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,
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
Beware, Hong Kong, of this shocking example.
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