Filipinos make up 1.9% of Hong Kong’s population, making them the city’s largest ethnic minority group. The vast majority of them are women, coming here to work as foreign domestic helpers (FDH); however, it is also not uncommon to find Filipino workers in other low-skilled or professional jobs.

 

Filipino emigration to Hong Kong

Mass emigration from the Philippines began in the 1970s. After having being transferred between Spanish and American rule, and having fought in World War II, the Philippines saw their economy performing poorly, which was worsened even further by an oil crisis in 1973. At the same time, population growth was occurring at exponential rates, and the economy could not keep up with the increasing number of people it had to support. The then President Ferdinand Marcos thus implemented the Labour Code of 1974, which began the Philippines’ ascent as a major labour exporter.

The Philippines’ increasing labour export coincided with Hong Kong’s economic rise in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Hong Kong was transforming into a high-functioning service economy, creating more job opportunities for the local population. Women therefore began entering the workforce. As a result, many families now had two working parents, and needed help with their homes, creating demand for foreign domestic helpers (FDH), almost all of whom came from the Philippines at the beginning. The Hong Kong population colloquially referred to them as 賓妹 bun mui (Cantonese ‘Filipina little sister’) or 賓賓 bun bun, terms which are now considered derogatory and have been replaced by 女傭 lui yong (Cantonese ‘female helper’) and 外傭 ngoi yong (Cantonese ‘foreign helper’).

The money that FDHs sent home to their families soon became recognised as an essential pillar of the Filipino economy, and the government now has many channels to facilitate labour export. A “culture of migration” has also emerged among Filipino citizens themselves – despite knowing the risks of working abroad, one in five Filipino adults wish to work abroad, and 47% of children wish to work abroad someday. Even university-educated adults often leave the Philippines to find low-skilled work elsewhere, reflecting the state of the Filipino economy even today.

 

Multilingualism

Filipinos speak many languages. All of them are at least bilingual in English and Tagalog, which are the two official languages of the Philippines, and usually have as their mother tongue one of the Philippines’ many regional dialects. There are 181 living languages in the Philippines, but the eight most commonly spoken are: Bikol, Cebuano, Hiligaynon or Ilonggo, Illocano, Kapampanga, Pangasinan, Tagalog, and Waray.

This impressive linguistic repertoire allows Hong Kong Filipinos to switch languages to establish identity with different groups of people. They speak their regional variety to family members or friends of the same region to establish a sense of belonging. They speak Tagalog – one of the country’s national languages and the lingua franca – to Filipino friends from other regions to express a shared Filipino identity, even if they are not from the same region. Cantonese is also considered an empowering language. Cantonese can help Filipinos with permanent residency find jobs more easily, and allows the speaker to better negotiate for higher salaries.

Foreign Domestic Helpers make use of their linguistic capital in to fulfill various functions. They use English to negotiate with their local agents in Hong Kong, most of whom do not speak Tagalog. Many also use English with their employers and employers’ children. Hongkongers, particularly those who have young children, are in fact increasingly seeking FDHs with a good proficiency in English, as they believe that having an English speaker in the household will provide more opportunities for their children to interact more in English. Many Filipinos who hope to be employed as FDHs are aware of this preference and often market their English language ability.

Even with their multilingual repertoire, language barriers still exist for Filipinos in Hong Kong. Cantonese is a very important language for Filipinos in Hong Kong – learning it is not simply a matter of increasing linguistic capital but indeed a necessity for employment in Hong Kong. There are employers who require proficiency in Cantonese – many people in Hong Kong do not speak English. FDHs without a proficiency in Cantonese lose out on opportunities for employment from those who do. FDHs who can speak Cantonese also use the language for better social standing with the vendors in local wet markets where they often need to buy food for their employers.

For non-Cantonese-speaking Filipinos who are permanent residents and who have children, education is a challenge. In general, the medium of instruction in most local schools is Cantonese, making it difficult for non-Cantonese speakers to understand course material and perform well academically. Students also have to take Chinese language exams to graduate from high school, which they generally perform poorly in as well. Chinese is a difficult language for Filipinos to learn, especially in an environment where they do not have the language as a home language, where their classmates already speak and write the language at a higher level, and the language is taught at a level that is not suitable for them.
Filipinos who are permanent residents of Hong Kong and have families generally wish for their children to learn six languages: their mothers’ dialect, their fathers’ dialect, Tagalog, English, Cantonese, and Mandarin.

 

Culture and representation in Hong Kong

Being a relatively large minority group, the Filipino culture is most visible to the local population, and has added to the city’s linguistic and cultural landscape.

Central district on Hong Kong Island is a culturally important hub for Filipinos, especially the FDHs. On Sundays or public holidays, they gather under the HSBC building, along the overhead walkways, in parks and open areas, and numerous other locations, in large numbers, sitting on cardboard boxes or plastic mats, sharing food and chatting loudly. Besides the social dimension, Sundays are also days for FDHs to conduct their personal business – buying things, and, most importantly, sending money home to their families. This is done at the World Wide House in Central, a building full of small Filipino-run businesses which becomes especially crowded on Sundays. Other Filipino businesses, such as the fast food chain Jollibee, are also seen scattered around Hong Kong, but are especially concentrated in Central.
Besides adding to the diversity of businesses in Central, the presence of large numbers of Filipinos has also altered Central’s linguistic landscape. Signs in popular gathering places are written in Tagalog as well as English and Chinese. Tagalog also appears in media aimed at Filipinos. Most prominent are The SUN newspaper and The Mission For Migrant Workers (MFMW) newsletter and magazine. These forms of media cover topics about Filipinos in Hong Kong and in Manila.
Filipinos are also well represented by various NGOs in Hong Kong. Among them are social justice NGOs that seek better protection for FDHs (including MFMW), recreational NGOs, and religious NGOs. Religion plays a big role in Filipino culture. 80% of Filipinos are Christian, while 11% are Muslim. Many local churches have Filipino ministries, and there are many specifically Filipino churches where mass is conducted in Tagalog. There are also associations that serve the minority Filipino Muslim population.

 

Challenges and discrimination.

fillpino.1Filipino FDHs open themselves to many risks and vulnerabilities when they decide to work in Hong Kong. Though not all FDHs are abused, and many certainly do have happy working conditions, there are also many who are exploited and mistreated, with little available protection. In fact, the trade of domestic helpers is commonly called “modern-day slavery”.

To come to work in Hong Kong, Filipinos seek employment through agents, who often charge very high fees and exploit legal and contractual loopholes. The law states that agency fees cannot exceed 10% of the FDH’s first month’s salary, and that it cannot be collected until after the first paycheck has been received. However, due to poor enforcement of the law, agents often illegally charge 6-8 months’ salary as placement fees, or ‘loans’ to cover airfare and accommodation, which rack up high interest rates. This not only violates Hong Kong law, but international labour law, which prohibits debt bondage.

Poor enforcement also cancels out several other laws that protect FDHs. For example, employers are required to provide FDHs with private sleeping spaces. However, the reality is that Hong Kong apartments are so small that they are often forced to sleep in bathtubs, closets, or under tables. Observation of statutory rest days is also not strongly enforced, and many employers illegally work their FDHs seven days a week, although they usually pay for the additional hours.

Hong Kong law also creates opportunities to endanger FDHs. FDHs are required to live with their employers. This allows employers to demand unreasonable working hours for their helpers, and, in the worst of cases, even physically or sexually abuse them. FDHs are only allowed to stay in Hong Kong for two weeks after the termination of their contract. This gives them two weeks to find new employment – a difficult enough task on its own which is made even harder by the fact that Immigration takes 4-8 weeks to process applications for new employment. This difficulty in finding new jobs gives employers even more power over their helpers, and enables abuse.
Furthermore, FDHs are not allowed to become permanent residents of Hong Kong, even if they have met the requirement of having lived here for 7 years. They are thus denied all the privileges that come with permanent residency. They are excluded from minimum wage law, which requires payment of $30 per hour. Instead, FDHs are paid $4,110 per month. Assuming eight-hour work days, that only amounts to around $21 per hour, which is way below the local minimum wage. Since very few Filipinos in Hong Kong have permanent residency, it also means that they are excluded from census data, which is used to shape government policy. This makes reform to protect FDHs even more difficult.

[1] CIA World Factbook. n.d. Hong Kong. Central Intelligence Agency.
[2] Asis, Maruja. 2006. The Philippines’ culture of migration. Migration Policy Institute. 1 Jan 2006.
[3] Fung Chung Inn Yanessa, Trista Lam Pui Ching, Catti Lee Shuk Ting and Emily Mak Yee Man. 2013. Filipinos in Hong Kong. LCOM3001 Cultural dimensions of language and communication project, School of English, The University of Hong Kong. http://lcom3001.wix.com/hkfilipinos
[4] Ip, Kelly. 2012. Tough talk on helpers hired to teach English. The Standard [Hong Kong] 17 Oct.
[5] Pinoy Abroad. 2008. Chinese employers shun Filipino maids due to language barrier. GMA News Online. 12 Dec 2008.
[6] Fung Chung Inn Yanessa, Trista Lam Pui Ching, Catti Lee Shuk Ting and Emily Mak Yee Man. 2013. Filipinos in Hong Kong.
[7] For education in schools in which English is the medium of instruction, there are: international schools and the English School Foundation
schools, whose fees are high; local English Medium Instruction (EMI) schools, most of which are elite and difficult to gain access to; and several EMI schools catered to ethnic minorities, known as designated schools.
[8] For more information on Cantonese learning for Filipinos, see: http://www.filipinosinhk.blogspot.hk/
[9] Fung Chung Inn Yanessa, Trista Lam Pui Ching, Catti Lee Shuk Ting, and Emily Mak Yee Man. 2013. Filipinos in Hong Kong.
[10] CIA World Factbook. “Philippines.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.
[11] Wong, Lincoln. 2014. Foreign Domestic Helpers (FDH) in Hong Kong – Review on their situation and their strive for better rights. Hong Kong Law Blog. 8 Oct 2014.
[12] See Chapter 57(a) of the Employment Ordinance.

References

Asis, Maruja. 2006. The Philippines’ culture of migration. Migration Policy Institute. 1 Jan 2006.
Chan Lok Man Denize, Helen Law Shuk Ching, Alice Lee Hiu Yan, Jennifer Li Hang and Yeung Hoi Yu. 2013. Filipino domestic helpers and multilingual Hong Kong. LCOM3001 Cultural dimensions of language and communication project, School of English, The University of Hong Kong. http://hkulcom3001.wix.com/lcom3001

Cheng Onyee, Haley Pau Ying and Ingrid Yu Wing Ka. 2013. Filipinos in Hong Kong. LCOM3001 Cultural dimensions of language and communication project, School of English, The University of Hong Kong. http://www.filipinosinhk.blogspot.hk/

Fung Chung Inn Yanessa, Trista Lam Pui Ching, Catti Lee Shuk Ting and Emily Mak Yee Man. 2013. Filipinos in Hong Kong. LCOM3001 Cultural dimensions of language and communication project, School of English, The University of Hong Kong. http://lcom3001.wix.com/hkfilipinos

HK Helpers’ Campaign. n.d. Legal issues surrounding Foreign Domestic Helpers in Hong Kong. HK Helpers Campaign. Web. 24 Feb 2015.

Pinoy Abroad. 2008. Chinese employers shun Filipino maids due to language barrier. GMA News Online. 12 Dec 2008.

Wong, Lincoln. 2014. Foreign Domestic Helpers (FDH) in Hong Kong – Review on their situation and their strive for better rights. Hong Kong Law Blog. 8 Oct 2014.
By Charis Kong, a third-year Language and Communication major at the University of Hong Kong.

 

Further resources

Chan Lok Man Denize, Helen Law Shuk Ching, Alice Lee Hiu Yan, Jennifer Li Hang and Yeung Hoi Yu. 2013. Filipino domestic helpers and multilingual Hong Kong. LCOM3001 Cultural dimensions of language and communication project, School of English, The University of Hong Kong. http://hkulcom3001.wix.com/lcom3001

Cheng Onyee, Haley Pau Ying and Ingrid Yu Wing Ka. 2013. Filipinos in Hong Kong. LCOM3001 Cultural dimensions of language and communication project, School of English, The University of Hong Kong. http://www.filipinosinhk.blogspot.hk/

Fung Chung Inn Yanessa, Trista Lam Pui Ching, Catti Lee Shuk Ting, and Emily Mak Yee Man. 2013. Filipinos in Hong Kong. LCOM3001 Cultural dimensions of language and communication project, School of English, The University of Hong Kong. http://lcom3001.wix.com/hkfilipinos

Carmen Kwok Kam Man, Claire Sun Xinyu, Clarence Kan Kai Wing, Tommy Lui Chun Yu, Zoe Cheung Hiu Ying. Identity position and language attitudes of Filipino domestic helpers in Hong Kong. 2015. http://chunyu96.wix.com/ccgl9024