It’s a Sunday morning near the Mid-Levels escalators. Groups of women are sitting on cardboard mats – chatting, sharing meals, knitting, playing cards, or listening to music. They are foreign domestic workers, and this is their one day off in the week.
In Hong Kong, domestic workers are legally required to live at their employers’ house and, during their limited free time, they often relax on sidewalks or in parks and public squares.
Many also head to Hong Kong’s beaches.
It was at Repulse Bay in 2014 where Simon Holliday, a learning and development manager for a Hong Kong law firm, found the inspiration behind Splash – an NGO that strives to make swimming more accessible. Remembering that afternoon, he recalls watching workers cautiously wade into the water, few ever going more than waist deep.
“You didn’t have to scratch the surface much to realise that these women couldn’t swim,” he says, noting that swimming proficiency is closely related to socio-economic circumstances. A standard monthly wage of HK$4,520 does not leave disposable income for swimming lessons, which range from HK$250 to HK$600 per hour in Hong Kong.
Holliday, an avid swimmer and the first man to complete the 45-kilometre swim around Hong Kong Island, started researching the issue. He found alarming figures: According to a 2012 World Health Organization report, there had been a total of 130,149 deaths from drowning in Southeast Asia in that year alone. And in 2014, 372,000 people died from drowning worldwide.
He also learned that neither the Philippines nor Indonesia – the two countries where the vast majority of the city’s 380,000 domestic workers come from – usually include learning to swim in their school curricula, which puts people at risk.
Knowing free swimming lessons could save lives, Holliday reached out to an open-water swim group based in Hong Kong, asking for advice on how to move his idea forward. His words struck a chord with one of the group’s members, Libby Alexander.
A former competitive swimmer, Alexander had recently learned that the domestic worker she employs had been secretly meeting friends at the beach at night and they were teaching themselves how to swim. Aware of the dangers of drowning, Alexander agreed that free swim classes could be the solution. They would not only protect these women, but also empower them. Alexander joined Holliday, and the pair co-founded Splash in 2015.
On a Sunday in March that year, Splash held its first lesson at the Hong Kong International School’s indoor pool. To spread the word, Holliday and Alexander handed out flyers in areas around the city where large groups of domestic workers tend to spend their day off.
Thirty people attended that first class – and Splash has grown steadily since. The organisation currently counts 80 active coaches, 40 annual programmes, and an average of 30 people per class. This year alone, the NGO estimates that it will teach nearly a thousand people how to swim.
The way it works is simple: Splash runs free 12-week programmes designed for beginners at apartment complexes and private clubs across the city. In addition to free classes, the organisation also provides employer-sponsored lessons during the week, which cost HK$2,000 for a package of 12 sessions.
Courses focus on teaching water safety and basic freestyle and, by the end of the 12-week cycle, about 80 per cent of participants can swim 25 metres without any assistance. When it comes to timing, Splash has made the programme as flexible as possible to account for domestic workers’ demanding hours.
“We know that domestic workers aren’t in control of their schedules and their employers might ask them to work last-minute. It happens all the time,” explains Holliday. “One non-negotiable is that you cannot miss the first lesson. Otherwise, you have to wait until the next term and try again. After that first class, you have to attend 75 per cent of classes.”
Alexander recalls an instance where a domestic worker had to miss her final assessment and graduation at the end of a 12-week programme because her employer needed her to work at a mahjong party. When the domestic worker protested, the employer replied: “My mahjong party is more important than you learning how to swim.”
“It’s heart wrenching,” says Alexander. “You can’t imagine the relationships that some of these helpers have with their employers.” She explains that, in some cases, the tense relationship is aggravated by power dynamics, as well as the challenging experience of living inside the employers’ home.
Holliday hopes that by holding lessons at private clubs, Splash can break down societal barriers and encourage empathy. “These women are not just caretakers. They’re not just cleaners,” he says. “They’ve got skills, they’ve got personalities – and now they’re swimmers as well.”
A Positive Shift
For those who complete Splash’s 12-week course, Alexander says the experience can be very empowering. “They go through a positive shift in self-esteem,” Alexander says. “They look forward to that Sunday. They appreciate it because it is the one time they get to do something just for themselves. It’s their opportunity for a challenge, self-improvement or simply enjoyment.”
Many “Splashers” – as they’re nicknamed – enjoy it so much that they volunteer after graduating. Some help with administrative duties, while others attend the NGO’s graduate trainee programme to become coaches.
Liway Cruz Garcia – a 45-year-old domestic worker from the Philippines – is one such volunteer. Garcia graduated from Splash’s swimming programme in 2016 and it completely changed her relationship with water. Before the classes, Garcia says she was scared of water and would never go in unless she was certain her feet would touch the bottom.
“After the programme, my fear disappeared,” she says, adding that she acquired more than just a physical skill. “It gave me confidence in and out of the water – I no longer feel inferior and I can communicate better.”
Now a coach, Garcia says she felt motivated to volunteer because there are thousands of domestic workers in Hong Kong who can’t swim. “Since it helped me, I want to pass on what I learnt to as many non-swimmers as I can – and maybe they will be able to pass this skill on to their family, kids or friends.”
Domestic workers aren’t the only people in Hong Kong who are learning to swim. In 2016, Splash expanded its purview to introduce programmes for children from low-income families and, by 2020, the organisation aspires to teach 5,000 people in total.
In order to raise operational funds, the NGO relies on revenue from employer-sponsored classes as well as several fundraising campaigns, such as Simon’s Swim and Splash Dash Relay. Taking place every year, Simon’s Swim comprises a 45km circumnavigation of Hong Kong Island that’s organised in collaboration with HK360Swim. This standalone event was conceived by Shu Pu, one of the original cofounders of Splash who is no longer involved, and provides an avenue for swimmers to circumnavigate Hong Kong Island – some take part as a personal challenge, others join to fundraise. The most recent race, held in November 2018, raised over HK$600,000 for Splash’s operations.
Another major event, Splash Dash Relay, is an annual charity “swimathon” held in March at the Canadian International School of Hong Kong where each team commits to raising at least HK$5,000.
In coming years, Splash has ambitions to branch into other parts of Asia, such as the Philippines and Indonesia, where they plan to teach both adults and children who often can’t afford swimming lessons, in hopes of spreading life-saving skills and self-confidence.
Learn more splashfoundation.org