipino/Filipino-American community in the South Bay. In his spare time, he enjoys dancing, eating, running, ironing, watching Seinfeld, and being with the people he loves 🙂