We Are Workers, Not Slaves

Two volunteers from Bethune House. Photo for PLUG Magazine.
Women participate in a financial independence workshop by Enrich.

When the Philippines faced economic hardships in the early 1970s due to a global oil crisis, their president, Ferdinand Marcos, began to export labour in the form of foreign domestic workers (FDWs). The money they sent home helped pad the national treasury and the economy became dependent on these remittances. This happened at the same time Hong Kong was enjoying relative financial growth- labour-intensive industries moved into China creating a labour shortage and more women started to join an increasingly skilled workforce. Both factors created a demand for domestic workers to help manage households. The policy of accepting foreign domestic workers was officially adopted by Hong Kong in 1973.

Over the next thirty years, the population of foreign domestic workers grew rapidly. In 1982, there were 21,500 registered FDWs in Hong Kong. By 2017, this number had ballooned to 370,000, almost 5% of the territory’s total population. Initially, the domestic worker labour force was predominantly Filipino, reaching a peak of 84% of all FDWs in 1995. This has evened out because of participation from other South East Asian countries, predominantly, Indonesia. Now, the Philippines and Indonesia make up 98% of the total of FDWs in Hong Kong, 54% and 44% respectively. 99% of FDW are women.


$221 billion

Total remittance in Hong Kong dollars by overseas workers from the Philippines in 2015, 10% of its total GDP.


When our own community fights so hard for equal rights, it’s hard to ignore the inequality that the foreign domestic worker community faces. Issues with this form of employment are systemic exploitation, a lower minimum allowable wage, extortionate placement fees, strict rule of returning to their home country within two weeks of contract termination, denial of residency status despite length of stay in Hong Kong, live-in requirement, and thousands of reported cases of abuse. It’s not difficult to see why human-rights groups have increased scrutiny on the treatment of FDWs, comparing it to modern-day slavery.

Without being deprecating of our own community, it really puts into perspective how privileged we are. 1 in 8 households employ a FDW, and that number jumps to 1 in 3 for families- Hong Kong has one of the highest densities of foreign domestic workers in the world. It’s obvious that our city wouldn’t survive a day without them. In the next few pages, we put a spotlight on groups and NGOs that tirelessly advocate for this community that faces an almost unrivaled level of discriminatory policies.  

According to the Labour Department, Hong Kong will need an increase of 240,000 new foreign domestic workers over the next 30 years to meet the needs of a rapidly aging population, bringing the total to 600,000. The question is, will we have fair working conditions for foreign domestic workers helping to care for our families by then?


In the next section, we introduce some of the local NGOs and charities supporting our foreign domestic worker community that we featured in our Advocate Issue (link). We also invited them to sell in our CultureFest marketplace and had a great time getting to know their volunteers and members.

Two volunteers from Bethune House. Photo for PLUG Magazine.
Two Bethune House volunteers sell Christmas cards at a handicraft sale.

The Bethune House – Migrant Women’s Refuge

Bethune House is more than just a shelter. It is an agent for changing lives and transforming victims into survivors. Established in 1986, it enables migrant domestic women in crisis to seek justice and attain empowerment through responsive and inclusive emergency support, shelter, legal aid and education. It has become a venue for women of different nationalities to meet, interact, share and learn from each other’s experiences, culture and traditions. It is a place of comfort where migrant domestic workers can find hope and justice.

CHALLENGES
Our biggest challenge at the moment is how to sustain our two shelters in 2018.

NEEDS
We need regular monthly donors to stabilize the shelters.

MOTIVATION
The need for shelters for those in crisis motivates us to love our work with migrant domestic workers.

Facebook: BethuneHouse

“Our biggest challenge at the moment is how to sustain our two shelters.”

– Bethune House

Boarding dorm at Bethune House. Photo for PLUG Magazine.
A boarding dorm at the Bethune House shelter.

Enrich HK

Enrich is the leading Hong Kong charity promoting the economic empowerment of migrant domestic workers. We empower them to invest in themselves through financial and empowerment education. Our workshops equip migrant domestic workers with the tools to save, budget, and plan for greater financial security.

Women take an Enrich workshop. Photo for PLUG Magazine.
Some women participate in an Enrich financial independence workshop.

CHALLENGES
Our challenges are finding long-term funding support, broad scope (there are 380,000 migrant domestic workers) but limited resources, hence limited reach; and venue spaces for workshops.

NEEDS
We always welcome funding support, programme partnerships and venue spaces for workshops. We also welcome volunteers to help us in different aspects of our work.

MOTIVATION
Personally, it’s the sense of fulfilment, especially when we witness “aha!” moments among the participants after going through their first workshop. It’s knowing that I am able to change a migrant domestic worker’s life and her family because of financial and empowerment education. It’s also worthy to mention that after seeing the the Impact Study Report of CUHK about Enrich’s programmes, the more I see the value of this work — it needs to be sustained and reach more MDWs.

www.enrichhk.org
Facebook: Enrich HK


$75 billion

Total remittance in Hong Kong dollars by overseas workers from Indonesia in 2015, 1% of its total GDP.


Migrant Pride Parade with Garbriela HK. Photo for PLUG Magazine.
Participants at Migrants’ Pride, attended by Gabriela HK.

Gabriela Hong Kong

We are the Hong Kong chapter of GABRIELA, a progressive alliance of more than 200 women’s organizations that cut across sectors and regions, with chapters and support groups of Pinays and non-Pinays in many continents.

CHALLENGES
Our biggest challenge is organizing our fellow migrants and educating them about our rights as a foreign workers. Together we can change the system of policies that leaves migrant workers vulnerable of social exclusion and discrimination.

NEEDS
We would benefit from solidarity in campaigning for our rights and also funding for us to continue operating our welfare work for migrant workers.

MOTIVATION
For a country like Philippines, 75-90% of the population is poor or middle-class but the 1%  of rich clans, big compradors and landlords rule our country. As victims of labor exportation and no social protection, no one will stand up for us other than ourselves.

Facebook: GabrielaHongKong

“Together we can change the system of policies that leaves migrant workers vulnerable of social exclusion and discrimination.”

Sheila, Gabriela


A Guhit Kulay class photo. Photo for PLUG Magazine.
Members of Guhit Kulay pose for a picture after a group show.

Guhit Kulay

This is a group of Filipino domestic workers that are also aspiring artists. The group Guhit Kulay which means “draw colours”, was founded back in 2017. Most often they do art jamming in parks and invite fellow domestic workers/art enthusiasts to join. They are also looking for workshops where they can gain more knowledge.

CHALLENGES
Our biggest challenges are; as a domestic workers, we do not have much spare time to create artwork. We often meet during our rest days to paint in parks. Sometimes we can rent a space if we have spare money, especially if it’s raining or to too hot outside. So yes, space for and suitable space to paint are our biggest challenges.

NEEDS
It’s hard for us to find space to create artworks, exhibitions, workshops and storage of art materials.

MOTIVATION
Our motivation comes from people who are appreciative of our work. Framing a painted imagination that somehow touches the soul of an audience motivates us to keep doing this work. Being self-taught artists, we also want to inspire fellow migrants through our participation in different art events. We know that there are people like us out there who are still struggling to find or share their passion because they’re self-conscious, we want to meet them.  

Facebook: GuhitKulay

“We often meet during our rest days to paint in parks. Sometimes we can rent a space if we have spare money, especially if it’s raining or to too hot outside.”

– Guhit Kulay


Thank you to all the foreign workers making huge sacrifices to live and work in our city! Want to help, donate to, or know more about any of these groups? Reach out to them online, they would love to hear from you.

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