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A Pair of Hands Never Tired – Domestic worker Bobo received Unionist Award

September 19, 2015

Contributors: HKCTU

During the 25 years’ anniversary of Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), Bobo Lai-wan PO, leader of Hong Kong Domestic Workers General Union, was one of the 13 unionists awarded as the Unionist who “do not acquiesce”. Here’s her story.


(中文見下面 Roll down for Chinese. )

Domestic workers save families from dusty homes. No matter how messy is a home, it will be spotless under Bobo’s pair of hands. However, Bobo pays the cost – she has lost her fingerprints after all these years working as a domestic worker. Other people can get their fingerprints detected and pass through electronic channel at immigration gates. She cannot. The long-time and labour intensive work has caused her permanent damages like joint pains, muscle strains. Despite all these pains, she is thankful for the work as it has taken her to unions. She used to be a timid and scared nameless woman worker. Now she is a woman union leader standing in the front line.

Photo: Pak Chai

Trembling behind the banner

Bobo started to work as a live-in domestic worker when she was 17 years old. At the age of 27, she got married. A few years later, she started to work as a domestic worker with multiple employers. This work is a lonesome work. You can only keep silent with labour problems, work injuries. In 2001, Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) was establishing a union organizing local domestic workers, the Hong Kong Domestic Workers General Union. She witnessed the strength of a union.

At that time, two local domestic workers were hired by a company who dispatch workers to households to do domestic work. The two workers were asked by the company to sign a self-employment contract. This in turn, would allow the company not to provide insurance coverage for the workers, nor any welfare and benefits. A group of domestic workers then went to the company for a negotiation under the leadership of an HKCTU organizer.

“At that time, I was so fearful that I could not figure out what is happening. I just hold the protest banner, trembling.” recalled Bobo. The two workers finally had got their employment contracts back recognizing employer-employee relationship. The one-week experience has made the timid woman to feel immediately that “I am a powerful woman.”

Since then, Bobo has been active in union’s activities and work. One concern was on work safety of domestic workers. Some domestic workers died from falling from their employers’ apartments while cleaning windows. The union stuck posters to raise public awareness. It pressed the government to protect domestic workers from work injuries. The union has been able to make employers to buy labour insurance for domestic workers.

Yet, Bobo does have regret in her long struggle in union.  In 2005, a member of the domestic workers union strained her back while working. Her employer refused to take the responsibility. “You might have injured in other households or in your own home.” Employer claimed and refused to report the work injury to Labour Department as required by the law.

The worker had done MRI scan and other medical check ups. She suffered from acute pains. She worried about the burden for her family because of heavy medical fee. She jumped to death. The union went in front of the employer’s door to distribute leaflets to her neighborhood almost everyday, demanding the employer to take the responsibility. The pressure had got the case to the court. However, the Labour Department lost the court case against the employer.

The union at that time was also demanding Hong Kong government for a Central Compensation Scheme. The scheme can be a pool with contributions from employers to compensate domestic workers’ occupational illness. However, the government has not adopted the union’s demand until now.

Bobo is happy that her family no more “dislikes politics”

Bobo is a core leader of the union. She often ignores her family. She had a family of four- her husband, a construction site worker, her son and daughter. In the first two years of the union, no one cooked whenever she went out to attend union meetings. Her family was left behind. Without dinner at home, it costed them more than $100 for a dinner at restaurants. Her family complained for such a huge expense. Bobo resolved the problem by going to union in secret with different sort of lies, e.g. someone was treating her a meal which she could not reject.

However, in a 2003 mass demonstration against Hong Kong government’s proposal to Article 23 on National Security Legislation, her husband stood up and joined the demonstration. He used to “hate politics”.

“He used to accuse me many times as trouble-makers. I was moved when he joined the demonstration at that time.” Bobo said. Although she had gained her husband’s support, her daughter and son were not interested in social movement. Until last year in the Umbrella Movement of Hong Kong, her son has changed.

Together with several union members, she was making Tong Sui (note: sweet soup, kind of Chinese healthy desert) to distribute to the protesters. Her son volunteered himself to push the cart carrying Tong Sui. When Bobo left her family picnic in the mid of the day to attend union’s action, her son-in-law recognized her union’s work, saying “you have your mission.”

Bobo says if she has not chosen to join the union, maybe she will remain as an ordinary housewife who just grumble on her own over problems. She said she will not leave the fight.

 “If I leave the union, there will be nowhere to express our anger and concern over injustice.”  Bobo said.

Source: HKCTU