The protest movement in Hong Kong has ushered in a new awareness of labor rights and reproductive care, and has brought often silenced voices of women involved in domestic care work to the fore. Today, that awareness has been brought into sharp relief by the coronavirus pandemic. While the pandemic has put a pause on street protests, the movement has made lasting impact through its promotion of unions and labor organizing.
The movement, which began in June 2019 as an opposition to a now-shelved extradition bill, grew to become a broader political movement for democracy and self-determination in the city. The mobilization of housewives represented a maturation of how movements in Hong Kong considers injustice as running throughout societal institutions, not just in the courts and legislative chambers.
The protests marked a break with the past, gaining broad support across sectors of society, notably by self-identified housewives who, in a widely-circulated petition, underlined the power they have to engage in political action as providers of essential care work. They wrote:
Housewives of all types — full-time, part-time, disabled, elderly, single, newly immigrated, of other ethnicities, of any class status that still needs to take care of the elderly, young, and disabled — we must all be in solidarity with each other and support each other whatever way we can. If the authoritarian regime continues to stubbornly persist in its wrongful ways, then housewives will strike, and tyranny must fall.
In its earlier stages, the movement focused largely on five demands which are political, rather than economic. Only recently, with the emergence of large-scale unionization, has the movement veered into addressing explicitly economic concerns.
Unfortunately, this unionization drive has left out the city’s well-established unions of migrant domestic workers, which have long advocated for fairer working conditions for an estimated 400,000 migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong.
Concerns about jeopardizing their employment status by participating in protests and having migrant workers’ rights issues be overshadowed by the protest movement undoubtedly factor into why these two causes have remained somewhat siloed. For example, last year, Yuli Riswati, a migrant domestic worker who also worked as a journalist covering the movement, was deported under unusual circumstances which many believe were politically motivated.
Largely women from South East Asian countries, migrant domestic workers endure some of the most gruelling and exploitative working conditions in Hong Kong. These workers can be victimized by employers, as their immigration status and isolation from familiar support networks in their home countries and from organizations who can advocate for their rights. These workers are legally mandated to live with their employers in conditions which can lead to excessive working hours and abuse.
In Hong Kong, as elsewhere, the spread of Covid-19 has shone a light on the importance of care and solidarity in our daily lives. Although Hong Kong is not under total lockdown, social distancing is encouraged, with bars and salons closed for 14 days from April 10 to April 23. A directive that no more than four people can gather in public at once is also in effect.
Schools across Hong Kong are cancelled and many professionals are working remotely, which mean there is more work to be done at home. The situation of migrant domestic workers have deteriorated as the pandemic has spread. Domestic workers have reported injuries from bleach and boiling water which employers have asked them to use to disinfect surfaces during the pandemic.
Migrant domestic workers have also been left out from government relief measures like cash handouts announced to provide relief to Hong Kong residents during the pandemic. Aid from migrant workers’ unions and other groups has filled some of the gap: unions and NGOs have organized donation drives for masks and hand sanitizer, which some employers do not provide for their workers.
Social distancing is especially difficult for migrant domestic workers, who effectively live at their places of work. The Hong Kong Association of Employers of Overseas Domestic Workers issued a call for employers to restrict the comings and goings of migrant domestic workers in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Hong Kong’s Labour Department also appealed to migrant domestic workers to stay at home on their rest day. The Association resorted to an age-old tactic: justifying themselves by asserting that their demand was based on care for their employees’ wellbeing “because they love them.”
The Association’s attitude demonstrates a fundamental devaluation of the work these workers perform in a capitalist labor relation, not out of love or obligation to their employers (though that may also exist). It weaponizes gendered ideas of sacrifice and care to deny these workers their rights and disguises the power dynamic between employer and employee, allowing inappropriate demands to be placed on migrant domestic workers under the guise of selflessness for the family.
The ongoing pandemic has forced us to re-examine the value we place on workers who sustain our health and wellbeing outside of the domestic context. It has never been clearer that the level of compensation and protection received they receive has no bearing on how essential they are to the functioning of society or the economy.
The work migrant domestic workers perform is essential to the functioning of Hong Kong’s economy and the care of its young and elderly. Research has shown that the childcare and domestic work migrant workers perform is of crucial importance to the ability of Hong Kong women to participate in the workforce. Being ‘essential’ is no guarantee of fair treatment or compensation. Instead, it’s often weaponized by employers to evoke guilt in these workers for speaking up about being denied adequate protective equipment when on the job.
At a time our collective public health is at risk, and working conditions grow more dangerous, corporations and employers have started to adopt this age-old excuse for other jobs. It is easier for corporations to cast their workers who take on considerable risk to keep stacking grocery store shelves, preparing food, delivering packages or keeping public transport running so that others can isolate at home as selfless heroes, rather than advocate for them to receive hazard pay or paid sick leave.
Today, the lesson to be learnt from the persistent undervaluing of care and domestic work is that love, heroism and selflessness are often used to deny these workers fair and just compensation. Rhetoric about workers’ heroism or sacrifice which is designed to tug on the heartstrings must be seen for the cynical tactic that it is: a way for corporations and employers to absolve themselves of the responsibility to keep their workers safe while they are on the job. Workers should not need to be selfless in order to provide for themselves and their families, they should be protected and treated fairly.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shaken the world. When the dust settles, there is one thing which we cannot allow to return to normal, for domestic and all other workers. We must remember clearly how the coronavirus exposed the nature of exploitation in kinds of work that are deemed essential, and ensure that we work to change it for the better.
Yukiko Kobayashi Lui is a writer based in Hong Kong. She is interested in the law, care and the family.