To begin with, an overwhelming majority of Filipinos here – more than 90 percent – are domestic workers. They came in on highly restrictive terms. They cannot change employers, live on their own, and have to practically work for as long as they are told.
Worse, if their work contracts are cut prematurely, they have to go back to the Philippines, even if they manage to find a new employer, within the 14 days that they are allowed to stay.
But the biggest blow came just last year, when Hong Kong’s top court categorically said they could not become permanent residents, no matter how long they have lived here.
Given their precarious position, made worse by huge debts incurred to pay for illicit placement fees, Filipino migrant workers are naturally jittery about anything that could threaten their jobs.
Thus, when the Philippine Consulate General issued a statement on September 29 advising Filipinos in the territory to stay away from the protest flashpoints across the territory, most migrant workers heeded the call.
On two subsequent statutory holidays, while the protest was in full swing, the thousands of migrants who used to camp out across the key Central district were nowhere to be seen. A few said they were told by their employers not to go out on these days, but most decided on their own to stay away.
It was this cautious stance that earned flak for Akbayan party-list representative Walden Bello when he came to Hong Kong to show support for the protesters. Despite saying at the onset that he was doing it for himself and Akbayan, Bello was labeled “epal” (or publicity hound) by many migrant workers on social media.
Other Filipinos have been just as cautious, and for a valid reason. For nearly four years, relations between Hong Kong and the Philippines were deeply strained as a result of the 2010 hostage-taking in Manila in which eight Hong Kong residents were killed. The standoff was resolved only in April this year, and came just in time to avert a looming backlash on the Filipino community.
Still, the hostage-taking fiasco took its toll on what used to be cordial, even friendly relations between Filipinos and some pro-democracy legislators backing the student-led protest. As the crisis deepened, the legislators led calls for more sanctions to be imposed on the Philippines, including the gradual withdrawal of its workers from Hong Kong.
It was amid this grim scenario that the Filipino community had to ponder whether they should stay away, or support the protesters’ call for Beijing to stop controlling the process of choosing Hong Kong’s next chief executive in 2017.
While most took a safe way out, others were not cowed. Dozens took to the streets, especially in the aftermath of the tear-gassing of student protesters near the Hong Kong government’s seat of power on September 28.
This hardy bunch, many of them protest veterans in the Philippines, decided they would not be denied the chance to witness history being made right at their doorstep. This was, after all, a shining moment in this Chinese territory, one that resonated with all that was good about the Philippines’ own People Power revolt 28 years ago.
Many of those who were the first to venture out did post grim pictures of the unfolding tension in the protest-hit districts, but along with these were glowing reports of how disciplined and resolute the young protesters were.
Like their Filipino counterparts of long ago who had only courage and determination going for them, the Hong Kong protesters faced the authorities virtually unarmed. When they were attacked with pepper spray and tear gas, they defended themselves with nothing more than goggles, face masks and umbrellas, thus the term “Umbrella Revolution.”
The searing images of heavily armed riot police charging at the young and defenseless protesters prompted many others into action. From a few hundred at the start of the protest, the crowd swelled by the tens of thousands on the third day. Soon, all roads leading to the key protest site across the main government offices in Central were blocked off.
The official civil disobedience campaign Occupy Central, set to kick off originally on October 1, a public holiday, was pushed forward by four days by organizers originally wary of being labeled disruptive.
As the protests spread to other key districts across Hong Kong, the government began withdrawing police at protest sites. Apart from sporadic warnings of forcibly removing people so the blockaded roads could be reopened, the police did little to break up the gatherings.
Soon, more people, including Filipino residents with young children in tow, turned up at the protest sites, the better to experience real democracy at work. A number of migrant workers -- some of them curious, others determined to show support -- did the same thing.
Nearly all went away with the impression that this was like the EDSA revolt all over again, where peace and unity were given as much importance as fighting for one’s rights.
To Filipinos honed by years of fighting abusive leaders and oppressive governments, it was a heartwarming reminder that all may be well after all in this, their second home.
Daisy CL Mandap is a journalist, lawyer, migrant rights advocate and a Hong Kong resident for 27 years. She edits the leading Filipino community newspaper in Hong Kong, The SUN.