It was an odd twist of Fate, a happy event that had propelled A Lan, a 41 year old kindergarten teacher from the Chinese mainland, on the long journey that brought her here to a lonely street in Hong Kong, at 9 o’clock of an early Spring evening last year.
Feeling desperately alone, A Lan stood, clutching the small bag holding her scant belongings -- a few clothes and the pills she took to treat her hypertension. A stranger here, she had nowhere to turn for help. Some may say that pride goeth before a fall, but how could anyone blame A Lan for the pride that swelled in her breast that day nearly two years before, when she learned that her only son had been accepted for enrolment at a four year program at the Civil Aviation University of China, and the choice she made that led her on her fated quest?
A Lan and her husband, a primary school teacher, earned about 2,500 yuan per month between them. It was enough to get by but four year’s tuition at a top university would cost 20,000 RMB alone, not to mention her son’s living expenses in the city. Elation over her son’s future prospects turned to anxiety as the truth sunk in: the dream that her son would enjoy a fine education and the benefits to go with it was out of reach for the family given its meager income.
A Lan learned from a fellow villager that in Hong Kong, even domestic helpers get better pay than kindergarten teachers from remote villages of the mainland. A Lan made up her mind to do whatever she could whatever she must, to make her son’s dream come true. Soon she was on her way on a long journey that would separate her from her loved ones and lead her to a Hong Kong jail cell.
A Lan was to become one of the roughly 4,000 mainland workers who come here to work and get arrested every year, the figure being estimated by the Immigration Department. The stories these workers tell have many similarities. Most are educated, salt of the Earth people, ready to leave behind homes and loved ones, ready to risk jail, in search of a more prosperous life for themselves and their families.
The illegal workers often get less than half of what their local counterparts earn. They must remain concealed behind closed doors in what for many is like a prison sentence. They are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by their employers; may be “docked” pay for failure to show proper respect to their employers and other “infractions.” They suffer in silence, watching their savings grow month by month, yearning for the day when they can go home, to bed ridden parents, to a new home in the country, or simply to refresh their souls.
About six months after her son’s “wonderful news”, A Lan, over vehement objections of her husband and son, left her home to stand quietly in a queue, waiting to cross into Hong Kong at the Luo Wu checkpoint.
It was the farthest she’d ever been from her husband and son. A Lan approached the immigration post at the checkpoint and was waved through to the city that held her hopes for the future. “There’s no going back now,” she recalls thinking to herself.
She’d heard that the Hong Kong woman who was to be her employer owned a vegetable shop and liked to gamble – actually had a problem with gambling, and was divorced. Thus began A Lan’s personal nightmare.
She’d get up around 7, make breakfast for the three members of her employer’s family. When they’d leave for work, A Lan did the housecleaning, then the laundry. If her boss didn’t come home for lunch, A Lan could watch TV or even take a siesta before starting to prepare dinner. Life was OK, at first. She couldn’t answer the door, or the telephone. She couldn’t go downstairs in the house, couldn’t go outside. She was an invisible person to all outside her employer’s household in Hong Kong.
Phone conversations with her husband and her son now at college were the only moments that cheered her up, even though both kept exhorting her to quit her job and come home. It seemed the more sensible and reasoned her son’s arguments, the more determined she became to stay. She believed she was doing the right thing.
Then, abruptly, A Lan’s employer started turning hostile and verbally abusive. A Lan recalls the day her boss came home from a gambling junket to Macao. A Lan’s greeting elicited no reply. A few minutes later the woman started fuming, denouncing A Lan as “bad luck” for the family. Venting to the edge of fury, the woman started throwing things. Life became a mental torture for A Lan, her blood pressure shot up. There were more outbursts, insults, and the woman told A Lan to get out.
Lunar New Year came, A Lan’s first away from home. She was lonely and nostalgic for her happy home life when the final blow fell.
The vegetable seller came home in an evil humor. A Lan decided it was best to remain silent. A Lan’s apparent indifference seemed to irritate the woman further. The vegetable seller, bigger and physically stronger than A Lan, rushed into the kitchen, moving chairs with great energy, cursing A Lan under her breath and kicking the refrigerator. The woman raged at A Lan for nearly half an hour before shouting, “if you are such a big deal, you can leave my house.”
It was like a bomb exploding to A Lan… afraid and angry, she packed her bags and fled that terrible house, leaving the old bag agape at the door.
A Lan made her way blindly to the street corner that night, her thoughts in turmoil. At that moment all she cared about was going home -- to the husband and son she had left behind a year earlier. Gripped by a sense of terror, she took the next steps, leading her to do what she knew she must.
There was a police station around the corner. A Lan didn’t hesitate but walked in and straight up to the cop standing behind the counter. She felt turned upside down – but a benumbed calm came over her as she listened to the routine questions they were asking her : Did she want to go home ? Did she have friends or relatives here? She answered with the perfunctory answers she’d rehearsed a thousand times in her mind before. A Lan would play dumb. She wanted to go home, she said in fragmented Cantonese. She glanced up surreptitiously to see if the cop was buying her words. It was easier than she ever thought it would be. They didn’t even ask about A Lan’s extraordinarily long overstay. The interview came to its inevitable conclusion. A Lan, the proud mother of a son in college, wife of a school teacher and a kindergarten teacher herself, found herself staring out from a jail cell, treated as a common criminal, awaiting her first court appearance.
The court booted A Lan out of the city, slamming the door behind and telling her not to come back for three years. A Lan was relieved. She was going home. Her family reunion was a short one. A Lan works as a domestic helper in a city near her home town. She doesn’t have to hide. Today, life is good. Her new employers give her two days off a month.
A Lan is safely back home, but there are others waiting just across the border to take her place in Hong Kong. Two agencies in Shenzhen contacted by China Daily say they arrange for workers from the mainland to work in Hong Kong for HK$300 yuan per day.
In response to a request for placing a job offer, a woman surnamed Gao, in charge of an agency for domestic helpers across the border, said her company can arrange for short-term or long term workers with travel documents after the lunar New Year.
Invisible workers like A Lan don’t show up in the government’s five-year census. But their presence is well known.
“The 4,000 known illegal workers are the tip of an iceberg. The actual numbers can be many times larger,” said lawmaker Wong Kwok-kin from Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions.
Wong said he knows people in his own circle who have hired illegal workers from the mainland. They’re cheap and the government turns a blind eye. It’s not as if unemployment in Hong Kong is that high, says Wong.
Nevertheless, Wong doesn’t think the government should sit back and do nothing. If the economy ever “goes south” and unemployment worsens, these illegal workers could be a real problem and by then it might be too late.
“Some of the illegal workers who came with the family visit visa can avoid being detected because they stay with their relatives and work as domestic helpers. They can work for three months, then leave and return when the visa is renewed,” said Wong.
Wong suggested the government keep a record of those who overstay their welcome and when next time they come, they should be given extra attention.
“It is normal for the police to turn a blind eye on those who overstay because they have no evidence like in A Lan’s case. And normally, those wouldn’t bear too serious consequence since their deportation will save the government a lot of trouble,” said Wong.
Nevertheless, as invisible though they may appear, these illegal workers pose a threat to local women, often housewives, who work as part time domestic helpers to help support the family.
Chow Kwai-ying, chairwoman of the Commercial Organization and Domicile Services Employees Association, a union of her group under the Federation of Trade Unions (FTU), said a lot of illegal workers have taken their job opportunities in north New Territories.
Every year, the Employees Retraining Board (ERB), an independent statutory body established in 1992 under the Employees Retraining Ordinance, will outsource training to several organizations. FTU is one of them.
Every year, about 4,000 new, local domestic helpers graduate into the market.
ERB started a program, Smart Living, for households seeking domestic workers and for domestic helpers seeking employment. Job vacancies from Smart Living will be distributed to different training organizations, like FTU, to help their trainees find work after finishing the course.
The FTU alone has noted a decline in employment opportunities for domestic helpers, recording a decline of 636 positions in 2012, from 2011. In 2012, the ERB received 48,000 job vacancies, down 7,000 from the year before. Even for the peak season of spring cleaning before the Lunar New Year, only 4,300 job opportunities were provided in 2012, 1,100 less than in 2011.
“About 20 percent of our trainees can’t find a job after finishing their courses. A lot of them will just change their career and find a job as security guards or companions in nursing homes,” said Chow.
“The issue is much worse than it appears to be. Illegal workers are embedded across the city,” warned Wong.