Indonesian migrant worker Jochel usually spends her sole day off in Hong Kong’s parks, chatting with friends and video-calling loved ones back home, but since the 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 past four months of huge and increasingly violent pro-democracy rallies, the areas where domestic workers rest on Sundays have frequently become battlegrounds for police and protesters.
“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 led her to safety.
Hong Kong has been battered by weeks of pro-democracy protests that have seen millions peacefully take to the streets, but there have also been increasingly violent clashes between riot police and smaller groups of hardcore protesters.
Since June 9, more than 3,000 tear gas rounds have been fired, as Hong Kongers have demonstrated on all weekends, but one.
Domestic workers earn a minimum of HK$4,630 (US$590) a month and must live with their employers in Hong Kong’s notoriously small apartments.
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 districts. All three have become frequent flashpoints during recent 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 would 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 10pm 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 district and there were no train services.
Despite Hong Kong’s uncertain future, many domestic helpers said that they have no plans 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 after it was hit by a police plastic baton round.
Indah was working for Suara, a free Indonesian-language newspaper in the territory that caters to the domestic helpers.
Many in the community were furious about the injury, but felt unable to say so publicly.
“I’m scared of trouble,” said Marsanah, a helper who has been in Hong Kong for three years and who wanted to protest over Indah’s injury, but feared falling foul of the authorities.
Many helpers felt the same way in a city where losing their job results in a sudden loss of their visa, Network of Indonesian Migrant Workers chairwoman Eni Lestari said.
“If you are seen joining something in relation to the Hong Kong protests, there is a big possibility that we can’t work in Hong Kong anymore,” she said.
Her network had planned to hold a rally in support of Indah on a Sunday, but they had to cancel it, as it coincided with a local pro-democracy protest.
They later rescheduled the event to a weekday outside the Indonesian Consulate General calling for Jakarta to pressure Hong Kong authorities to investigate, identify and prosecute the police officer who shot Indah.
Lawyers for Indah have said that they plan to launch a private prosecution after police refused to identify the officer that fired the shot.
“What the Indonesian government is doing now is not enough,” said a domestic helper at the protest who went by the name Sringatin. “Just asking our community to pray and stay calm is not enough.”
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