Maricel Angeles, at the age of 29, has been many things: would-be nurse, university dropout, waitress, devoted single mother.
Her child is the most important thing to her, so when job opportunities ran dry in her native Manila, and with her daughter soon to begin grade school, she made the difficult decision to leave her family behind and take on a new role as a domestic helper abroad.
A friend had recommended a high-paying job in the Middle East - a well worn path thousands of Filipinos tread each year, seeking an overseas income that will stretch much further at home.
Maricel’s mother, Leny Angeles, 58, had worked as a part-time caregiver in Canada - the same country where Maricel’s older sister Cheryl currently works as a Chili’s restaurant manager at Calgary International Airport.
“It’s hard to apply [for jobs] in the Philippines, especially at my age,” Maricel says, in a husky voice that in another life could have landed her a job in radio.
She was speaking at a helpers’ training camp in Paranaque City, Manila, on a hot afternoon in late February, where she was preparing for a job in Hong Kong, following a two-year stint in 2012 as a maid in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates.
“You haven’t graduated, you can’t apply [for jobs in] fast food or malls. They have the age limit,” she says, wearing the training camp’s uniform of jeans and cyan T-shirt, with her russet-streaked hair pulled back neatly from her face. Menial jobs for the non-degree-holders who can bag them pay roughly 40 pesos (HK$7) an hour.
Maricel’s life story is one of struggle and dreams interrupted.
She got pregnant in her senior year of high school and within days of starting a four-year university course in nursing, gave birth to a cherub-faced little girl, Jamie Adrienne. Her boyfriend, a musician, did not let their new baby get in the way of his partying and drinking. The relationship fell apart and Maricel attempted to blot him from her memory. Jamie grew up calling her grandfather “Daddy”, as he was her true father figure.
Struggling to bring up her baby while continuing her studies at La Concordia College in Paco, Manila, she was eventually forced to sacrifice her studies as there was no one at home to take care of Jamie. Her father, a welder, worked long hours, her mother was in Canada at the time and her two sisters had children of their own to bring up.
After dropping out of college, she earned little - about 1,500 pesos (HK$259) a month - working first as a spa receptionist, then as a cashier at a pizza restaurant and as a waitress in two bars.
“Hong Kong, I heard, is a beautiful place, with more opportunities”
In 2010, while pounding the streets of Manila, she found a recruitment agency offering work abroad. She wanted to find an employer in Hong Kong but was horrified by the agency fees she would have to pay. She instead chose to apply for jobs in the Middle East, as the fees were significantly lower.
“Hong Kong, I heard, is a beautiful place, with more opportunities,” she said. “Even when I decided to go to the [United Arab Emirates], I wanted instead to work in Hong Kong, but I couldn’t afford the higher placement fee of nearly 100,000 pesos”. The Philippine president’s monthly salary is 120,000 pesos.
After consulting her parents, she decided it was best that she take the job, which paid 920 dirham a month (HK$1,942, or 11,240 pesos) – even if it meant leaving Jamie in the care of extended family. In September 2010 Maricel flew to Abu Dhabi.
The home Maricel left in Manila sits on Arellano Avenue in San Andres district - a narrow, long road buzzing with impromptu basketball games and motor tricycles, while the smells of grilling and frying food from street carts wafts through the air.
At night, the street is lit up with the fluorescence of small eateries, convenience stores, printing and tyre shops, along with the kerosene lamps of food hawkers.
Shoes dot the steep wooden staircase that leads to her family’s front door. The two-floor home, boasting walls and fixtures painted in yellow and pink and a small balcony overlooking the gritty slum across the road, is modest. There is a faint smell of stagnant water from the creek by the road.
Five people live there - Maricel’s parents, her sister and her newborn niece, and Jamie.
Through her toil, Maricel can afford to send Jamie to a private school, the Jesus Reigns Christian Academy, where she enjoys a strong arts programme that includes lyre lessons. Jamie’s education costs 40,000 pesos (HK$6,900) per year, which includes tuition, uniforms and new textbooks each semester. Jamie says that someday she wants to be a surgeon.
In the living room, Jamie performs small somersaults off the couch. Grandmother Leny seems exasperated, but is used to the youngster’s antics. “She’s as naughty as her mother,” Leny says. “They’re both boisterous and laugh very loud.”
Leny, a homemaker originally from Bulacan province, and her welder husband Adriano, raised three girls in the property - Cindy, Cheryl and their youngest, Maricel. Leny used to own a sari-sari store (a small shop that sells daily necessities) when her children were younger, but with three children to look after, keeping the business going became unsustainable.
Having two daughters and a son-in-law earning overseas – Cindy’s husband works as a labourer in Australia – and sending money back home has made life in Manila a little more comfortable, Leny says. “We buy food. Just a few luxuries: we go to the mall, we buy what we like - clothes, groceries,” she explains.
When Maricel was working in Abu Dhabi, Jamie received the first of many care packages from her mother, containing two types of Nutella and a pair of rollerblades. For the other relatives, there were chocolates, money and hand-me-down baby clothes donated by her Arab employers. The husband was a 31-year-old banker and the wife was a 23-year-old stay at home mum.
However the gifts were part of a trade off many Filipino children like Jamie know well; the material benefits acquired for the price of an absent parent.
Jamie recalls weeping at the airport the first time her mother flew to the Middle East.
As the pair clutched one another at the departure gate, Jamie, aged just five at the time, whispered: “I will miss you and I love you Mama.”
She had earlier stubbornly told her mother she was not allowed to leave, but eventually relented when her family explained that she had to seek work in order to be able to pay her daughter’s tuition fees.
The first few days after her mother left were the hardest. “I couldn’t sleep. I wanted my mom to hug me. So I put her pillow beside me and I hugged that,” she says.
Maricel phoned Jamie twice each week. When her daughter was sick, Maricel would remain on the line until the child fell asleep.
Jamie remembers panicking when she saw on the news that a helper had been stabbed in Abu Dhabi. “I text-messaged her even when she was not allowed to use her cellphone [all the time],” Jamie says. “I always told her to come home.”
In Abu Dhabi Maricel worked for a young Arab couple with a newborn daughter, sharing a room with the baby in the family’s 11-bedroom villa.
She cleaned, dusted, washed, ironed and looked after the baby, taking responsibility for maintaining the family’s private quarters. The rest of the sprawling property was serviced by two Indonesian helpers.
She did not have days off, and sometimes worked long hours without overtime pay - a fact that worried her mother. “There was lots of work,” Maricel says.
The United Arab Emirates, like much of the Middle East, has no statutory minimum wage for domestic helpers and does not include limits on working hours in standard domestic labour contracts. It was only in June 2014 that the UAE legislated that helpers get one day off a week.
During Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, Maricel would have to stay up late preparing food in time for the post-sunset feast Iftar.
“But my employers were kind, thank God,” she says, despite communication difficulties – the family spoke only broken English, while Maricel’s three days’ training arranged by the recruitment agency did not allow her enough time to learn basic Arabic. Nevertheless, the family gave her hand-me-downs for children in her family and free access to a laptop allowing her to keep in touch with her family on occasion.
Maricel was able to send home about 6,000 to 7,000 pesos (HK$1,000 – HK$1,200) a month to her family. The rest she spent on phone cards to call home, clothes and other personal needs.
But she felt like she was living in a restrictive society. There were certain clothes women were not allowed to wear, she says, and there was segregation of the sexes. It also took her time to get used to the food.
But she made the best of her experience. “I had no choice. I had to enjoy [my work] - to love it, for me not to feel homesick, right?”
One day in early December 2012 Jamie came out of her lyre class at noon and was pulled into a hug by a stranger.
Jamie scanned the person’s face before it registered that it was her mother, plumper than she remembered but with the same wide smile. They had not seen each other for two years. “I was surprised. I didn’t know who it was. Then it turned out to be mummy.
“She embraced me and said she missed me; that she always thought of me when she was in Abu Dhabi. I was so happy.”
Maricel had rushed from the airport to Jamie’s school, then promptly showered her daughter with presents – an iPad and a gaming console. There were more treats to come.
They dropped off her suitcases at home and spent the afternoon together at the mall, going to a hair salon and then eating fried chicken.
Maricel says she arrived home with 20,000 pesos (HK$3,400), but it petered out in just two weeks. She helped pay the family’s electricity and internet bills and treated her family and friends to meals out. Shopping trips to the mall with Jamie quickly became browsing trips.
“When you come home from overseas, people expect you to be full of money. Part of you gets guilty if you don’t bring home something for everyone,” she explained. “The Philippines has a culture of giving pasalubong [homecoming gifts].
“Friends and neighbours also tease you sometimes into libre [buying things for them], so you do it. It feels very good when you can buy your family food and gadgets.”
Even though the finances dwindled Jamie says that during the time she was back in Manila her mother took charge of her schooling, staying up late to help her study for lessons and exams.
Then one day late last year, after 17 months at home, she overheard Maricel’s friend ask, “So when are you going to Hong Kong?” Jamie was broken-hearted. “I asked, ‘Mommy are you leaving?’ She said yes, and I cried ... I said [before Abu Dhabi] that when mom comes home, we won’t ever be separated again.”
Maricel’s mother, who left her family for six years to work in Canada, seems to view separation as a necessary inconvenience. “We feel sad, of course. But when they call, they Skype, the sadness goes away - especially when they send us something,” Leny said in March last year while Maricel was in the training camp.
“I am sad because I won’t have a mommy. But I’m also happy … because there will be chocolate”
She also says she thinks Maricel’s stint in the Middle East made her a more responsible woman, “smarter” about life, pointing to the fact that her daughter signed up for computer literacy classes so she could earn credits towards a degree. The plan fizzled out.
“That’s why I want her to go [abroad] again, so she can get back on track,” Leny says.
Jamie sniffles and sinks further back into the couch, prompting her grandmother to pinch her lightly on the arm and tell her not to cry.
“I am sad because I won’t have mommy,” she says. Then, after a heartbeat adds: “But I’m also happy … because there will be chocolate.”
Jamie further brightens when she talks about the possibility of living with her mother in Hong Kong someday. She is most excited about visiting the city's Disneyland theme park.
All she can wish, she admits, is that her mother will be safe in Hong Kong. “I hope her employer will be kind. I hope that the child she will take care of will not be naughty. I hope nothing happens to her,” she says.
Meanwhile, at the training camp, a house that feels more like a dormitory, Maricel seems grateful for the more rigorous preparation she is getting this time. The programme costs about 26,000 pesos (HK$4,500).
Along with 45 other women, a handful of whom have worked as helpers in Taiwan or the Middle East, she is given hands-on training on how to clean windows, wash a car in minutes, fold bedspreads into neat squares, cook three-course Chinese meals, operate common household appliances, care for pets and the elderly, and how to speak basic Cantonese.
Trainees wake at 5am, take a variety of hour-long lessons until noon, take their lunch together, then train again until 8.30pm. Then they do “homework” - written exercises or other chores - until it’s time for bed at 11pm.
Participants can take special lessons, or “modules”, and eschew others, depending on what the Malaysian and Hong Kong employers awaiting them want. Instructors, mainly retired maids, watch them and assess physical skills and demeanour. Are they respectful and courteous in manner and tone? Do they obey rules?
Maricel bears the centre’s strict rules on dress, behaviour and work standards with aplomb. But as she speaks, in a small attic where she and other helpers-in-training sleep on cloth mats each night, the cracks of fatigue and isolation show, particularly when she talks about her daughter.
They have been apart for three weeks. The trainees are not allowed to contact loved ones for the duration of the programme - to psychologically prepare them, according to the centre’s administrator, for the loneliness of life abroad.
“I’m doing this for my daughter’s future because I have to fully support her,” she says.
Maricel arrived in Hong Kong in June 2014, some three months after graduating from the training camp.
She almost didn’t make it. On a train in Manila, as she travelled to pay for her final medical check-up - an agency requirement to prove to an employer their new hire is physically fit and not with child - she was robbed. The thief stole some 4,000 pesos (HK$700) in cash and her tablet computer.
She flailed around for extra cash, having spent the last of her savings and some of her mother’s, on the final training centre instalment. Her daughter’s tuition fees were also due. But an aunt came through for her in the following days with a loan, and she was cleared for take-off.
Upon arrival, she stayed briefly at the Hong Kong recruitment agency’s dormitory in a Causeway Bay high-rise, a few floors above its cramped offices.
The following day her employers arrived to take her to her new home. The wealthy couple, who have a toddler and another on the way, live in a spacious flat on Hong Kong Island and like to have three helpers running the household.
Maricel arrived with a determination to complete her two-year contract. She would pay off her debts and probably stay in Hong Kong for a few more years.
But things quickly went downhill.
Maricel had almost daily clashes with her male employer. He had a quick temper and screamed at her for the slightest missteps.
The couple sacked one of their three helpers, and her tasks fell on Maricel’s shoulders. Though freshly trained and sharp, and excited to show off her skills, Maricel struggled to do the work of two people.
The other helper was tasked exclusively with taking care of the couple’s child, so all household chores were done by Maricel.
By the time her employers woke at 6am, she was expected to have done the grocery shopping, prepared breakfast for their toddler, as well as mopped and dusted. She thought the family's expectations were too high.
“When I was not able to do a certain task… he would get mad, really mad. He would really scream: ‘Why haven’t you done this yet?’ or ‘Did you train at all?’” Maricel says later, during one of her days off - a Monday - at a shaded corner of Hong Kong's Victoria Park.
Little things would set him off: the lack of juice in the fridge, using her phone to call up Jamie and her mother late at night, or "talking too loudly" in the kitchen.
Praise was never forthcoming, Maricel said. “[Even] if I perfect the food, they’ll see problems with the table. Never a day goes by when he doesn’t scold me.
“Once, when we were taking their child to school, ma’am [the woman employer] forgot her bag. So I had to get it from the car. I was hurrying, but my [male] employer yelled, ‘You’re so slow! Run! Run!’ He kept on yelling at me in front of all the other helpers and parents. It was a bit terrifying.”
The South China Morning Post made several attempts to contact the employers. But the recruitment agency said the couple had demurred on a request for comment, as they had family matters to attend to.
The family kept her passport, for “safety” reasons - a condition Maricel consented to even though the practice is not encouraged under labour guidelines. They also postponed payingher HK$960 monthly food allowance - required by Hong Kong immigration law - for two months, saying she needed to “improve” her work first, she claims.
The couple’s other helper, who had been in the household for several years, told Maricel she and her former colleague had also been constantly scolded, but it stopped after a year. “He’s just testing you,” she told her.
Compared to her husband, the heavily pregnant wife had a gentler approach toward her employees. She reassured Maricel that despite her husband’s behaviour, they were only words.
But while Maricel says she could endure criticism, she soon started to feel threatened by what she described as his torrent of verbal abuse. Maricel knew to keep her mouth shut. “I’d noticed with him that when you say something back, he’d become more high-pitched,” she says.
One tense evening, when she failed to cling-wrap mooncakes to his liking, her employer slapped her hands. It was a hard swat, the way someone might bat at a fly. At that moment she felt fearful that perhaps there would be more serious physical attacks.
“My mind was racing. Maybe he would do something worse,” Maricel said.
So she called up her sister Cheryl, and her mother Leny, for advice. “Should I break my contract?” she asked. Leny advised her to stick it out; that her employer might ease up on the scolding.
Cheryl said: “Why don’t you try finding another employer?"
On September 18, her day off that week, Maricel visited a church and then sat on a bench by the Central ferry piers and wrote a heartfelt letter to her employers explaining why she wanted to resign, including details of the episodes of physical contact.
She left it on the wife's dresser later in the afternoon. For once, there were no angry words that night, only a heavy silence. The next day, the couple told her they would go to the recruitment agency that linked them up, Technic Employment Agency, so they could finalise the termination of her contract.
“The Technic staff told me to leave the room while they spoke to the employer. After that, the staff asked me, ‘Why did you write [the letter], when it isn’t true?’ They defended the male employer, who said he didn’t do that to my hand.
“What could I do? That’s what the couple said. They gave me the form for 30 days’ notice. They said, ‘You will just sign and no need to tell what’s your problem.’ And then we went home,” she said.
Irene Leung, a senior manager at Technic, confirmed that Maricel and her two employers, who are long-time clients of the placement agency, had come to their offices to settle the matter. After a fair and honest “briefing” or mediation, the three agreed to a termination of Maricel’s contract.
However, she insisted that Technic does not take sides in any dispute between helpers and employers, stepping in only when there is clear evidence of abuse. “If any helper comes in and has a problem about abuse, we ask them to call police on the spot. It will not do her any good to keep silent,” she said.
“But if it is a case of clashes of character or day-to-day arguments … we are not the party to judge. We will try our best to understand the issue, minimise the problem [and] make both parties cool down. Then we tell them what the legal next steps are,” Leung said. “In Maricel’s case, we would have asked her to call the police if it were serious.”
The words “break contract” - the term for when a helper quits before finishing her two-year service stint - hung over Maricel's head and made her, according to the five recruitment centres she approached, unemployable.
In the one month notice period she had left working with the couple, Maricel had just one day off each week to find a new employer. Agencies told her employers did not want to hire a maid who “broke contract” as it could be seen as a sign she is problematic or could again quit after just a few months.
Her employment agency, Technic – one of the biggest in Hong Kong, with seven outlets in the city and Canada – gave her two options, she claims: pay HK$7,000 for a stay at a Macau boarding house while they find her a new placement, or go home to the Philippines and ask her recruitment agency to find her a new employer.
However, Irene Leung, the senior director from Technic, denied that it was company policy to send down-on-luck helpers to Macau. Technic sends the women to the Philippines either to wait for a new job with a new employer, or – if they have already found an employer – wait for the application to be processed again. The cost for the latter would be paid for by the employer, Leung said.
“If any helper comes in and has a problem about abuse, we ask them to call police on the spot”
She later learned that three women she went to the training camp with had also flown home, one due to homesickness and the other two due to problems with their employers.
After her contract ended, under Hong Kong’s two-week rule, Maricel had just 14 days to job-hunt and secure a new sponsor for a work visa before she had to leave. Eventually two recruitment agencies agreed to help her, but the wait would take weeks and she became discouraged. As if the hunt wasn't hard enough, Maricel’s former employer did not give her a referral letter, which made the job-seeking all the more difficult.
A week before the deadline for her to leave her employers’ home, the couple got word that Technic had found them a replacement helper. Maricel was given an hour to pack her bags and her male employer took her to Technic’s offices, where she received HK$1,500 as her last month’s salary, and cash for her air ticket home.
Since 1987, Hong Kong has strictly enforced a “two-week rule”, requiring helpers whose contracts are terminated to return to their countries within 14 days. Maricel stayed at Technic’s dormitories for new arrivals for a week, without charge. She eventually gave up on finding a new employer, and flew home on October 14.
Her stint in Hong Kong lasted a total of 124 days.
Shortly after her arrival home, her father informed the family they would all have to move out as his siblings, who owned the property, had decided to rent it out for extra income.
They would have one or two months at least to make new housing arrangements. This caused a bitter argument between Maricel and her father, and she stormed off, staying on the floor of a friend’s tiny rented quarters in a downtrodden area of Paco, Manila.
Jamie stayed behind at the Arellano Avenue house with Leny, until Maricel could find more appropriate lodgings.
Desperate for cash, Maricel realised she’d have to find another job abroad quickly so she could afford to rent a house for Jamie and whoever she could trust to look after her.
Her cousin in Manila finally recommended her for a receptionist position at a small hotel group in Qatar, which the cousin herself had backed out from. The cousin’s best friend, a worker at the Qatari firm, volunteered to be a “middleman”, helping Maricel submit documents and to follow up her work visa in Qatar.
For two weeks, Maricel begged for financial help from relatives and close friends to pay for her visa fees. When promised loans fell through, she became despondent and cried a lot, sometimes thinking she should give up. “My mind and body felt so exhausted and I felt like dying,” she says of those days. Finally, a friend wired her a few thousand pesos.
“Actually, I think I was well-prepared for the work. I would have been happier here than in Abu Dhabi … if things had been okay with my employer”
“Compared to Abu Dhabi, Hong Kong is more free. You can dress the way you like,” she says.
“Actually, I think I was well-prepared for the work. I would have been happier here than in Abu Dhabi … if things had been okay with my employer,” she says.
Qatar, Maricel feels, would be like slipping into a familiar glove. She can speak basic Arabic, knows the culture and thinks it would be easier to adjust - and her desperation for work (she was promised 1,500 riyals, or HK$3,197, a month for the receptionist job) outweighs the lack of proper legal protection for domestic workers in the Gulf.
She hopes she can earn enough money in Qatar to keep the family's house from having to be rented out, to clear all her debts and to keep supporting Jamie’s studies until university. Maricel’s distant dream is to work and live in Canada, with her daughter.
Leny suggested her daughter's decision to quit her Hong Kong job might have been rash. “I advised her to persevere. Maybe after a couple of months, her employer would have changed. I don’t know why [Maricel] wasn’t able to stick to it.”
Asked if she regrets leaving Hong Kong and the dreams that came attached to it, Maricel says rather that she tried her best but simply got “unlucky”.
Chewed up and spit out by a forbidding system, Maricel is now 55,000 pesos (HK$9,600) in debt and has a bank balance she prefers not to look at.
But she takes away a few lessons. To Hong Kong employers, she advises: “Don’t place too high expectations on your helper when they first arrive in your home. Give them enough time to adjust to the place, the culture, the work they need to do.”
You would hardly expect to come home to a perfectly crease-free bed, for at home, as in life, there are always wrinkles.
But at this domestic helpers' boot camp in Metro Manila, the Philippine capital, perfectly symmetrical linen-folding is the subject of an hour-long course and a government labour-certification exam.
It is one of many seemingly mundane skills drilled into the minds and hands of trainees bound for Hong Kong at KL Home Care Training and Assessment Center. The facility is just one of thousands across the Philippines that churn out a constant flow of freshly-trained workers to be sent into employment around the world by affiliated recruitment firms.
Women come here, many from remote provinces, for three weeks of hands-on practice in cooking, cleaning and child care, along with lectures that prepare them both psychologically and emotionally for tough work abroad.
The one-floor house, in the sleepy BF Homes suburb of Paranaque – one of the vast cities that make up Metro Manila – has the appearance of any other gated bungalow on the street, save for the appearance at 8am, of a stream of women in their uniform of cyan T-shirts and jeans, taking turns to wash a SUV borrowed from a friend of management.
This is the house where Maricel Angeles spent three weeks – one of 46 women being trained at a time - with the majority heading to Hong Kong and a handful to Malaysia.
Each paid some 26,000 pesos (HK$4,500) for their training, which; if successful, leads to the awarding of a certificate required by their employment agency, their employer and the Philippine government. The cost includes food and the cost of courier bills for documents sent to Hong Kong and back.
The women are barred from contact with their loved ones for the duration of the programme, their phones confiscated when they arrive. Portia Santos, KL’s manager for seven years, explains that the tactic is a deliberate ploy to get the trainees used to the feelings of homesickness and feelings of isolation they are likely to encounter while abroad.
In other parts of Asia, particularly Indonesia, much longer periods of non-contact are common, of up to a year, while trainees await their work visas.
In KL, if a trainee caves to loneliness and leaves the centre to make contact with loved ones, they are back to square one and must pay the fee again to restart the course.
When the car-washing class is over, the ladies are led back inside the house. Before entering, they stack their candy-coloured slippers against a wall - seemingly the only spot of flair they are allowed. Nail polish, make-up and untied hair are banned, to maintain a clean and demure appearance.
They then file out to other classes throughout the house. Their courses are tailored to what skills their employers in Hong Kong require.
Window-cleaning and vacuuming lessons are held in the foyer. Two small bedrooms beyond are used as a classroom for seminars and another, with a queen-sized bed in it, for bed-making lessons.
An expansive second living room becomes the stage for a mid-morning class on how to use a floor polisher, which floats and hums over the white tiles. An instructor observes the stance trainees adopt and bark out instructions: “Don’t bend too far forward!” or “Your posture is too stiff. Relax!”
To either side of the living room are two kitchens. One is a model kitchen with a long dining table in the centre, cupboards, tiled countertops and a shelf of wine framed by a trellis dripping with plastic grapes. They are taught things such as Chinese and Russian table-setting here (the latter because it is “commonly used the world over”, according to instructors) and how to operate a rice cooker. No Filipino household is without a rice cooker, but one trainee, in her nervousness, momentarily forgets how to switch it on.
Across from this room is an outdoor kitchen with a steel-topped counter for slicing and dicing, two gas-fired stoves, a metal sink and a whiteboard, where lecturer Amalia "Amie" Gaffud scribbles the Chinese lunch menu, which a class of six must prepare for all 46 trainees at noon.
Gaffud, in her 40s, with long frizzy hair and a gummy smile, spent 14 years as a domestic helper in Hong Kong before returning to the Philippines last year.
She fondly remembers her employers - a big local family in Yuen Long - who loved her cooking. She demonstrates techniques picked up from her female boss, like how to tell if steamed chicken is cooked by piercing its side with a chopstick and watching for a gush of blood, or how to julienne tiny bulbs of garlic with a meat cleaver.
"[My employers] held on to me because I was good at cooking," Gaffud says as she instructs the women to chop vegetables for "long soup", the starter of a meal that includes stir-fried Buddha cabbages with vermicelli, and steamed ginger-marinaded chicken.
“The training here is a lot stricter than I got before I left for the Middle East,” said Maricel. “[Previously] they only taught us household chores and Arabic for three days then sent us off. There is a very big difference.”
Santos, the administrator, says the training camp has a 90 per cent success rate in terms of the number of women who pass the government’s labour certification exam, administered by the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (Tesda), which itself runs its own helpers’ training programme every few months.
Santos hires instructors with experience of Hong Kong so they can pass on specific tips relating to the city, such as ‘”Don’t lean too far out the windows, you will fall” – a potentially life-saving nugget in high rise Hong Kong - and to teach basic Cantonese.
Gaffud, for one, tells her class that Chinese employers are maselang, or “delicate”, and obsessed with hygiene. She demands her trainees wash their hands frequently.
Yet, for all the pointers, all Maricel knows about her future employer - whose roof she is due to live under for two years - is printed on a small piece of yellow paper called a job order.
The orders state the trainee's name, how many adults and children are in the household, and brief comments on what their future boss is looking for.
One instruction reads "Must keep house clean and tidy." Another states: “[Must] follow instructions. There is CCTV in house.”
By comparison, the employers know much more about their helpers, who have to submit detailed application forms, with photos and a video resume, along with medical results that peer into their wombs, their blood and bones.
Maricel says she has heard that her employers are wealthy. She knows she will join two other maids already employed by the family. But she doesn’t know if they will be kind or strict, generous or tight-fisted. She believes as long as she holds up her end of the bargain - “as long as you love your work” - and she is willing to adapt, everything will be fine.
“Our role is to mould them to become more patient, more understanding, more responsible with regards to their employers. Employers want a truthful maid”
KL Training Center says moulding trainees to employers’ requirements is necessary for good interpersonal relationships. The instructors rate the trainees not just on their skills but their demeanour, according to Portia Santos.
“As soon as they enter the training centre, they have different attitudes,” she says. “Our role is to mould them to become more patient, more understanding, more responsible with regards to their employers. Employers want a truthful maid.
“So we mould their attitude and we try to check their attitude day by day. We give comments about their work, their tasks this day. We check how they take that correction, if they take it constructively. And with that we can make sure if the trainees are very much interested in the job,” she says.
Fun-loving and bubbly, with a cackling laugh, Maricel said she had to tone down her innate boisterousness. “My attitude, the way I speak, it changed a lot,” she said. “We are trained to speak nicely, to speak lower. We become more disciplined.”
The weather turns humid and sticky in mid-afternoon, so around 20 of the women are relieved to enter the air-conditioned seminar room. There are 20 women already seated quietly, holding plastic kits with crayons and pens in them.
Santos strides in and writes the words “Goal Setting” on the whiteboard. She earlier explained that this was one of the more important parts of the training: figuring out why women want to work as helpers and realistically examining whether their earnings can really buy them their envisioned dreams.
Santos asks the women to draw a picture illustrating their ambitions, before asking each in turn to describe their artwork. Many of them draw houses and smiling caricatures of husbands, children and parents. They draw dollar signs in the clouds.
Some say they want to buy a specific car or jeepney, or earn a certain amount of money to start a small business. One says she wanted to travel the world.
Another, Sheila, used to be a maid in Taiwan but was forced to work in a factory by her employer without extra pay, and sleep just four hours a night. She took the case to a labour tribunal and received compensation. Hoping to have better luck in Hong Kong, she draws on paper her dream home and money for her parents.
One registered nurse tells the group how she decided to work as a maid when her father got sick. She clutches her piece of paper with quivering hands as if what she has drawn - a small house, a happy family, money to go around – might never materialise if she lets it go.
“I want … I want …,” she says, but can’t speak because she is crying. She has to be helped to the restroom, where she is asked to compose herself.
“They earn a lot but … it’s a common story of ‘I’m an ex-overseas worker but when I come home I don’t know where my money went’”
Santos, who remains smiling but aloof throughout, clears her throat and adopts centre stage. She gives the trainees a sharp reality check, saying that their wages may not buy them that house or car right away.
Santos tells them to save their money.
“They earn a lot but … it’s a common story of ‘I’m an ex-overseas worker but when I come home I don’t know where my money went’,” she says afterwards.
Find out how long a domestic helper would have to work to earn your current monthly salary.
Following their emotionally charged goal-setting seminar, the women fight the fatigue and heat with renewed vigour.
Among the last courses of the day is the bed-making class, where the instructor details how to fold bedspreads, coverlets and comforters into neat, compact squares so they are easier to store. The trainees are also taught, in pairs, how to arrange those layers on the bed, tucking the triangle tails of the sheets underneath the corners of the bed.
“This is the course I failed the last time I took the Tesda [certification] test,” one of the girls exclaims after a valiant effort to tame the heavy quilt.
Even after the last class is over, the working day stretches on into the evening as the women carry out household chores and cook dinner.
Most of them are aware they will not have set working hours in Hong Kong and seem unfazed by the fact they may even be on call 24 hours a day.
"It depends on the employer," a woman from the northern province of Isabela says. "Especially if there's a baby, they expect you to stay awake through the night."
“This is normal practice,” says Santos. “We have to train them to stay awake longer because there are some employers in Hong Kong who come home very late in the evening.”
After spending time at the KL Center, it is clear that household service, often dismissed as lowly, menial work, is difficult, sometimes under-appreciated, and can be made more difficult by the whims of the individual employer.
Long before Filipinos, Indonesians, Thais, Nepalis, Indians or Bangladeshis and, most recently, Myanmese, came into the picture, Hong Kong's expectations and views of helpers were shaped by their experience with a Chinese servant class called the amahs.
The amahs had varied backgrounds and could be classified into sub-classes according to the functions they performed and the manner they were hired.
The amahs’ loyalty and service to multiple generations of the family formed part of the notion of a “superior servant”, according to American professor of anthropology Nicole Constable, who wrote Maid to Order, a seminal and authoritative account of Hong Kong domestic helpers.
“The notion of the ‘superior’ Cantonese domestic servant - inaccurate as it often is, and fuelled by a powerful sense of nostalgia - was never far below the surface of the Hong Kong Chinese discourse on foreign domestic workers,” she wrote in her book.
A recruiter in Hong Kong says many employers today still seek helpers with “the character traits typical of decades ago”, such as subservience and docility. “In the old days, people would just say, ‘Yes, sir. Yes, ma’am.’ Nowadays helpers voice their opinions more, and both they and employers are less patient,” she says.
Constable says there are parallels between today’s foreign domestic workers and a servant sub-class of amahs called the mui tsai, who among the amahs were treated the worst.
The mui tsai were “domestic servant girls” sold by their impoverished parents into a lifetime of bondage, and where they could be sold by employers to other employers again and again. They were given lodgings and food, but were not paid for their work, and had to endure long hours.
“Both [mui tsai and today’s foreign domestic helpers] resemble ‘commodities’ in the way they are … treated as economic investments. The work requirements and extremely low status of foreign domestic workers resemble those of the mui tsai more than those of the Chinese amahs,” Constable wrote.
It was was only when the mui tsai married, became a concubine or a second wife that they could enjoy some semblance of freedom under their husband’s care. However, even when they were married off, they were bought and paid for by the highest bidder.
According to historian Jason Wordie, writing in the Post, this tradition was “ignored” by the British until a naval officer's wife, Clara Hazelwood, looked into the matter in the 1920s and was so appalled by what she learned that she raised the matter in British parliament.
The British government, which ruled Hong Kong until the handover to China in 1997, launched an inquiry into the practice and sparked off a debate on whether it should be considered a form of slavery and what to do about it.
Some Chinese civil servants of the era argued that mui tsai were not slaves but “little sisters” who were treated as part of the family and were saved from poverty, according to Dr Pauline Pui-ting Poon, who extensively researched the practice.
Still, Hong Kong banned the acquisition of mui tsai in 1844, upon the orders of Queen Victoria, who said the abolition of slavery should apply to the city. But rather than totally eradicating the practice, Hong Kong’s British leaders decided to tolerate the “deeply rooted Chinese tradition” - while also clamping down on the abuses generated by the trade such as the kidnapping and trafficking of girls, Poon says.
“Like a washing machine or refrigerator, a domestic worker has little say about the household she is delivered to”
Even in 1901, 50 years after the Hong Kong ban, there were some 8,700 mui tsai in the colony, 58 per cent of whom were under the age of 14, according to Poon.
The situation became so pressing that the Anti-Mui Tsai Society was formed by supporters from the church and labour associations, with the support of British expatriates such as Hazelwood, in 1921. After intense lobbying from concerned groups, on June 24, 1938, the Legislative Council passed a Women’s and Girls’ Protection Ordinance, which prohibited the sale of mui tsai.
The trade in slave girls persisted until the 1940s, anthropologist Constable writes. Though the practice eventually died off - it was not clear when - certain attitudes and practices towards servants endured.
Constable argues the domestic worker is marketed much like a household appliance. "She comes in various models, goes on sale, includes a warranty and can easily be replaced if the customer is not satisfied. Like a washing machine or refrigerator, a domestic worker has little say about the household she is delivered [to]."
Amid the rapid industrialisation of Hong Kong in the 1950s, more women joined the workforce and double-income households became more common. Once the domain of wealthy families and rich merchants, hiring servants became a requirement for ordinary households.
Around 1960, the colony began considering importing cheaper labour from around the region with the help of “servant-employment agencies”. There had been a shortage of Cantonese and mainland amahs, as many of them opted for relatively more well-paid jobs as “factory girls”.
At the same time, the Philippines - in the grip of martial law and strapped with US$2.3 billion in debt - encouraged thousands of its citizens to seek work overseas.
A decade later, in the 1970s, the Philippine and Hong Kong governments agreed to let around 2,000 Filipinos work for wealthy Chinese employers. Over the next few years, Thailand and Indonesia followed suit in sending helpers to the territory.
Hong Kong has no bilateral agreements on domestic helpers with other countries. Instead, from time to time, consulate officials and government representatives would meet with Hong Kong authorities to discuss certain labour or immigration issues.
Between 1975 and 1985, the number of foreign domestic helpers in the city ballooned from just 1,350 to 26,646. From then on, the population would exponentially and steadily increase, from 37,000 in 1987 to 168,000 over the next decade.
The women became more visible, congregating in parts of the city like Statue Square and public places on their days off. The Hong Kong public initially reacted warily to maids massing in parks and streets on Sundays, prompting vocal complaints about illegal hawking and littering.
Constable says the initial public view of helpers being “humble and grateful guests” in the city hardened into a perception they were disgruntled, noisy and unwelcome. The first host of abuse cases - by both employers and domestic helpers - started making the news.
The first host of abuse cases - by both employers and domestic helpers - started making the news.
This was also a fraught period when Hong Kong authorities began detecting problems: employment agencies overstating the workers’ skills and recruiting applicants on tourist visas; maids illegally working second jobs in bars or shops, as well as terminating their contracts early and switching employers too often (dubbed “job-hopping”).
The costs to work in Hong Kong rose as well. After the 1990s, amid intense competition for jobs and clients, recruitment agencies shifted costs onto the helpers, resulting in steep fees.
In response to abuse cases, countries like the Philippines and Indonesia had also placed moratoriums on sending helpers, but these are lifted after a few months.
Hong Kong responded by making immigration rules stricter. Maids were barred from residing in flats or boarding houses outside their employer’s home and they could not change employers as easily. Authorities also conducted raids and inspections to expose and prosecute employers or helpers who were overstaying their visas or violating the labour contract.
At the turn of the millenium, there were more than 200,000 maids in Hong Kong. As of last year, 2014, there were 330,000, the bulk of them Filipinos and Indonesians. Manpower and security ministers underscored in speeches and reports to Legco that maids should “not be a burden to society”. This view has resonated in numerous government policies, from wages to the right of abode, which is the unrestricted right to legally reside in Hong Kong.
Even in setting a minimum wage for foreign domestic helpers, Secretary for Security Geoffrey Thomas Barnes in a 1987 report to Legco said: “The rationale behind this policy is to protect the interests of local employees, who would suffer a loss of real earnings if cheaper sources of labour were readily available from overseas.”
It was later, in the early 1990s, that manpower secretary Michael Leung Man-kin said the minimum wage was also to ensure that helpers would not be exploited.
And when a group of helpers sought an amendment to the Immigration Ordinance so maids could be granted the right of abode - which can be enjoyed by all other types of foreign workers after seven years of continuous stay in Hong Kong - they were rejected. The Court of Final Appeal ruled that helpers are not ordinary residents in so far as a contract limits their stay and “they must return to their home country at the end of the contract”.
But with greater numbers, the helpers also gained a stronger voice. The helpers began organising under a constellation of groups representing various migrant workers’ interests, holding protests and challenging - in the courts or in media - what they saw as unfair policies.
One of the maid groups’ key assertions has been that rather than being a “burden”, domestic helpers are a key backbone of the economy.
The Asian Migrant Centre quantified the economic contribution of helpers in an innovative report in 2004. The non-governmental group estimated, conservatively, that foreign domestic workers contribute HK$13.78 billion to Hong Kong’s economy each year.
This includes the value of their consumption of goods; the public costs saved for child care, tutoring children and caring for the elderly; the stream of hard currency paid to recruitment agencies; and costs saved by local businesses that illegally employ the helpers part-time.
Helpers, through remittances to their families, help keep origin countries’ economies afloat.
The Philippines, for instance, last year saw US$22.97 billion (HK$178 billion) in cash sent back by some 11 million workers in 179 countries across six continents. That accounts for 8.4 per cent of the Philippine economy. Hong Kong workers wired home some US$628 million last year.
Migrant rights groups across the world also scored a victory with the passing of the UN Convention on Domestic Workers, or CL189, in September 2013 which compels ratifying countries to enact fair labour policies, strengthen protection for domestic workers and to treat them equally as other workers. China has not yet ratified this.
For all its shortcomings, Hong Kong has been ahead of other domestic-helper destinations like the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and Singapore in legislating benefits for the sector. Hong Kong gives helpers a 24-hour rest period per week, a minimum wage, holidays, compensation for injuries, medical insurance (to be purchased by the employer) and long-service pay - perks that are not available to maids in other countries.
However, the long and often conflicted history of Hong Kong’s helpers and the government’s response to them shows a pattern of reluctance to fully embrace the sector. But with growing local and international attention to the labour issues faced by Hong Kong’s helpers, there may be hope for change.
The crumpled dreams of helpers like Maricel Angeles could be seen as the failure of governments to enforce existing sound policies, rectify flawed ones, or ensure the helpers interests are protected and valued.
The problems start with a failure to curb exorbitant placement fees charged by recruiters, which often sends the maids into a spiral of heavy debt.
Even though the Philippines banned placement fees in 2006 and Hong Kong and Indonesia set limits on the amount a recruitment agency can charge, many workers still have to pay "triple to quadruple" what is allowed by regulations, according to Cynthia Abdon-Tellez, general manager of the Hong Kong-based Mission for Migrant Workers, one of the oldest NGOs for the sector in Hong Kong.
Indonesia from 2008 only allows agencies to charge training fees of up to HK$15,500 - equivalent to four to five months’ salary.
Hong Kong’s Employment Ordinance says the fee must not exceed 10 per cent of the worker’s first month’s pay. But one problem is that the laws do not interact.
Yet recruiters, or their affiliate loan agencies, sometimes charge fees equivalent to 90 per cent of a maid's monthly pay, says Tellez, who holds seminars on Sundays with Hong Kong helpers victimised by aggressive and unlicensed loan sharks.
Tang Wing-fai, the director of the Christian Institute NGO which works with a pro-helpers alliance called Open Door, said he has encountered dishonest recruitment firms which overstate the helpers’ experience and sometimes confiscate the workers’ passports.
Tang, who has employed a succession of Indonesian helpers since 2005, says he and his wife pay about HK$4,000 in fees to the Hong Kong-based agencies each time they hire a helper – a sum far lower than that which many workers themselves have to pay.
Labour rights advocates in Hong Kong fault a lack of strict policing by the government of the hundreds of agencies that operate in the city. They also criticise the lack of transparent blacklists in Hong Kong which should show which firms workers should avoid.
Hong Kong’s Employment Agencies Administration, under the Labour Department, does not publish the names of punished or unlicensed recruiters. Rather, it only lists verified agencies in the government’s limited-circulation Gazette each year. People who want to access the online version of this list have to navigate confusing links and a non-user-friendly database.
The Philippines’ overseas labour agency, POEA, takes a more proactive approach, publishing blacklists on Twitter and its official website.
As a result of high fees, Fish Ip Po-yun, Asia coordinator for the International Domestic Workers’ Network, says the domestic helpers become trapped in a “debt bondage system”.
“This can keep the domestic worker bonded to the job … even when the workers are illtreated," says Ip, who has been campaigning for helpers' rights since 1999, "because if you leave the job, then you can't pay back the agency fee."
Tellez and Ip claim many abuse cases go unreported precisely because helpers fear losing the job - their ticket out of debt.
Abuses are difficult to quantify as the Hong Kong Police Department says they do not keep detailed statistics on abuse cases involving helpers or employers. A handful of maids who spoke to the Post shared success stories of landing employers who embrace them as part of the family, offer generous benefits for long service, or encourage their hobbies and ambitions.
Post reports going back as far as 1976 unfurl a litany of assault, rape and labour violations in cases committed by employers against helpers, along with a smattering of cases where helpers steal belongings or mistreat their employers' children. Occasional cases are so extreme they make international headlines.
A 2013 study by the Mission for Migrant Workers sheds some light on the prevalence of mistreatment. It found that, out of 3,000 domestic helpers polled, 58 per cent said they experienced verbal abuse, 18 per cent were physically abused, and six per cent experienced sexual harassment.
The Mission study's central argument is that because helpers are required, since 2003, to live inside their employer's residence, the women are more vulnerable to abuse by their bosses.
“Sleeping on cupboards, on top of refrigerators, in bathtubs, even close to the toilet bowls … is still happening now”
According to the study entitled Live-In Policy increases female FDW's vulnerability to various types of abuse, 25 per cent of helpers do not feel safe in their employer's home.
“Imagine staying in a place 24 hours a day, and if an employer abuses you they have 24 hours to do that to you,” says Tellez, of the Mission which runs two charity-funded abuse shelters in Hong Kong, where some 40 women live at any given time while they prepare cases for the courthouse or Labour Tribunal.
“Long working hours is also a big problem when normally people don't feel they should give a regular time for their domestic workers. You don't feel, ‘They are the same as office worker just like me’. You just ask them to be on 24-hour standby,” says Fish Ip, the rights campaigner.
“It's slavery in modern times,” says Tellez.
Many of them arrive in their employer’s home only to find they will be sleeping on the floor, in the kitchen or bathroom, in a space above the closet and other cramped spaces.
Hong Kong’s housing crunch has also squeezed families into smaller flats, leaving little space for helpers to sleep in. Providing adequate accommodation is a prerequisite to hiring a maid under the labour contract, but labour advocates say many employers flout this.
“Sleeping on cupboards, on top of refrigerators, in bathtubs, even close to the toilet bowls, which was happening in the ‘80s and ‘90s, is still happening now," says Tellez.
"That's why the very simple demand is for the Immigration Department to make living out an option," she says.
“Hongkongers have to work endlessly. Even average workers in Hong Kong do not enjoy work security or dignity … Having been exploited, we exploit foreign helpers.”
Tang Wing-fai, the Christian Institute director, has a different theory on what triggers cases of abuse, blaming the pressure of work felt citywide.
“Hongkongers have to work endlessly. Even average workers in Hong Kong do not enjoy work security or dignity,” he says. “To a certain degree, we are both being exploited. Having been exploited, we exploit foreign helpers.”
He says part of the reason busy Hongkongers need helpers is that they can no longer rely on neighbours for help in looking after children or the elderly, as was often the case in the past. Apartments become isolated fiefdoms where neighbours can go for years not knowing each other, he says.
“We had very close neighbour relations growing up; there was no need to have foreign domestic helpers then,” says Tang, 41. “Now, even public estate housing units close their doors.
“Both [employer and helper] are living under strange conditions. We should therefore have more understanding in each other. We should try and communicate more,” he said.
Despite the calls for maids to get the right to “live out” from many quarters, Joseph Law, chairman of the Hong Kong Employers of Domestic Workers Association, defended the live-in rule.
“My guess estimate is that 10,000 helpers are being allowed to live outside their employers' home, with two sharing a room. That means they are using at least 5,000 rooms at a time when Hong Kong people are short of accommodation,” he says. “So we strongly support the government not letting the workers live outside.”
Law cites other downsides to helpers living outside the employer’s home: the employer having to worry about a helper's safety as she is unsupervised, the high cost of paying for her rent and a maid finding time for romance and then getting pregnant.
“The Immigration Department cannot repatriate the children … and after seven years , they will apply for residency and that will create social problems,” Law says of the latter point.
Law's association, with 2,000 members, was founded in 1986 by Betty Yee Shan Yung-ma, a former North Point district board member, in response to a flurry of complaints about domestic workers breaking their contracts, thus leaving their “hard-pressed” employers in the lurch.
Shan's group regarded helpers as the abusers — walking out on contracts and stealing jobs from the city’s unemployed — and the government as being unable to help the city’s lower- to middle-class employers.
Susan Cheng, the firebrand former spokeswoman of the group and a British-trained economist, found the situation so dire, and the English-language press and government so “biased” towards the helpers, that she once called employers “political orphans in our own land”.
Law says he has hired Filipino domestic workers continuously since 1976, and cannot live without them. “I’m spoiled. My family is spoiled. We must keep on hiring – to my family, it’s still affordable,” he says.
But there is a sting in the tail. Law admitted he did not like to keep the same helper for a long time. “Familiarity breeds contempt,” he said.
The former fire brigade official, who served as Betty Yung’s deputy chairman, also opposes any substantial increase in the minimum wage paid to helpers, who are excluded from both the Minimum Wage Ordinance and Hong Kong’s Mandatory Pension Fund Scheme. He believes maids’ wages do not need to keep pace with the city’s rising cost of living as domestic workers only have the right to one day off a week, so don’t have much opportunity to spend their money.
One persistent problem for employers, Law claims, is helpers terminating their contracts within the first year of service and “job-hopping” - the issue that spurred the founding of the association in the first place.
He says unscrupulous helpers deliberately get themselves fired so they can claim air tickets and wages in lieu of notice for early termination. Then, he says, owing to visa restrictions, “they go over to Macau and wait there [or work there] for about a month or more”.
According to Immigration Department statistics, only about 2 to 3 per cent of the thousands of helpers applying for new visas each year are suspected of job-hopping. Out of 155,000 applicants last year, the department flagged 3,900 cases but only 268 of them were denied visas for job-hopping.
On their return to Hong Kong they then find another employer, bringing business to the recruitment agency, and “do exactly the same thing”.
Maricel Angeles' experience suggests there is more nuance to the issue. Rightly or wrongly she broke her contract early because she felt she had the right to a less aggravating work environment, but did not realise how difficult finding another job would be.
Helpers who break contract are subject to Hong Kong's two-week rule - the amount of time they can legally remain in the city. Beyond that, they can be charged with overstaying their visas, facing a fine, deportation or up to two years in jail.
In practice, helpers use this time to find a new employer so that they can stay in the city they worked so hard - and paid so much - to reach.
But the view of Hong Kong government is unrelenting. Speaking to Legco in 1990, the manpower minister said it succinctly: "The main purpose of the two-week period is to allow sufficient time for FDHs to prepare for their departure. Whether it is long enough in which to secure another job is therefore irrelevant.”
Tellez, from the Mission for Migrant Workers, says the feeling among migrant workers is that Hong Kong tends to protect employers more than the helpers. “Which is fair enough," she says, "but not at the expense of other people.”
For helpers like Maricel Angeles who by circumstance found herself at odds with the system, there is a tinge of regret, uncertainty and having to chip away at the debt she incurred to get to the city. “I think I could have been happy in Hong Kong,” she says. “I just got unlucky.”