Hong Kong (CNN)Hundreds of miles from home, many work 12 hour days, six days a week, and they’re paid less than the minimum wage.
But these women are not victims of human trafficking.
They are among the approximately 330,000 domestic helpers from the Philippines and Indonesia who left their homes to find work in Hong Kong, some of whom are profiled in a new feature-length documentary called “The Helper” which is holding its Hong Kong premiere on Mother’s Day.
The film chronicles the diverse stories of five of Hong Kong’s migrant domestic workers. It shows the reality of their daily lives and explores the contribution they make to the working families in Hong Kong whilst they deal with separation from their loved ones.
Two-thirds of Hong Kong’s helpers are mothers themselves, who feel forced to leave their young children at home so they can work abroad and send money back, to give their families a better future.
“After one year here in Hong Kong, I had a chance to see my kids. And then my youngest daughter didn’t recognize me,” says Vilma Jondarino, a domestic helper from the Philippines featured in the film. Jondarino has three children aged five, 11, and 12.
A lack of employment opportunities back home means that even those with education and training often cannot find work back home, and many of the jobs that are available pay far less than a domestic worker earns in Hong Kong.
This economic disparity forces these women to make an agonizing choice: leave the family and work abroad, or stay at home and risk a lifetime of poverty.
Some of those featured are members of the domestic helper’s choir, The Unsung Heroes, who have performed at Hong Kong’s annual music festival, Clockenflap. Their main song, “I Wish I Could Kiss You Goodnight” is a heartfelt reflection on the sadness the mothers feel at being separated from their children.
“Every time I sing that song, it comes from my heart,” Vilma says.
The film, which was funded by a Kickstarter project, hopes to raise awareness and appreciation for their self-sacrifice and for the enormous contribution they make to Hong Kong society.
“We kept hearing from the women that the main thing they would like is to receive a ‘thank you’ for the work that they do,” Joanna Bowers, the film’s director, told CNN.
So after the premiere of the film on Sunday, the team will launch a social media campaign called “Thanks a Million” to generate messages of appreciation for domestic workers both in Hong Kong and the rest of the world. The proceeds of the film will also go to local charities.
Vulnerable to abuse
As well as raising awareness about the sacrifice these mothers make for the sake of their families, the film is also designed to highlight the issues that many of the workers face on arrival in Hong Kong. For many of them, it is the first time they have traveled outside their home country, and they arrive with no money and limited language skills, leaving them vulnerable to abuse.
Many of the women find jobs via employment agencies, meaning they don’t meet their employer before signing a two-year contract requiring them to live and work in their homes. They’re paid a minimum wage of HK$4,310 ($550) a month and are only entitled to one day off a week.
This week, the Mission For Migrant Workers (MFMW) charity released findings from a survey of more than 3,000 domestic helpers in Hong Kong, which found that 43% of those surveyed are not provided with their own bedroom – with some reporting that they are forced to sleep in areas such as toilets, storage rooms or on the roof.
This practice is against Hong Kong government guidelines which say that domestic helpers should be provided with “suitable accommodation and with reasonable privacy.”
Another study by Students Against Fees and Exploitation (SAFE) at the University of Hong Kong found that more than 70% of domestic helper recruitment agencies in Hong Kong are breaking the law by overcharging fees or withholding passports.
One of the helpers profiled in the film, Liza Avelino, 46, has starting fundraising for the charity Enrich, which helps to train domestic helpers how to budget and learn their financial rights in Hong Kong. Avelino has twin sons in their twenties.
She raises money by following her dream of hiking up Asia’s highest peaks.
“Some people said, you’re so inspiring, we want to help,” she told CNN. “Some people are really willing to donate, so I said maybe I can do fundraising.”
She saves her own money to pay for the trips, and when people offer to donate money, she requests that they visit a fundraising site.
“It’s nice to do your dream with your own resources,” Liza says. “It makes me proud of myself.”
“I have to sacrifice”
For many of the mothers who work in Hong Kong, the hardships they face are still worth it in the long run.
Analyn Tapil, a domestic helper from Quezon City in the Philippines, recently returned home to see her son graduate. She has two teenage sons.
“I am a very proud mum,” she says. “Maybe if I didn’t come to Hong Kong, I think I couldn’t give them the best future and I couldn’t send them to the best school.”
But the impact of the distance between she and her sons has taken its toll on their relationship.
“I have to sacrifice,” she says. “My eldest son up to now, he couldn’t understand why I’m far apart from them, because up until now he’s still blaming me. He has so many questions – why there are some families that they can survive, even (though) they are not far from their children?”
“I have no choice, I still have to work,” she says.
Hong Kong’s unsung heroes: Mothers making the ultimate sacrifice