Brace Fellow Seyoung Lee ’12 Presents on Immigrant Workers

Delving into the plight of female domestic workers in Hong Kong, Seyoung Lee ’12 started the Brace Fellow presentation series with her project, “Seek My Face, Hear My Voice: Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong.” Over the summer, Lee researched the conditions and role of foreign women who immigrate to Hong Kong in search of work opportunities. She conducted interviews with many of these domestic workers and the leaders of the advocacy organizations. Lee began her presentation by explaining the reasoning behind her topic choice. She said that she was inspired to research this topic when she moved to Hong Kong five years ago and began to notice several people with foreign domestic workers. “I went to an international school and every single one of my friends had a domestic worker.,” said Lee. Lee began noticing the workers when she started seeing them “flooding the sides of the streets” every Sunday, their one day off during the week. These workers, mainly from the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Nepal came to Hong Kong through organizations that worked with their home country’s governments and Hong Kong’s government. Their respective governments support their immigration because the incomes from the female domestic workers bolster their home countries’ economies. Lee said that the workers go to Hong Kong because they are looking for a better life. These women accept lower wages because the wages they receive in Hong Kong are much greater than the wages they would earn in their home countries. Lee also spoke about how this movement of foreign domestic workers has affected the traditional roles of women and families, since 61% of domestic workers are women. In many cases these women have become the sole breadwinners for their households. Families may also become dysfunctional since the mother is away from home for years and even decades at a time. “Now that these women wear the pants in the families, the men feel emasculated,” said one of the workers Lee interviewed. An important event that happened during Lee’s research was voting on whether to include foreign domestic workers in the first minimum wage bill Hong Kong had passed. The vote spurred many rallies supporting the inclusion of foreign domestic workers, however, since domestic workers are not legally considered residents, the government ultimately excluded them from the bill. Lee said that one thing that surprised her was, though the majority of these women are considered unskilled workers, many of them are very educated and some even have college degrees. Lee said that many of the domestic worker’s employers, the agencies that run programs for them and members of Hong Kong government exploit them. Even though so many risks and difficulties are involved, back in their home countries, Lee said these women are considered national heroes. Governments such as the Philippines and Indonesia even promote the domestic worker programs as part of their national economic policies. After her introduction, Lee played the short documentary that she created over the summer as part of her project. The film included interviews with domestic workers and heads of NGOs that aid domestic workers to help obtain their rights as workers and preserve their culture. The film also included multiple scenes of protests and cultural events organized by the NGOs in the streets on Sundays. After the movie, Lee concluded her presentation by adding how easy it is to overlook the “semi-invisible people” living in Hong Kong. “I had been living in Hong Kong for five years and never had I seen this injustice,” she said.