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
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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