Sunday is “maids day” in Hong Kong. We passed a flood of them pouring down the hill towards Central as we made our way to the tram terminus. Filipinos and Indonesians mainly. Like their sisters in the Middle East, Malaysia and Singapore. But my experience of them here in China is coloured by the abuse I know they suffer in Saudi Arabia (this BBC article only touches the tip of the iceberg) and other places, and as they wave and smile at us I wonder how many suffer the same afflictions here.
My reservations are exacerbated by their flocking together on the raised walkways above the streets of Central where they create cardboard pens in which they sit, kicking off their shoes and setting about a high chatter like a flock of mynas settling into their roost for the night. There is too much of the slum about their cardboard shanties to ease my fears for their safety and wellbeing.
Hong Kong says it has more than 200,000 maids in from foreign countries of which about 140,000 are Filipino. If other countries are any guide these official numbers will not come anywhere close to the real number. But even with 140,000 of them it is only natural they will all want to congregate together and to socialise. A single day off should be used to the greatest advantage and playing cards and giggling with your friends, bragging photos and being away from the place of your daily grind can only be a good thing. It is a vast improvement over the dozens of maids who are left waiting for weeks and even months at Riyadh Airport as they wait for their sponsors to come and pick them up. And fellowship with those who speak your mother tongue is almost unheard of in Saudi. How it must be akin a prison sentence!
Their little cardboard castles are intriguing. Each delineates different groups but in this cooler weather I suspect they also serve to keep the chill breeze off them, as well as ensure the regular pedestrian traffic does not encroach too much. They make a floor of cardboard and cover it with rugs and other textiles. They sit with their feet folded sideways – a kind of “carpet sidesaddle.” Most importantly they have come equipped for a picnic . Thermos here and there. Bowls of rice and fruit. Later in the day they are napping, playing cards or simply watching the parade of the rest of us wandering past. They give us pleasant waves and open smiles – very different to those subdued girls queueing up in Riyadh.
Very late at night the flock drifts into the McDonalds basement where we make room for them and they make appreciative noises in return. They are a boisterous but colourful and friendly collection down here. Here is hoping their domestic lives in Hong Kong are worth the separation, deprivation, and hard work.