27 October 2016

Rights of foreign domestic helpers matter to HK future

The physical abuse suffered by Indonesian domestic helper Erwiana Sulistyaningsih in the hands of her employer drew a lot of public indignation, but after the guilty party was convicted and sentenced to a jail term, public concern over the case has died down.

It is indeed difficult to keep public attention on issues concerning foreign domestic helpers (FDHs) until something bad happens. For example, it was only after a helper was killed by a concrete block that fell from above a hostel provided by her employment agent that the public voiced concern over the living and working conditions of FDHs and the regulation of employment agencies.

Apart from showing concern for the working conditions of the FDHs, we must also not overlook the fact that some of them are being physically abused by their employers. A number of FDH concern groups and labor interest groups have been working closely together to uncover cases in which FDHs are being physically abused or illegally exploited.

It is without question that employers who mistreat their FDHs must be brought to justice. However, if we magnify these isolated cases too much and even get entangled in some abstract debates that demonize FDH employers as if they were all slave drivers, it will only exacerbate the hostile relationship between FDHs and their employers.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what some mainstream media are doing. On the one hand, they give embellished accounts of the terrible misery of these “enslaved” FDHs, but on the other hand they also run stories about FDHs who steal money from their employers or mistreat the children of their employers.

By smearing both sides and exaggerating the confrontation between FDHs and their employers, they intend to create some sort of a sensation in society in order to sell more copies of their newspapers.

In order to avoid that, we must keep the FDH issue in perspective, and try to have a clear understanding of the rather complicated issue of exploitation.

Exploitation can come in various forms. Some helpers are not paid according to the terms of their contracts, some are not allowed to have holidays to which they are entitled, while some are forced to work extra hours. What we should do is stay focused on those illegal practices, and find out if further legislation should be enacted to prohibit those practices.

If we look at it from a macro perspective, we can see the fact that hundreds of thousands of female migrant workers are leaving the Philippines and Indonesia every year to look for jobs overseas has its roots in the socio-economic conditions, gender relations and cultural reality in their home countries.

To say the least, that these female workers come all the way to Hong Kong to work as FDHs at a salary much lower than our local statutory minimum wage is already a kind of exploitation. And they are not better off in other countries either, as many of these women working in other regions as FDHs often receive lower pay than local workers. Therefore, in a sense, it is a kind of exploitation on a global scale.

As a matter of fact, the cross-border mobility of female migrant workers from developing countries on a massive scale reflects a cruel reality: the process of globalization has tipped the economic balance in favor of the developed world, and the wealth gap between the developed and developing countries is quickly widening. Unless this trend is reversed through a fairer distribution of wealth on a global level, migrant workers from underdeveloped countries, including those working as FDHs, will continue to be subject to exploitation.

There are now more than 300,000 FDHs working in Hong Kong, and based on the 2011 census, one in every ten families in Hong Kong has hired a FDH. The FDHs played an important role in the rapid economic growth of Hong Kong during the ’80s and ’90s, as they greatly boosted our local workforce by allowing young couples, especially young mothers, to work full-time, and the FDHs will continue to play a significant role in our economy in the days ahead.

Therefore, it is in our society’s interest to improve their working and living conditions, and to foster their interaction with the community in their daily lives.

It is important to note that the distress that some FDHs are experiencing in Hong Kong these days is indeed the result of our longstanding indifference to their rights. Although by and large they are not rejected by the mainstream society, their existence is often neglected over the years, and few really regard them as members of our society, let alone try to understand their culture and historical background.

In the long run, I think it is important that we raise public awareness about the rights of FDHs through school education and government promotion. We should also learn to respect their cultural difference and regard them not only as foreign workers but also as an ethnic minority group in Hong Kong which also have a stake in our society’s future.

This article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 2.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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