Hong Kong Finds New Maids to Exploit

Hong Kong recently began recruiting domestic helpers (maids) from Bangladesh, supposedly as a goodwill gesture towards the poor South Asian nation. To many, however, it is an effort to keep down wages and find a source of maids even less liable to complain than Indonesians, who had already overtaken Filipinas by number. They were considered to be less educated and thus less conscious of their theoretical rights and more willing to accept wages and working hours and conditions less than those stipulated as minimums by the government.

In practice the government, run by officials, many with deeply ingrained racial prejudices against brown Asians (the only ones permitted to be maids) makes almost no effort to enforce its own laws. Those who complain quickly find themselves jobless and with only a very short time to find new employment before being forced to leave Hong Kong. Apart from the low wages, widespread abuse is also made of laws which supposedly guarantee time off, a minimum of private living space, outlaw confiscation of travel documents and require adequate provision of medical treatment, etc. That is not to mention sexual harassment.

Just what sort of attitudes the Bangladeshis can actually expect was indicated by the South China Morning Post of August 19 - a paper whose own once-large South Asian editorial team has been ethnically cleansed and mostly replaced by Chinese with lower standards of English. The paper ran the banner headline "Bangladesh maids settle into city life," carrying a long story quoting a maid and her employer who gushed about how nice the other was, the employer suggesting the maid worked too hard and did not want the stipulated day off. In a separate story by another reporter, another smiling maid was interviewed and quoted elsewhere in the paper as saying "Hong Kongers are quite nice. I feel I am quite lucky".

Both stories were clearly planted by Technic Employment Service Centre, which recruited the two maids. The attitude of the reporter for the main story, Phila Siu, was well summed up by its opening paragraph: "Frustrated with hiring domestic helpers who didn't work out, one Hong Konger took a keen interest in the news the city would bring in maids from Bangladesh."

In other words, maids from the Philippines and Indonesia were becoming too demanding of even a fraction of their rights not to be cheated and abused by local employers. Instead of following up the myriad stories of maid abuse, the SCMP has become the mouthpiece for the recruitment industry and employers looking for ever more abject and obsequious servants.

Amid all the glorification of the attitudes of Bangladeshi maids to their employers, and vice versa, was a nasty little fact buried in the story. Although the scheme only began in May, and only some 50 Bangladeshis have been so far recruited "ten of the crop have been fired because of 'misunderstandings' with their employers". This is shocking rate of dismissal.

The reporters clearly had no interest in the fate of these 10, how much they had paid to get the jobs in the first instance, whether the employers had any significant justification in firing them or what happened to the maids after being fired after a matter of days or at most a few weeks employment in a new and very different environment. How could the paper claim in the face of these statistics that Bangladeshi maids were happy and settling in well to Hong Kong?

The articles and their prominence in the paper were classics of the racist attitudes displayed towards brown Asians working as maids - mainland Chinese are not allowed to do this work - and subject to constant exploitation thanks largely to a government which has no wish to enforce its laws as that might anger middle income households who depend on underpaid maids living in broom cupboards to do their dirty work.

The SCMP editors who gave such prominence to such a distorted story should have known better. Or is it now the paper's policy to represent Chinese chauvinism at its worst?

As for Bangladesh, it would have done well to follow the example of Vietnam, which has avoided any deal with Hong Kong over maids because it is unwilling for its people to be subjected to such institutionalized degradation.