Domestic helpers on holiday
Abuse of public space
By Penelope Yau
Penelope Yau The HSBC building in Central is a popular destination for Hong Kong's domestic helpers on their day off.
It is 10 o’clock on a Saturday night. Colourful plastic stools and nylon ropes divide Chater Road into nu merous “districts”. Plastic tape is carefully attached to the ground to identify different districts. “Mina’s group”, a tape says. “Reserved for Mary’s, God’s chosen people”, says another, drawing clear dividing lines between different areas clearly.
This is how some Filipino domestic helpers reserve places the day before public holidays.
According to figures released by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, more than 30,000 overseas domestic helpers gather in the Central District and its vicinity in public holidays.
A local property agency, The Hong Kong Land Group, proposed the part-time pedestrianization of Chater Road to the government in the ’80s, the intention being to attract more shoppers to the area during public holidays.
“Instead, the scheme attracted the Filipinos to come,” said Yuen Bun Keung, a councillor representing the Central and Western District.
Mr. Yuen is the chairman of the working group on Chater Road Pedestrian Precinct which was set up in 1992. The group plays an active role in alleviating problems in the pedestrian area caused by overseas domestic helpers. He is also the chairman on the Concern Group on the Footbridge System in the Central District.
According to Mr. Yuen, Central has become a popular holiday destination among overseas domestic helpers.
“It is easily accessible, and it provides ready access to remittance, postal and other services required by these Filipinos.”
Mary Augustine, a Filipino who works in Tsuen Wan, said, “I’ve come all the way here to Central to spend my holidays with my relatives and friends. They are all here. This is a good place for us to meet.
“We do not have to spend a lot of money here. It is better than going to restaurants, where we have to spend on the food and can’t stay there long.
“We cannot afford going to restaurants every Sunday.”
The crowd of domestic helpers has created a lot of problems. Cleanliness is one of the major concerns.
“Much rubbish in this area is created by these domestic helpers. Apart from this, some Filipinos perform hair styling, manicure and pedicure services, making public places filthy. Some of them even wash their hair in washrooms of shopping malls,” said Mr. Yuen.
A dustman on duty complained, “They leave so much rubbish here every Sunday. It’s mainly leftover food. We often have to work very late clearing the mess.”
The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department deploys extra resources on public holidays to keep the area clean. The department places about a hundred additional large litter bins in the area to accommodate the increased amount of refuse. Extra dustmen are sent to the area to perform cleaning duties every Sunday as well.
Another problem that draws people’s attention is illegal hawking. Some sell pirated CDs, clothes and food.
“Not only does it make the place dirty, but the cooked food sold is also unhygienic and may cause food poisoning. They also block passageways, especially footbridges,” said Mr. Yuen.
Gatherings of these domestic workers cause a big headache to businessmen in Central as well.
“I think it’s not good for us to sit outside boutiques and shopping malls. However, it’s very hard to find a place for gathering when it rains or when it is sunny. We just need a shelter,” said Annie Ramos, a Filipino working in Causeway Bay.
A tenant at Alexandra House said, “There are customers complaining about the situation. Some said they avoid coming on Sundays because of the crowd outside the shops. Business is affected. Except asking security guards to keep the Filipinos away, we can do nothing about it.”
A security guard working at St. George’s Building said, “The Filipinos always block the way and customers cannot enter the shops in our building. Therefore, I am told to patrol around the building to keep them away.”
Apart from affecting their businesses, businessmen in the area also complain that this tarnishes the image of Hong Kong.
“Central is one of the most prestigious shopping areas in Hong Kong.
“The gatherings of these domestic helpers in public holidays greatly damage this image and bring a lot of inconvenience not only to landlords and tenants, but also to the general public,” said a tenant at The Landmark.
A tourist, Susan Wuang of Shanghai, commented, “The Filipinos make the place look shady.
“They also cause troubles and inconvenience to other pedestrians.”
The government has tried to solve the problems, but failed.
Mr. Yuen said, “We have been working on this problem for more than 10 years. We still can’t find an effective solution.
“The Hong Kong Land Group once requested that pedestrianization be cancelled, but this would just make the matter worse.
“The Filipinos are used to coming to Central.
“They may just pack themselves on the pavements and outside boutiques if pedestrianization is withdrawn.”
Before 1997, the working group on the Chater Road Pedestrian Precinct, the District Council, the Philippine Consulate and Caritas Hong Kong set up a number of Filipino community centres in the Western District to divert the workers from Central.
Mr. Yuen said, “The attempt failed because of lack of resources. The centres were rather inaccessible compared with Central.
“All of them were closed finally. It is impossible to create a number of centres to accommodate all these people.
“It’s difficult to file charges against them because their numbers are too great. This makes monitoring difficult.
“Communication is another problem. They don’t know Cantonese.
“This is a very sensitive issue. If it is not carefully handled, we will be accused of discrimination easily.
“After all, the overseas domestic helpers are free to spend their holidays in their preferred way as Hong Kong citizens.
“We have limited power.
“We have tried the best to help solving the problems.
“The situation can’t be improved in the near future.”
Penelope Yau Overseas domestic helpers gathered outside boutiques.