Sunday in a Hong Kong Park

It’s Sunday, and as usual the downtown parks and sidewalks are full of women, lounging on flattened cardboard boxes, massaging one another, painting toe nails, playing cards, chatting and napping. Hawkers wend through the rows and rows of women, peddling everything from discounted telephone calling cards to the word of God.

I share a bag of flavored peanuts with Susi Widyamti and Rita Wulandari, two women from Indonesia in their 20s, as they talk about how they miss their families, and how they’re overworked. But like many of the other women out here, they also betray a sense of pride in the financial support they provide for their distant families, and in the independence that they do not have back home.

Sunday is not just a day of reprieve from the toil of domestic work; it’s also a time to savor a new-found autonomy.

“In Java, we have to wear the headscarf,” Ms. Widyamti says. “Here we can do anything. My parents don’t know.”

Ms. Wulandari chimes in: “In Indonesia it’s very Muslim. There are so many things we can’t do. Here we can go to a disco during the day on Sunday. Here there is a lot more freedom.”

Ms. Widyamti and Ms. Wulandari are two of the nearly 271,000 foreign domestic workers — almost all women — who live and work in the homes of Hong Kong families, cooking, cleaning, taking care of children and the elderly. On Sundays, these workers are liberated from the confines of their employers’ homes; they flood downtown public spaces, their only refuge.

Hong Kong’s population of female domestic workers is part of a far greater workforce. In fact, women now comprise nearly half of the world’s cross-border migrants. Migration has been feminized, and domestic work is one of the main driving forces behind this movement.

These women leave behind husbands and children in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, the two leading exporters of female domestic workers, and travel to the far corners of the earth, from the United States, one of the most desirable destinations, to the Middle East, one of the least desirable. For decades they have been going to Asian cities like Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong, helping to fuel rapidly industrializing economies.

Hong Kong has been recruiting women as domestic workers since the 1970s as increasing numbers of local women entered the workforce. The $460 per-month minimum wage for a live-in maid is affordable for many middle class and local expatriate families.

Hong Kong has one of the best legal regimes in Asia for protecting foreign workers — including a day off on Sunday.

Yet tales of abuse are easy to come by. Unscrupulous agents often charge exorbitant fees to arrange jobs; employers sometimes seize newly hired maids’ travel documents; reports of physical and sexual abuse are not uncommon.

Sheryll Apao, a 29-year-old Filipino woman, told me last summer that she was quitting her domestic worker job because her employers wouldn’t let her eat enough at dinner — a meal she usually prepared.

Rona Marlina told me that her first job — taking care of an elderly Chinese couple — was set up through an agency in her hometown of Subang, Indonesia. It lasted seven months and during all that time she was not given a single day off.

But Ms. Marlina said her current employers, a middle-aged professional Chinese couple, treat her well. They bought her a guitar, and now she gives lessons on Sundays in the park, earning a little extra money that she saves for the education of her five-year-old daughter, Milanie.

Ms. Marlina went home in December for the first time in three years. Milanie, who was in the group greeting her at the airport, asked, “Are you my mommy?”

The separation is trying, but Ms. Marlina, and thousands of women like her, are comforted by their purpose.

“I hope she will find a better job than me some day,” Ms. Marlina said. “I hope she doesn’t have to be a domestic worker.”

Brian E. Zittel, assistant editor of the IHT Views pages.