Inspiration from abroad
2017-04-01 17:27:29 -

Mariaam Bhatti: Tales of a Domestic Worker

The lives of domestic workers in Hong Kong, and how they spend their work-free days, have been foremost in my mind since reading a fascinating article on the Guardian website last month. It made me remember a classmate of mine from our undergraduate degree who went there to do her work placement. On her return, she and another two others she went with gave an interesting account, particularly on the city’s housing shortage, and the night market that allows those who can’t afford high rents to sell anything they can during the night. 

But that is not the whole picture of Hong Kong. It’s one of the world’s most important financial hubs and international trade centres. It is also famous for politically active students who organise extensively and take to the streets often to protest with one voice against injustices they experience, or for change they want to see.

Looking at the pictures in that article, of domestic workers sitting in makeshift cardboards tents in the city’s squares, and reading about the food they bring there and share among themselves every Sunday, it helps me to understand that form of collective action. It’s a practice that’s becoming accepted by the city authorities, too. “Though people have tried, you can’t drive [the workers] away,” the article quotes one Hong Kong resident as saying. “It is where they feel at home. It’s where they can be themselves.”

The article adds, however, that these gatherings are mainly due to the fact that Sundays are the only days these workers have off work and are free to socialise outside their employer’s homes. That means they also work well when there are important holidays, because they don’t have to go far to take part in a march or protest; they just have to change roles from socialising informally to carrying banners strategically.

I also liked that more happens than just sitting in tents. These workers usually do things like sharing their traditional foods, doing their hair or performing songs and dances. It is inspirational that people always find solace in their traditions through difficult times.

I imagine that the main reason for this weekly gathering is that many employers wouldn’t be open to having their domestic workers visited by other workers in their homes. Some workers might not even have a room to themselves, therefore it makes sense to find one spot where everyone can meet and socialise or explore the city together.

I could not imagine the same happening in Ireland, especially due to the weather but also because it’s more likely that live-in workers have their own space for resting on their days off. I have, however, heard of some domestic workers in Ireland who don’t have their own room, who either share a room with the kids or sleep in the living room or kitchen.

While not trivialising the struggles of these workers in Hong Kong, It is inspirational that people in such circumstances can meet and do meaningful things on their only days off. Why wouldn’t we be able to do the same or more? Maybe we need to do a study visit and learn how they mobilise and utilise their time off better than us.

Mariaam Bhatti is a member of the Domestic Workers Action Group and Force Labour Action Group of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland.

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