Foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong : occupation, resistance, autonomy

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350,000 Foreign Domestic Helpers live in Hong Kong. Due to lack of personal space in the homes of the employers – where they live and work – many of them occupy public spaces to gather and socialise on their weekly day off work. This construct organically evolved over time and has become what is known as Little Manila, where thousands of Foreign Domestic Helpers construct temporary ‘homes’ of their own in the public cityscape of Central, Hong Kong every Sunday. This spatial phenomenon is not an isolated issue specific to Hong Kong. Currently there are nearly 53 million domestic workers worldwide and nearly 80% are women migrants. As such, what occurs in Hong Kong illustrates the global issue of the socio-spatial inequality of female migrant workers, especially those who participate in domestic labour. In Hong Kong, Foreign Domestic Helpers attend to the domestic chores of local households, raising children and caring for the elderly, yet every aspect of their lives are regulated by laws, giving power to the employers at the expense of exploiting the workers, who are restricted to no private space in the homes, disciplined, overworked and underpaid, without citizenship rights in the city-state. Every Sunday, what appears as a collection of women engaging in domestic activities in makeshift cardboard units on elevated walkways and underpasses is a manifestation of resistance, in the form of nomadic spaces, motivated by the need to have space. Over time, this ritualistic occurrence has evolved into a spatial phenomenon that is created by and accommodates the city-state’s disenfranchised residents. This thesis draws on ethnographic observations, spatial analysis, photographs and interviews conducted in Hong Kong between 2012 and 2016 to understand the spatial phenomenon. The research reveals a contrast between the spatial condition of the Foreign Domestic Helpers’ workplace and their temporary constructions in public space. The reduction of space experienced in their employers’ homes significantly contributes to the weekly expansion of space. The research analyses the socio-spatial consequences that emerge from global migrant labour by examining the capacity of the disenfranchised to have space and autonomy. By reassessing the migrant women who appear to be voiceless yet consistently reassert themselves in the public cityscape through their disruption to the hegemonic spatial order, this thesis gives voice to a silence that operates across the labour market and reveals the importance of having space, not as a commodity, but as a human condition to live a dignified life.
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