The shame of an underclass

SCMP November 28 2005

Does Hong Kong really need an underclass of low-paid contract workers? Do we not demean ourselves by demeaning others? Two recent news items are worth pondering: first, the case of a domestic helper being paid just $100 a month; and second, the fact that the government is to allow the import of 5,000 low-paid workers for the textile industry.

The first case may be exceptional, but what is not exceptional is the widespread underpayment of domestic helpers, especially Indonesians, and the lack of effort by the government (and the Indonesian consulate) to enforce the law.

The textile workers may be exceptional, too, but the exception shows the lack of principle of certain business interests close to the Tsang government - who are demanding special favours - and the government's susceptibility to them.

A social and economic case can be made for allowing foreign domestic contract workers. They enable more spouses to work, thus benefiting the economy as whole as well as the employer household. However, there also seems to be a connection between the easy availability of domestic help for the middle class and the very low birth rate. Instead of making child-rearing easier, it encourages local women to work, and earn, full time.

At the current level of their minimum wage, it could be argued that domestic helpers are no worse off than the lowest-paid unskilled workers. But the fact that foreigners are prepared to work for half the minimum, or less, does not make it right. It suggests that society tolerates an underclass segregated by race, rights and income.

The law at least lays down reasonable working conditions. Thanks to freedom of speech and the activities of the media and non-governmental organisations, abuses do get exposed. Hong Kong has yet to go as far down the road as the likes of the Persian Gulf states and Singapore in relying on a transient underclass. In the oil-rich Gulf, years of dependency both on low-paid, unskilled workers from India and skilled workers from many countries have left a legacy of a native population unwilling to do menial jobs, often too lazy to learn skilled ones, yet expecting high incomes for doing little work as government servants.

The Singapore example is closer to Hong Kong's case. The extent of the exploitation of foreign workers there is seldom discussed. But it came as a shock to learn that foreign domestic workers do not enjoy any legal entitlement to days off. There were howls of protest from some employers when the government recently suggested that all contracts should provide one day off a month.

At present, domestic helpers are exempt from the working-hours and days-off provision of the Employment Act, so leave and wages are determined by individual contracts. Pay averages only 15 per cent of the city state's median. One survey found that 50 per cent of helpers get no days off and only 10 per cent get one day a week - the legal minimum in Hong Kong. Many maids are not allowed out of the house.

Sadly, it is perhaps not surprising - given the tendency of members of Singapore's elite to believe in the superiority of Chinese genes - to find that only women from the 'brown' countries of South and Southeast Asia qualify to be employed in this particular form of servitude.

Apart from 150,000 such maids, Singapore also has some 600,000 other 'non-residents'. Many are well-paid bankers, businessmen academics and engineers. But rather more do the dirty and dangerous jobs, stock the thriving brothel business or otherwise work for wages far below the norms for residents. They contribute to the economy but get almost nothing back.

Beware, Hong Kong, of this shocking example.




E-mail me 
IHT Articles 
Other Articles