Hundreds of kilometers from home, many work more than 10 hours a day, six days a week, and are paid only a minimum monthly wage of HK$4,410 (US$550). These are some of the shared experiences of the approximately 330,000 migrant domestic helpers in Hong Kong.

A new feature-length documentary titled The Helper, which began screening in cinemas in Hong Kong on Thursday, tells the stories of female domestic helpers who left their homes in the Philippines and Indonesia to find work in the city.

“Two-thirds of Hong Kong’s domestic helpers are also mothers. Most of the time, they are forced to leave their young children at home so that they can work abroad and give their children better futures,” Joanna Bowers, writer and director of The Helper, told Asia Times.

“Nobody migrates for work for fun. If you have a choice in it you are called an expat, but for people like Hong Kong’s domestic helpers, they just can’t stay in their own country because it’s impossible to support their family.”

In this picture taken on September 5, 2017, Joanna Bowers, Hong Kong-based writer and director of new documentary "The Helper" poses during an interview with AFP in Hong Kong.Each Sunday, a choir of Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong gathers to sing songs that remind them of the children they left back home. Known as the "Unsung Heroes", what began as a group of shy performers now regularly take the stage around Hong Kong and feature in a new documentary about the lives of the city's maids, known locally as "helpers". / AFP PHOTO / Anthony WALLACE
Joanna Bowers, Hong Kong-based writer and director of the new documentary The Helper. Photo: AFP/Anthony Wallace

The idea for the project came about as early as 2011, when Bowers first moved to Hong Kong.

“For anyone who arrives in Hong Kong, you cannot help but be struck by the visuals of these thousands of migrant domestic workers, or ‘domestic helpers’ as they are called here in Hong Kong, gathering in Soho or in Victoria Park on Sundays,” she said.

“From a naive foreign perspective, you think, oh, they are sitting on cardboard boxes, but they don’t look homeless, why is it that they have to be like this? Then you learn that their salaries are so relatively low in this expensive city that they couldn’t integrate into the society on a Sunday [the way] everyone else would, [and] this raises so many questions. This is my jumping-off point.”

The Helper is the British filmmaker’s first feature-length documentary. It follows the main storylines of Hong Kong’s migrant domestic workers, shows the reality of their daily lives and explores their stories of maternal sacrifice and life struggles.

“We followed a choir group called ‘The Unsung Heroes’ to perform on the main stage of Clockenflap [Music and Arts Festival] in 2015. We also get to know some of the individual women in the choir and explore their stories [in the] film,” Bowers said.

“We also went back to the Philippines with Analyn Tapil, one of the choir members, for her youngest son’s college graduation,” Bowers recalled. “It was so moving to see the excited and proud Analyn, and her boy saying that he wouldn’t be wearing this cap and gown here today ‘if it wouldn’t for my mom’.”

In this picture taken on September 3, 2017, Filipina domestic workers who are members of the "Unsung Heroes" choir take part in a practice session inside a kindergarten school's classroom in Hong Kong.Each Sunday, a choir of Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong gathers to sing songs that remind them of the children they left back home. Known as the "Unsung Heroes", what began as a group of shy performers now regularly take the stage around Hong Kong and feature in a new documentary about the lives of the city's maids, known locally as "helpers". / AFP PHOTO / DALE DE LA REY / To go with AFP story Hong Kong-Philippines-music-social-film-maids , Feature by Laura Mannering
Members of ‘The Unsung Heroes’ choir take part in a practice session inside a kindergarten classroom in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP/Dale De La Rey
In this picture taken on September 3, 2017, Analyn Tapil (L), a member of the "Unsung Heroes" choir and Filipina domestic worker, shows a photograph with her two sons Lyndon (C) and Loren (R) on a mobile phone, after a practice session inside a kindergarten school's classroom in Hong Kong.Each Sunday, a choir of Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong gathers to sing songs that remind them of the children they left back home. Known as the "Unsung Heroes", what began as a group of shy performers now regularly take the stage around Hong Kong and feature in a new documentary about the lives of the city's maids, known locally as "helpers". / AFP PHOTO / DALE DE LA REY / To go with AFP story Hong Kong-Philippines-music-social-film-maids , Feature by Laura Mannering
Analyn Tapil appears in a photograph with her two sons Lyndon (center) and Loren on a mobile phone. Photo: AFP/Dale De La Rey

The film also follows the story of an Indonesian domestic helper who is a beneficiary of Pathfinders, an organization that helps pregnant domestic helpers in Hong Kong.

“She was falsely accused of a crime, arrested because of that, and consequently ended up overstaying, homeless and pregnant,” Bowers said. “Her story is really powerful, because despite everything that she has gone through, she is the most amazing mother, and everything she did was for her young daughter.”

And there is also the story of Liza Avelino, who just came back from climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to raise money for local charity helping domestic helpers in Hong Kong. “She is a wonderful example of the potential these women have,” Bowers said.

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Photo: Joanna Bowers
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Photo: Joanna Bowers

“Our ultimate goal in making this film is to create a shift in perception,” Bowers said. “We all make assumptions about people, about who they are, where they came from and how their lives are. But people need to understand that domestic helpers are also real people with hopes and dreams, and they have very important reasons to come to Hong Kong and work.”

Bowers and her crew joined forces with the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers team to launch the Thanks a Million campaign, which is an effort to show gratitude toward the global helper community. She also plans to collaborate with corporates and schools for screenings.

“Hong Kong is a very busy place, it’s very easy to just not stop and think. We hope that people will stop for a moment, and have a little more empathy towards the people around you,” Bowers said.

“And when you look closer, you will find the parallels in the experiences of Hong Kong families and the domestic workers. There has been an increase of mothers returning to the job market in Hong Kong in recent years. People do this so that they can make a better income, make a better living, and therefore create a better future for their kids, and this is exactly the same thing domestic helpers are doing here in Hong Kong.”

Joy Carbonell takes a selfie with fellow members of 'The Unsung Heroes' choir, a group of Filipino domestic workers, during a practice session inside a kindergarten classroom in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP / Dale De La Rey
Joy Carbonell takes a selfie with fellow members of ‘The Unsung Heroes’ choir, a group of Filipino domestic workers, during a practice session inside a kindergarten classroom in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP / Dale De La Rey

The Helper was released in Pacific Place AMC Cinema, Hong Kong, on October 12. It will also screen in Singapore on October 22. For more information please visit: www.facebook.com/thehelperdocumentary