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Sunday, Central Hong Kong

Antje Sonntag
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Antje Sonntag. Each Sunday thousands of migrant domestic workers congregate on cardboard mats in the malls, footpaths and public thoroughfares of central Hong Kong. 

Each Sunday, in the shadow of luxury retail stores and high-rise banks, thousands of migrant domestic workers would congregate on cardboard mats in the malls, footpaths and public thoroughfares of central Hong Kong. After a gruelling week spent cleaning, cooking and ironing within the confines of their employer’s apartment, it was a chance for the migrant workers to break out of their isolation, swap stories about their lives and families and make emotional calls to their loved ones back home.

Under Hong Kong law, these foreign domestic workers are required to live in the residence of their employer to perform domestic tasks including, frequently, childcare. This requirement to live in their employer’s household puts them at risk of sexual abuse and assault. Most of these women have children and families back home, adding to the stress of working a six-day week in their employer’s home. 

Now, during the coronavirus pandemic, conditions for migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong are even worse. The government has asked them to stay indoors with their employers on their only rest day of the week, leaving them open to further exploitation. Not only are they now more likely to be expected to work on their day off, but they are also vulnerable to infection from their employers.

Since the mid-1970s, Hong Kong’s domestic workers have comprised about five per cent of the population – one of the highest proportions in the world. One in every eight households – and one in every three households with children – employ a housekeeper. About 98.5 per cent of these domestic workers are women. In 2017, Hong Kong had 370,000 domestic workers, mainly from Indonesia and the Philippines. Human rights groups have described the conditions in which they work as tantamount to modern slavery. 

With a family member living there, I have been a frequent visitor to Hong Kong over the past few years and the incongruous nature of this Sunday ritual never failed to make a deep impression on me. In April last year, I spoke to a Filipino migrant domestic worker to hear her story and documented the weekly Sunday event a few months before mass anti-government demonstrations started to fill the city streets.

Antje Sonntag grew up in Rome and studied in Florence, where she attained a diploma of Restoration. She then moved to Munich where she worked at the Prehistoric Museum and completed her Masters in Anthropology. Antje was awarded a Postgraduate Scholarship to the Australian Museum and worked there as an anthropologist for many years. She has a Diploma of Photography and Photo Imaging and is a freelance photographer. 

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© Rob Johnston

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