“To go back home”: An interview with migrant activists in Hong Kong

Migrant workers protesting outside the US Consulate, in solidarity with Palestine

Over 12 million Filipinos live and work abroad, approximately 11.6% of the total population of the Philippines and over 20% of its working-age population. This trend, known as “circular migration,” began in the 1970s. With the passage of the Labor Code of the Philippines in 1974, labour export became official government policy. This move can be explained as a desperate response to economic crisis driven in large part by the structural adjustment programs of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as other forces of neoliberalism and imperialism. Initially intended as a temporary measure, labour export has become entrenched as a major pillar of the Philippine economy. Last year, overseas remittances hit a record USD $28.1 billion, over 9% of the total Philippine GDP.

Of Hong Kong’s population of 7.4 million people, nearly 400,000 are foreign domestic workers. Historically, most domestic workers in Hong Kong have been women from the Philippines; however in the early 2000s Indonesia’s Arroyo administration began actively promoting international labour migration. Consequently, over half of Hong Kong’s domestic workers are now from Indonesia, the other half from the Philippines, and a small percentage from Thailand. The vast majority are women.

Hong Kong labour law requires foreign domestic workers to live in with their employers, often in cramped quarters amounting to little more than a cot in a pantry. Given that labour law does not enforce a legal limit to their work hours, having to live with their employers not only isolates foreign domestic workers and increases their vulnerability to employer abuse, it also ensures that their work hours are completely at the whim of their employers. Foreign domestic workers are only given one day off a week, and unlike any other group of foreigners, are excluded from immigration laws that allow people to apply for permanent residency after having lived in Hong Kong for seven continuous years. In addition to these inhumane conditions, foreign domestic workers must leave Hong Kong within two weeks if they are fired.

In early May we sat down with three activists who are, and organize, foreign domestic workers: Dolores Balladares-Pelaez (United Filipinos in Hong Kong), Shiela Tebia (GABRIELA Hong Kong), and Eman Villanueva (BAYAN Hong Kong & Macau). For this article, we’ve focused on excerpts of our talk with Dolores and Eman, where they explore the centrality of home to migrant workers’ struggles—specifically, the struggle to create the conditions within which returning home would become possible, and the relationship between imperialism and forced migration. We saved our conversation with Shiela for The Volcano’s monthly podcast—tune in to hear about queerness and gender from the perspective of domestic workers in Hong Kong!

We started off by asking about the role of Western powers like Canada and the U.S. in supporting the Duterte government and creating economic conditions in the Philippines that contribute to forced migration.

Dolores: The colonialists are not in the country but are running the country. This is what the U.S. is doing to our country at the moment. We are raising Duterte as the “U.S.-Duterte” regime because, actually, his policies and programs are what the U.S. wants to do with our country. Poor people are getting poorer, no social services, no quality education—these are all neoliberal policies … We want our country to be independent from any foreign intervention. U.S. hands off.

BAYAN Hong Kong & Macau and the International League of Peoples’ Struggles demand an end to U.S. troops in the Philippines

Eman: The line that we are taking against labour export is basically an anti-imperialist, anti-feudal political line. The very basis of the labour export program is the semi-feudal, semi-colonial character of the Philippines. Unless the country is able to liberate itself from being a semi-feudal, agriculturally “backward” country and become an industrialized country, and as long as the country’s politics, economy, military, and even culture is under the control of imperialist powers, then the conditions will never change and this cycle of labour export will just go onmothers going abroad, and then it will be their children, their grandchildren. It’s a never-ending cycle of forced labour migration. We will have to dismantle the very fundamental problems in the Philippines in order for us to go back home.

Dolores: Everyone wishes to come back. But it’s not easy, because of the labour export policy and the conditions in our country. Even if I want to come back, what work will I have? … It’s a dream of any migrant worker, but it’s hard to say I’ll go home for good, because at the end of the day, we think of what will happen with my family. How can I feed them, how can I send them to school, how can I pay our bills if I don’t have a job in the Philippines? Or if I have a job but my salary is not enough? How can you survive?

Eman and Dolores’s comments on how the desire to return home grounds their anti-imperialist analysis got us thinking about the ways in which Hong Kong’s leftists fail to situate Hong Kong in the context of Western imperialism, which can lead to a totally uncritical or romanticized perception of liberal democracy. In February, Republican Senators in the U.S. nominated Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement, along with three student leaders—Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow—for the Nobel Peace Prize, signalling the ways in which Western powers use “democracy” to prop up their anti-communist, anti-revolutionary agenda.

Although the Umbrella Movement, and its precursor, Occupy Central, involved diverse participants that were not wholly unified by any single political vision or strategy, two camps who were involved dominate Hong Kong politics today: liberal pan-democrats who fixate on democracy as a kind of panacea to all social and economic woes, and populist localists who espouse a more radical-sounding politics but fall back on anti-mainland Chinese racism and nativism. Despite their apparent differences, both the liberal democrats and the localists are staunchly anti-communist, but conflate the Chinese Communist Party with communism. (Given that a group of students was recently arrested for studying Marxism in Guangdong, equating the ruling party in China with communism fundamentally misreads the situation in China.)  For an overview of the politics of the Umbrella Movement and the role of class struggle in it, click here.

We asked about migrant workers’ perspectives on the Umbrella Movement and Occupy Central, which occupied an area beneath the HSBC central branch where foreign domestic workers hang out on Sundays.

Domestic workers hanging out in the HSBC building in Central (Getty Images/Jessica Hromas)

Eman: In the case of the Umbrella Movement, some of the main organizers were actually long-time supporters of the migrants’ movement in Hong Kong. When they organized it, we were like, we’re in solidarity with you because the fight for universal suffrage is a legitimate demand. At the same time, we were trying to tell them that it shouldn’t be the end-all struggle. Look at us in the Philippineswe’re one of the oldest so-called democracies in Asia, we’ve had elections for more than five decades, and look at what the Philippines is now! We were trying to tell them that the struggle for universal suffrage, while it is a legitimate democratic demand, will not solve the class oppression in Hong Kong society.

Eman went on to elaborate the difference he sees in the tactics taken up by Umbrella Movement organizers and local pan-democrats, and migrant workers activism.

Eman: For one, the movement that we are developing in Hong Kong is an integral part of the national democratic movement that is now developing and gaining momentum in the Philippines. It is not a separate movement. So, while we are addressing the immediate concerns of migrant workers in Hong Kong, which is a very important strugglethe struggle for the rights and welfare of migrant workers, the struggle against all forms of discrimination and racismwe are also linking it to the longer term struggle in the Philippines, which is the national democratic struggle, to bring down the oppressive system of imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat capitalism, in order to create a society that will take care of its own people. That’s the only time that we can all go back home and be reunited with our family and be reunited with our country. It’s a dual tactics approach… The end game is not to raise the wage of migrant workers in Hong Kong. The end game is not to [regulate] working hours in Hong Kong. But the end game is to contribute to changing the Philippine society so that we will no longer be forced to migrate, and so we will no longer be subjected to such oppressive, exploitative conditions overseas. I think this is a very different perspective as to, let’s say, just fighting for universal suffrage. Universal suffrage doesn’t address the issues of the people… We are living in a class society and no one can deny that.

In our conversations with migrant worker organizers during our two weeks in Hong Kong, the focus was never on overseas Filipinos alone; the struggles of the peasants and urban poor of the Philippines were always part of the conversation. Connections between the conditions in Hong Kong and those in the Philippines push the migrant domestic workers’ movement to develop a broader and, ultimately, more revolutionary politics. Eman’s comments show that the local Hong Kong left has much to learn from this internationalist framework. Likewise, there are important lessons here for those of us engaged in class struggle in imperialist centres like Canada. Like Hong Kong, the Canadian economy relies on the exploitation of migrant labour, including over 850,000 overseas Filipino workers. Anti-capitalist movements in Canada must confront the exploitation of all workers within Canadian borders—citizens and non-citizens, employed and unemployed—while also understanding that these struggles extend across borders and are particularly tethered to resistance against imperialism in the Global South.

Of course, it is not only through the exploitation of labour that Canadian capitalists gain power, but also, crucially, through the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their land. The Philippines has its own long history of colonization and resistance, and we regret that Indigenous perspectives are missing from this interview. In particular, we wonder if Philippine Indigenous perspectives on land relations might trouble the presupposition that the Philippines must “become an industrialized country” for its people to be liberated. This is one of many conversations we hope to continue as we build relationships of solidarity with activists and communities in struggle in Hong Kong and elsewhere.

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