SINGAPORE: For the past nine years, Filipino domestic worker Grace and her friends have congregated in Central - the business and retail heart of Hong Kong - on most of her days off.
The last Sunday of September was no different. Grace left her employer’s home in Kowloon, took a train and headed towards Central.
After six days of work, she was looking forward to spending the day with her friends and relatives. Even more so because it was her cousin’s birthday celebration.
But right in the middle of their celebration, hundreds of protesters dressed in black and wearing hard hats, goggles and other protection gear stormed the area in a fashion that had become a familiar sight in the streets of Hong Kong in recent months.
That Sunday would turn out to be one of the most intense day of clashes in months of demonstrations in Hong Kong sparked by a now-abandoned extradition Bill.
Hardcore activists vandalised train stations, tore down banners proclaiming the 70th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the People's Republic of China on Oct 1, set fire to makeshift barricades and hurled rocks and petrol bombs.
The police spent hours firing tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons at different locations. They also fired a live round warning shot into the air.
Caught in the mayhem were Grace and her fellow foreign domestic workers.
“The tear gas made it difficult for me to breathe,” said Grace, who asked to be identified only by her first name.
“The safe and very peaceful Hong Kong which I consider as my second home is very different now. When we go out on Sundays and statutory holidays you can see properties vandalised by protesters, riot police everywhere and some train stations closed. These are things that I have not seen in my entire stay here in Hong Kong,” said Grace, who has worked as a helper in Hong Kong for nine years, the last six of which were with a Hong Kong family in Prince Edward, Kowloon.
PHILIPPINES NOT RULING OUT BAN ON WORKER DEPLOYMENT TO HONG KONG
Hong Kong, which has a population of 7.4 million people, has around 400,000 foreign domestic workers in the city, with many from the Philippines and Indonesia.
On their days off, many of the helpers typically congregate in public spaces such as Central, Wan Chai and Victoria Park in Causeway Bay or under flyovers and footbridges to nap, relax and catch up with their friends.
But those places are also where massive protests have taken place over the past four months.
Besides not being able to enjoy their days off, the protests have also caused some helpers to worry about their personal safety and job security.
“Some Filipino workers are worried about their jobs as some of the employers are relocating,” the Philippine Overseas Labor Office told CNA.
“Also, they are worried about their safety. Many of them can't enjoy their day off during Sundays since big protests are usually slated on these days and it is too chaotic to go out,” said the Office, which serves as the operating arm of the Philippines’ Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE).
DOLE on Wednesday (Oct 9) reiterated its warning to overseas Filipino workers in Hong Kong to be vigilant and exercise caution by staying indoors and keeping away from protest locations.
It also advised Filipinos working in Hong Kong to refrain from wearing black or white clothing to avoid being mistaken for protesters.
The Philippine Overseas Labor Office told CNA it has not ruled out a ban on the deployment of overseas foreign workers to Hong Kong if the situation worsens.
“As of today, the Philippines government is not considering any deployment ban of workers here in Hong Kong. However, we shall continuously monitor the situation and may impose a ban if needed,” it told CNA.
For now, it is keeping its citizens informed by issuing advisories through social networking sites and its official website.
“WHERE’S THE PROTEST”
The Filipino domestic workers who spoke to CNA said that they try their best to keep informed about the protest schedules, so as to not risk getting caught in the crossfire.
Most of them get their updates from their employers, friends, as well as follow new sites on social media.
They also know to avoid going to Central – the gathering place for most helpers from the Philippines – particularly during the weekends because “it is very dangerous”.
“Last time I ask ‘where to go on Sunday’, but now I ask ‘where’s the protest’. I am avoiding the men in black,” said Kris, who works for a Hong Kong couple and their two-year-old son in North Point.
On Oct 6, a Filipino helper identified as Joy P experienced difficulty breathing and fainted after inhaling tear gas fired by police to disperse protesters in Wan Chai.
Joy, who was taking a break from a basketball game when the tear gas was fired, was taken to hospital for tests. She has since been discharged.
“The protests are getting worse and uncontrollable due to the tension and anger of the protesters towards the government laws and the officials,” said Kim, who has worked in Hong Kong for nine years. She has been living with her current employer in the Tai Po district for the last 15 months.
“I live far away from the places where the protesters do their activities so I don't mind it as long I know I am safe. But if the situation gets worse and cannot be controlled by the Hong Kong government and all the places are affected then I think it's time to take action to leave Hong Kong any time,” she said.
For Kim and Grace, however, who are the main breadwinners for their families, their greatest worry is being left without a job.
“I am just thinking if my employer suddenly decides to relocate then my problem will start to worry. If that happens, I will be going back to Philippines. Then start all over again to find new employer,” said Kim.
“I need this job in order to provide my family needs. I’m just praying that this violence and protests will end soon,” said Grace.
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