Leave, Stay and Return

Leave, Stay and Return

(Photo credit: Flickr – redlegsfan21)

When Shiony Pepe’s daughter heard that her mother was going to leave home for work, she was excited that her mother would be able to start sending her money and dresses soon. At that time, this then 11-year-old girl was too little to realise what this departure meant. It had taken Shiony, however, four years to make this tough decision.

Shiony Pepe, a single mother from the Philippines, has been working as a domestic helper in Hong Kong since 1997.

After Shiony’s husband passed away when she was pregnant, she was trapped in a depressed mood for a long time. To create a better environment for her daughter, she took college classes majoring in Agriculture and Technology while working as a librarian part time. Her income from both the government allowance and her salary from the library could barely make ends meet. Money was a persistent headache for her. For most people, going from being a university student and librarian to cleaning some family’s house is a huge regret. For Shiony, it was merely a necessary sacrifice: “You must swallow your pride if you want to earn more.”

On October 17, 1997, Shiony left for Hong Kong after careful consideration. Since then, her life has changed significantly.

During the first six months in Hong Kong, Shiony cried every night, missing her daughter. At the time, it was inconvenient and expensive to make overseas telephone calls. Instead, she had to go to the post office to write letters, and it usually took her one month to hear back from her daughter. But with the spread of mobile phones, Shiony was finally able to call her daughter every night. “I ask her study hard and please pray always. And I tell her I am here to listen to whatever problems she encounters at school.” The girl’s voice from her far-away hometown was an antidote for homesickness. And, at least, this way she could accompany her daughter, sharing her happiness and sorrow, and reducing her sense of regret and guilt.

As time has gone by, Shiony has gradually adapted to life in Hong Kong. But, usually, she does not have much free time. Every Sunday, the only day off for these Filipino domestic workers, she will go to church to pray and to Central in Hong Kong Island where she can meet her cousin Jeana, her only relative in Hong Kong and also a domestic worker.

There are about 160,000 Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong, and one-third of them are estimated to be single. Whatever their age or marriage status, they occupy the Statue Square and nearby HSBC Main Building in Central on Sundays to shey share their stories with their compatriots, who are scattered across the entire Hong Kong, and with whom it is hard to talk the other six days of the week. Domestic workers from other Southeast countries, on the other hand, choose to gather in other places, like Yau Ma Tei or Mong Kok. The Filipino workers often cook some snacks in advance and take them there to share. Some of the young women like to spend the Sunday putting make up on each other using cheap cosmetics and taking some selfies or group photos.

Besides the once-a-week holiday, foreign domestic workers like Shiony also get a fortnight of vacation every year, when they can return home and reunite with their relatives.

According to the Hong Kong Government’s policy, people who have stayed in Hong Kong for at least seven consecutive years with a valid working or study visa can apply for a permanent identity card, but foreign domestic workers are not included in the scope of the policy. Unfortunately, they are also not protected by the Statutory Minimum Wage (SMW). This is why they only make an average of HK$4,010 per month, which can only cover the monthly rent for a room under 5 square metres in many areas in Hong Kong.

After 13 years, Shiony’s daughter has graduated from university and is working at a pharmacy in Manila, earning a stable salary which is slightly lower than the salary Shiony earns in Hong Kong. Shiony’s financial burden is now relieved. But her longing to return to the Philippines has been intensified. She looks forward to living with her daughter in their own house in Manila permanently.

When that day will come?She doesn’t know.

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