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Most Filipinos in Hong Kong may be  domestic helpers but who are the rest?

Reporters:Dorothy Goh, Joyce Lee

On any given Sunday in Central, the weekday business suits and power dressing gives way to a more casual and diverse ensemble of outfits. The space around the former Legislative Council building fills up with groups of Asian women sitting on flower-shaped mats and enjoying elaborate picnics. There air is filled with the sound laughter, of conversations and songs in Tagalog. A visitor stumbling onto the scene may feel she is in the Philippines.

As of the end of September 2011, there were 163,800 Filipinos in Hong Kong, according to statistics from the Immigration Department. This makes the Filipino community the largest population of expatriates in the city.

According to a survey of 208 local people conducted by Varsity earlier this month, 97 percent of respondents said their immediate association with Filipinos is domestic helpers. However, while most of the Filipinos in Hong Kong do work as domestic helpers, the territory is also home to Filipino professionals and business people who have regular working visas or permanent residency.

Rey De Guzman came to Hong Kong on a working visa four years ago to work for an international electronics company. Later, he decided to start his own business, Dogside Café, a canine friendly eatery and meeting place in Causeway Bay. The business is doing well as De Guzman has successfully targeted Hong Kong’s middle class pet-lovers.

De Guzman’s experience is a Filipino success story highlighting the opportunities to be had in this city. But not every Filipino professional in Hong Kong has found it so easy to start and then advance their career here.

“You just feel like you have to prove yourself all the time.” says Daisy Mandap, Editor of the Sun, an English language newspaper circulated widely within the Filipino community in Hong Kong.

Mandap is a permanent resident of Hong Kong, along with her husband and their two daughters. Before coming here to work as a journalist 24 years ago, she had been a lawyer and a journalist in the Philippines.

Mandap has personally experienced discrimination as a professional Filipino working in Hong Kong. She worked for ATV for 10 years as an English news producer and editor. One time an anchor who had never written a story wanted to change a line in one of her scripts, arguing that Mandap did not even speak the language. Mandap replied that she had studied the language and it was more important to study a language than to just speak it without understanding whether or not what you are saying is right.

She says she came to the realisation that, “No matter how hard you worked, there is always either a white person or Chinese person above you.”

Not only did Mandap feel that her professional skills were questioned by her co-workers, she says the mere fact of being a Filipina meant she has been mistaken for a domestic helper, even by her compatriots.

Varsity Survey on Hong Kong People’s Perspectives to Filipinos

Although working professionals and permanent residents are undoubtedly a minority among the Filipino’s in Hong Kong, many of those working as domestic workers were professionals in their own country before they came here. It is quite common to find many of these domestic helpers used to be teachers, nurses, social workers, accountants and even doctors.

As Mandap points out, the minimum requirement for Filipino workers who wish to apply for overseas employment is a high school graduate certificate. All the Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong have completed secondary school education and some hold recognised degrees.

Considering their education level and fluent English, Mandap has a lot of domestic workers who are college graduates writing for her. She feels it is a pity that her writers are not allowed to work as work as anything other than domestic helpers because of visa restrictions. Their professional skills and knowledge could contribute to Hong Kong society, for instance in Hong Kong’s hospitals which are experiencing a severe shortage of nursing staff.

Filipino workers, including professionals, have been leaving their home to work as domestic helpers since the Philippines government made it a government policy to promote the export of labour in the 1970s. It did so with an eye on easing unemployment in the country and the remittances the workers sent home.

Today, educated Filipinos and professionals work as foreign domestic workers for the better pay and living conditions abroad and because of the difficulties of getting work back home. The salary of a domestic worker in Hong Kong is equivalent to that of a junior executive in the Philippines.

Yet Mandap says many of the Filipinos she has worked with are desperate to have a job in the Philippines. Mandap and her husband who is also a permanent resident Filipino in Hong Kong sponsored the Central Examination for Filipino teachers to be held in Hong Kong. They even invited the Education Secretary of the Philippines to fly over to offer permanent jobs to people who passed the exam.

Although the salary was half of what they earned here, a lot of them accepted the offer. Mandap clearly remembers the tears of the people who were getting an opportunity to go back to the Philippines. Being called madam again meant a lot to them as they were used to calling their employers madam.

“This symbolises recovering dignity and pride in what they have done,” says Mandap.

The ultimate goal for many Filipino domestic helpers in Hong Kong is to earn enough money to retire in the Philippines. That is also why most Filipinos have reservations about the idea of applying for the right of abode in Hong Kong.

Cynthia Ca Abdon-Tellez, the Director of the Mission for Migrant Workers has lived in Hong Kong for 30 years but has never thought of applying for permanent residency.

Tellez says that for many Filipino domestic helpers, Hong Kong is the most ideal place to work since it is safe, stable and has relatively good labour practices and a greater degree of freedom compared to places like Singapore and Malaysia.

While many Filipino professionals swallow their pride to work as domestic helpers because of the pay, Tellez says some do resent the nature of their jobs. When asked about what they do in Hong Kong, they do not want to say the word “domestic”. If they know the person asking is also a domestic helper, they will say “like you” instead.

Others embrace the opportunity to become a domestic helper because they see it as a stepping stone. Leanessa Hieroza was recently in Hong Kong visiting her mother, Laru Cantago who is a former domestic helper who now has permanent residency in Hong Kong. Hieroza is a 26 year-old graduate of the University of the Philippines with a job working for a bank in Manila.

Although she has a job in the Philippines, she wants to become a domestic helper in Hong Kong in order to gain the experience she needs to qualify for work as a domestic helper in Canada. There, she would be able to change jobs and earn more in the future.

This shows that not all Filipino domestic workers see the right of abode as their main concern. They see Hong Kong as a workplace rather than their final destination, especially as the city is not considered a desirable place for retirement.

Hieroza’s mother, 50-year-old Laru Cantago gained Hong Kong residency after marrying a Filipino permanent resident in Hong Kong. She currently works for a trading company in Central but she says she wants to go back to the Philippines after she retires. “In Hong Kong, you can only rent a house. In the Philippines, you can own a property,” she explains. “Besides, it is after all my home.”

Including Leanessa, Cantago has three children, all born in the Philippines. Her two sons are grown-up with their own families and she does not plan to bring them here.

Those who want to apply for the right of abode mostly do so because they already have families in Hong Kong, some of them have children who were born here.

Others may want to start their own business here. Arnie R. Montines has lived in Hong Kong for 22 years. The 61 year-old says she feels integrated into Hong Kong’s society and has more friends in Hong Kong than in the Philippines. As a qualified accountant, Montines said that she might start an accounting business and employ local Chinese if she is granted the right of abode. “I will not be a burden. I will never be a burden,” she stressed.

Most Filipinos lead a simple life. “Filipinos are generally very family-oriented and sensitive, emotional people,” says the Mission for Migrant Workers’, Cynthia Tellez. She says most of her compatriots just want to make more money, be happy, and then go home.

The recent court cases over whether or not foreign domestic workers should have the right to apply for permanent residency in Hong Kong have put the territory’s Filipino community in the spotlight, particularly the domestic helpers. Some of the reactions from local Chinese have been hostile. “Discrimination in Hong Kong is very subtle. It is not on the surface but inside the bones,” says Fermi Wong, a social worker and Executive Director of Hong Kong Unison, a group working with ethnic minorities. “Hong Kong is not an international city. It is only an international money-making city.”