HK’s domestic workers dodge tear gas and clashes

Indonesian migrant worker Jochel usually spends her day off in Hong Kong’s parks, chatting with friends and video-calling loved ones back home. But this summer, her downtime keeps getting disrupted — by protests and tear gas.

The 35-year-old is one of more than 370,000 domestic workers, overwhelmingly women from Indonesia and the Philippines, who keep Hong Kong ticking, often toiling for little pay and living in cramped conditions.

Over the last four months of huge and increasingly violent pro-democracy rallies, the areas where domestic workers rest on Sundays have frequently become battlegrounds.

“My eyes were very painful,” Jochel said of the first time she found herself caught up in tear gas clouds while having a picnic with friends in Victoria Park.

“This is not good. Hong Kong people also suffered,” she said, adding that black-clad protesters helped her wash her eyes with saline solution and lead her to safety.

Hong Kong has been battered by weeks of pro-democracy protests which have seen millions peacefully take to the streets.

But there have also been increasingly violent clashes between riot police and smaller groups of hardcore activists.

Since June 9, more than 3,000 tear gas rounds have been fired across the territory on all weekends but one.

Domestic workers earn a minimum of HK$4,630 a month and must live with their employers in Hong Kong’s notoriously small flats.

Rights groups have long complained that they are easily exploited by unscrupulous employers and hiring agents.

They are only entitled to one day off a week and most take Sundays.

On their day off, Indonesian workers traditionally flock to the Causeway Bay district, while Filipinos tend to gather in nearby Central and Admiralty.

All three have become frequent flashpoints during this summer’s protests.

Sandy, an Indonesian worker, said she would often go hiking with friends on the trails that criss-cross Hong Kong.

But now she tends to stay closer to her employer’s home, fearful that the weekend clashes will disrupt transport and leave her stranded.

“If we go too far away, we worry that we can’t go home. We have a duty to be home at 10 or 9pm,” she said.

“We try to stay away for our own safety,” she added, recalling how she first encountered tear gas when she was stuck between demonstrators and police in Central and there were no subway services.

The protests were initially sparked by a now-shelved extradition law, but have morphed into calls for greater democracy and police accountability.

Violence on both sides has escalated, with police firing live rounds and hardcore protesters wielding petrol bombs and rocks.

Yet despite Hong Kong’s uncertain future, many domestic helpers said they had no plan to leave any time soon.

“Our employers still need us and we also still need the job,” said Sandy, who is financially supporting her parents back in Indonesia.

Last month, Veby Indah, an Indonesian journalist, suffered permanent blindness in one eye which was hit by a police plastic baton round.

Indah was working for Suara, a free Indonesian language newspaper in the city which caters to the domestic helpers.

Many in the community were furious about the injury but felt unable to say so publicly. – AFP