Eman Villanueva’s work keeps him on his toes - literally and metaphorically.

He wakes up at seven and starts working straight away. His first tasks are to sweep, mop and vacuum the floor. After cleaning, he changes the family’s bedsheets and does laundry. Sometimes, he cooks breakfast for his employers. In the afternoon, he has to shop for groceries.

He works eight hours a day, five days a week, but is well aware that many others in his role are not so lucky and work back-breaking hours.

He’s a domestic helper and his gender is what makes his profession particularly unusual in Hong Kong.

“I am part of the minority within the minority,” says the 46-year-old Filipino, who has been working in the city for almost three decades.

Few and far between

There are 11.5 million migrant domestic workers around the globe, according to a 2015 report by the International Labour Organization. Countries in the Middle East, South East Asia and the Pacific, and Northern, Southern and Western Europe host 66% of the population of migrant domestic helpers.

And this group is overwhelmingly female, with women making up more than 70%.

In Hong Kong this split is even more pronounced; the ratio skews almost entirely female. Just a fraction of this army of workers - less than 2% of the 370,000 foreign domestic helpers, many of whom come from the Philippines and Indonesia - are male.


Degrading to women 

Villanueva believes that dated gender stereotypes are to blame for the gap and the underlying reason why so few male domestic helpers are hired in Hong Kong.

“If women can cook, so can men. If women can clean the house, so can men,” he says. “It’s wrong to think that this kind of job is actually just for women. It’s degrading or looking down on women,” he says.

“Domestic helpers are multi-taskers. They are nannies, cooks, cleaners and caregivers,” he continues.

When Villanueva was just 18, he decided to finish education and go out to work so that his mother could retire. His only goal was to make enough money to put his two sisters through university - to have a shot at a better life. Both of them finished university because of him.

As a child, growing up in Laguna, some 60 miles from Manila, Villanueva was used to doing chores. His mother, who became the family’s only breadwinner after his father died, insisted that all her children help with the housework.  

In spite of this, Villanueva really wasn’t prepared for the taxing work of becoming a full-time domestic helper in Hong Kong.

The first family he worked for lived in a 2,000 square-foot, five-bedroom flat. He had to wash all the French windows and three cars every day. Apart from the cleaning, he was also nanny to his employer’s three children.

"When you are not doing it voluntarily and you have to do it for a living, it is really different," he adds. “This is a very difficult job; I don’t think many other people here would like to take it.” 

“We are not welcome” 

Under Hong Kong law, foreign domestic helpers have the same protection of their rights as local workers. They are guaranteed one day off per week. Employers are obliged to provide free food and medical care, and the minimum monthly wage is set at HK$4,520 (£450).

But there are no restrictions on the number of hours domestic helpers are asked to clock-up. Because they live with their employers, they are effectively constantly on call. More than 70% of foreign domestic helpers said they worked more than 13 hours a day, according to a poll conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2017.

More than 70% of foreign domestic helpers said they worked more than 13 hours a day

And there have been a number of cases of abuse at the hands of unscrupulous employers.

Villanueva says the biggest problem is the discriminatory immigration laws.

Skilled workers from overseas living in Hong Kong for seven consecutive years are eligible for permanent residency - but foreign domestic helpers do not qualify.  

“Hong Kong doesn’t welcome us,” he says. “When we are old or sick, they will ask us to go back to our country.”

Villanueva has been fighting for greater rights for his fellow domestic workers for 26 years.

“Domestic workers are underpaid,” he says. “They are under-valued in society. Many politicians in Hong Kong think that domestic workers are unskilled, unprofessional or even uneducated.”

Villanueva has been the leader of a migrant workers’ group campaigning for better conditions since 1993 - and he has led 2,000 foreign domestic helpers out on a street march demanding better pay.

Their contribution to their home countries’ economies cannot be underestimated. For instance, remittance from overseas workers in general contributed $28bn (£22.3bn) in 2017, or about 9% of the Philippines’ GDP.

It’s not easy to make a living as a domestic helper far away from home - and Villanueva’s greatest wish is that his two-year-old daughter will not need to follow in his footsteps.

“I hope someday, we will no longer need to leave our family behind and work overseas.”

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