By: Philip Bowring

Racism towards brown Asians has long been an issue in Hong Kong. But the repeated failure of the government to address it suggests that it has become official policy. Yes, there is a Commission on Equality which makes some efforts to address its most obvious examples as applied to permanent residents of the territory. But an emphasis on One Country and integration with a Han mainland is a more powerful force.

The biggest losers, however, are not the residents of South Asian descent but the 350,000 plus domestic helpers in Hong Kong who constitute about 7 percent of the workforce. They are the victims of deliberate refusal to enforce the laws which are supposed to protect them. These are supposed to provide maximum commission payments to employment agencies, wages, a full day a week off work, minimum standards of privacy in accommodation etc.

In addition, when they borrow money to pay (usually illegal) commissions to agencies, they are charged fees which are in breach of maximum lending rates allowed under the money lending ordinance.

A new survey of commission payments has shown that most of the domestic helper agencies – there are 1,149 of them – routinely charge multiples of the official 10 percent of monthly salary. This survey was carried out by workers; representative group, and included secretly videoed interviews with employment agencies, It does no more than confirm what has been from previous investigations by academics and NGOs but comes a year after these agencies supposedly signed up to a voluntary code of conduct.

As indicated by the sheer number of agencies, licensing is a formality and official supervision almost non-existent. The latest survey showed firms demanding sums ranging from ten to eighteen times the permitted amount. Newly recruited helpers fared by far the worst with payments averaging HK$9,000 compared with the HK$440 theoretically permitted. These are often in addition to fees paid by the employer. In many cases too, helpers have already had to pay large sums to recruiters in their home country.

Other widespread illegal practices by agencies which go unpunished by a complicit government include retention of the helper’s passport, making a flight from often prison-like conditions.

A similar practice is common among the myriad of money lending agencies which prey on helpers but go untouched by the vast bureaucracy of the Monetary Authority. These thrive largely on the back of the loans to pay off recruitment fees, though also all too often used by desperate helpers to pay medical or school bills back home. The lenders include big names like Prime Credit and Public Finance (a unit of the Malaysian bank of that name) and a mass of small lenders who mostly make smaller loans but charge illegal fees.

Other breaches of employment rules are endemic. Very few helpers get the one full day off per week (24 continuous hours) to which they are entitled. Some are paid far less than the minimum or not provided with the statutory food allowance. Many have to share a room with old and sick persons needing 24-hour attention or are required to sleep in cupboards or on kitchen floors.

Helpers, especially from the Philippines, have had some success in banding together to expose the worst abuses but helpers are reluctant to report illegal demands by employer or agencies out of fear of being dismissed, in which case they have but fourteen days to find a new employer.

The whole system is rigged by the immigration and labor departments to ensure that Hong Kong employers, agencies, and lenders can get away with constant law violations which are only occasionally met with sanctions. The government does not allow the hiring of helpers from the mainland. They would naturally demand equality as Chinese. The brown Asians from Indonesia, the Philippines, and South Asia are a lower order to be treated as inferiors, lucky to be getting any job at all or are told that Saudi Arabia is even worse.

Hong Kong claims to be a developed society and an international one which rises above race in its implementation of laws. It is neither. Worse, as it population ages it is planning to import even more of these disposable, rights-less brown people to provide cheap labor for toilet-cleaning etc. The practice may even spread to the mainland itself where a shortage of women thanks in part to the Confucius-inspired preference for males, is evident in another form of barbarism – the kidnap and sale of young females from rural Vietnam.

Perhaps Beijing will eventually wake to the damage that Hong Kong’s racist labor practices, and the work of its own kidnappers, are doing to the image not just of China but of Chinese generally in southeast Asia.