Victims of a vicious system

SCMP June 26

The Hong Kong government appears to be studiously ignoring the recommendations of a recent Asian Development Bank report which could improve the lot of the city's 220,000 foreign domestic helpers - almost all from the Philippines and Indonesia. Hong Kong is one of several Asian cities covered in the report "Workers Remittance Flows in Southeast Asia" on migrant workers.

The apparent self-satisfaction of Hong Kong officialdom - suggesting it has nothing to learn from outside experts - is particularly disappointing given that the report does not focus on pay levels. If anything, it leans towards a freer market that might permit employers to pay helpers less than the current official minimum of $3,400 per month.

The report suggests ways the government could reduce abuses that are more the result of intermediaries in the system than of Hong Kong employers. This city is still a paradise relative to most other Asian destinations for foreign domestic helpers - whether the Middle East, where physical abuse is rampant; or Singapore, where wages are a pittance and there are no rights to days off or even freedom of movement.

Here, there is an active support network of non-governmental organisations, freedom to organise and to seek the protection of the courts. The worst abuses originate in the source countries themselves, Indonesia in particular. However, there is much that could be done here to mitigate these abuses if there was any will on the part of the bureaucracy to do so. But it instinctively favours the middleman agencies and employers.

The main problem is that Indonesia and the Philippines both require prospective domestic helpers going abroad to use employment agencies. In theory, there are ceilings on the amount these firms can charge: one month's wages in the case of the Philippines. But these caps are usually exceeded thanks to corruption in the home country. In practice, according to the report, fees in the Philippines are $12,000 and in Indonesia $21,000 - or more than four and seven months' wages, respectively.

While Hong Kong cannot be blamed for this abuse, policies here don't help to mitigate it. In many cases, the huge fees are charged as loans that are deducted directly from wages, so that workers receive little or no cash for months.

Hong Kong regulations also encourage one of the most vicious abuses. As soon as a worker has repaid the fee, the employer is encouraged by the agency to seek another - or "better" or "cheaper" - helper. Dismissal is easy; the worker is required to return home within 14 days; and the agency then collects another seven months' wages as fees from the replacement worker. Hong Kong's callous officialdom helps this process by giving sacked employees little time to find a new job, and forcing them to return home before starting a new contract. This system also encourages underpayment. The report estimates that 10 per cent of Filipinos and 28 per cent of Indonesians are paid less than the official minimum wage.

The best solution to this problem might even be to lower the minimum wage - while ending the requirement to return home within two weeks if a contract is broken. This would enable the employer to pay less than at present, through open negotiation, and give the employee freedom to escape from abusive employers and obtain a new contract without being ripped off by the employment agency sharks.

A society's level of civilisation can be judged by how it treats its weakest members. There is much that Hong Kong could do, at little or no cost, to improve the lot of a group that comprises some 7 per cent of the Hong Kong workforce.




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