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“We have come to Hong Kong with certain dreams… We shouldn’t lose sight of that.” A Domestic Helper’s Honest And Heartwarming Story

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Family LifePost Category - Family LifeFamily Life - Post Category - Domestic HelpersDomestic Helpers

So many of us have domestic helpers in Hong Kong, but how often do we know what goes on in their lives? What happens when we look beyond their smiles, their bustling efficiency and their love for our children? A Hong Kong helper tells us her story.

When I was asked what it felt like to be a helper in Hong Kong, I had to stop and think. I’m nearly 54 years old now and I have been a helper for over 34 years… it’s safe to say that I don’t even remember what’s it like not to be a helper anymore!

Read More: A Guide To Hiring A Helper In Hong Kong

domestic helper work in hk

From The Philippines To Hong Kong As A Domestic Helper

I come from a very small village in the Philippines. I had a happy childhood, but when my mother died when I was 11 years old, I had to start helping out at home. I also earned some extra money by working at my neighbours’ houses. I am one of six children, the fifth in the family and the second girl. I feel very proud that after the age of 20, I never had to rely on my family for money. In fact, I’ve been the one to support them through health, career and life crises.

I first worked in Abu Dhabi, UAE, for eight years. I took only a 15-day break before my next stint in Jordan. I worked there for over seven years and had two employers in that time, including working in the Palace for the Princess Aisha, the sister of King Abdullah II. After that was another stint in UAE, and I worked there for four years, followed by a short two-year stay in Saudi Arabia. In between contracts, I barely went home to the Philippines at all, and only spent a few days whenever I was back. I didn’t have the time to make a life there because I was so focused on finding my next contract.

After that, I decided to come to Hong Kong. My sister was already working here and I felt that this would be a better place to work in than the Middle East. I have been in Hong Kong over 10 years now. I have had four employers move away because of international relocation during this time, so I realise it’s a more transient city than the countries in the Middle East, but Hong Kong has its advantages and I am glad I moved here. Though we usually live in small accommodations, there are more rights here for domestic helpers, we enjoy our days off and there is a vibrant community of Filipino helpers here.

Read More: How To Show Gratitude To Your Helper

contract renewal worries for domestic helpers in hk

The Challenges Of Being A Helper In Hong Kong

The toughest part of being a foreign domestic worker is not the work itself, nor the hours, nor the regulations, nor adjusting to employers. It’s being away from your loved ones. While we are entitled to 15 days off every two years, most of my employers have been kind enough to give me more than my allotted days off. But when you see your family only once a year, three weeks is just not enough! I lost my father during COVID and I couldn’t be with him. I watched the funeral on Skype and just tried to remember the things that I am grateful for – that my job helped me build a comfortable home for him during the last years of his life.

Another aspect that causes a lot of worry is the renewal of the contract every two years.

“Being a helper is not just a job. Your heart is involved when there are kids, and when it’s contract renewal time, sometimes you feel disowned for absolutely no fault of yours.”

It’s never happened to me, but friends have lost their jobs because an employer didn’t want to pay long-term fees. And with many of my employers having relocated, I feel as if I have lost four families. It’s been emotionally draining to find a new family each time, a new home and love and acceptance all over again.

Read More: Preparing Your Child For The Arrival Of Your New Helper

Dealing With Employer-Helper Conflict

In any job, there will be some tension between employer and employee. I understand that. The only thing is that for domestic helpers, there is no boundary between our work and any other aspect of our life – we live at our workplace and in the homes of our employers, so sometimes we feel completely at their mercy (even when they are very nice people, it is an uncomfortable feeling).

We Filipinos are usually very good with babies and children – we have been raised with so many around us! So sometimes, new mothers and working mums get jealous of our bond with their children. They should understand that if there is anyone in the world who would understand the pain of separation and mum guilt, it’s us!

“Sometimes, our employers forget that we are mothers too and we are not trying to take their place. It’s natural to love a child you take care of and to shower a little extra affection, especially when you are missing your own baby.”

In another instance that happened when I was in the Middle East, I was not allowed sunscreen. I didn’t ask my employer to buy it. I bought it myself with my earnings. Perhaps I had bought a more expensive brand than necessary (I don’t even remember – I was so young then!) but it sparked something in my employer and she forbade me from using it. Her husband realised it was unfair and intervened, but I haven’t been able to forget the hurt and humiliation I felt, though it happened over 25 years ago.

Read More: Parenting With Your Helper’s Assistance – How to Create and Maintain Unity

melba travels being a domestic worker in hk

What I Have Gained From Being A Domestic Helper

I have to be honest – while there are many sad aspects, it’s not a bad life. I have had the chance to live and work in six countries, travel to many more and meet many interesting people. It’s not an opportunity I would have had normally. And now and then, you find a family that embraces you wholeheartedly. My former employers loved and accepted me as part of their family. Their children would make video calls to my son every weekend and bonded with him, even though they hadn’t met him. My employers wanted to bring him to Hong Kong for the summer holidays, but then COVID upended all plans. They have now relocated but we are still very much in touch. We talk regularly, meet when they visit Hong Kong and in this case, I know I will always be a part of their lives wherever they go. They now plan to pay for both me and my son to visit them in India. We have been planning the trip for a while now and I am very excited – I need to get my son’s passport sorted soon!

Read More: Tips For Taking Your Domestic Worker Abroad For A Family Holiday

Advice For My Fellow Helpers In Hong Kong

When things get tough, I remind myself why I am doing this job. It’s to build a better life for myself and my loved ones. Given the employment situation in our home countries, it’s more lucrative to be a domestic helper in Hong Kong than to have a skills-based job in the Philippines (I should know – my sister is an engineer and couldn’t find a job back home!). And I am grateful that I have been able to do that with some smart investing and saving.

financial planning as a domestic helper in hk

This is one piece of advice I would like to give my fellow domestic workers: we have all come here with certain dreams. When we live here alone, in this highly materialistic city, it’s easy to forget that and get caught up in the lure of the latest swanky gadget, that stunning gown, that influencer-endorsed makeup… I’m not saying it’s wrong to want things, but weigh what you want more. If what you want most is to build a better life and to go back home (because as you know, we cannot become permanent residents here), then don’t waste your hard-earned money. There are plenty of courses and institutions that will teach you about financial planning here in Hong Kong and online. Use them wisely, save for your future, don’t get caught in the moneylending trap, don’t fall for online marriage proposals (it’s heartbreaking to see friends get scammed!) and work hard to get where you want to. It all pays off eventually.

Read More: The Most Useful Classes For Helpers In Hong Kong

family in Philippines domestic helpers in hk

I was introduced to domestic work when I was just 11 years old… now that I think about it, that’s how old my son is now. I say a little prayer and thank God every day that he doesn’t have to go through the same things I went through. He is enjoying his childhood, riding his bike in the village, attending school and being a kid, just as he should! Maybe my whole life has been worth it after all!

Read More: Your Domestic Helper Asked For A Loan. Now What? Answers To Financial Situations

Editor’s Note: Melba Espinoza told her story to her former employer and forever family member, Anita Balagopalan


  Main image and images 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 courtesy of Anita Balagopalan, images 6 and 7 courtesy of Melba Espinoza.

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