Hong Kong’s Hypocrisy Over Maids

Just at the time when Hong Kong, a non-state adjunct of China, is presuming to impose sanctions on the Philippines over the deaths of tourists at the hands of a bus hijacker, more and more evidence is coming to light of the Hong Kong government’s willful refusal for years adequately to protect the legal and human rights of domestic helpers in the territory, nearly half of whom are from the Philippines.

The recent case of a helper who was so brutalized that she fled home to Indonesia and hospitalization for serious wounds drew international attention and shame on Hong Kong. As a result the government has been forced to promise improvements in the administration of the helper system, But these are likely to have only marginal effect.

Although welfare bodies and NGOs have long drawn attention to abuses in Hong Kong, these have yet to receive the international attention that their scale in a society which has a per capita income of Germany and boasts a superior legal system, deserve. That helpers consider conditions in Hong Kong are generally better than in Singapore and vastly better than in Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries does not excuse current official attitudes.

Three departments of the Hong Kong government – Immigration, Labour and the Police – are mainly to blame for a system which promotes brutal exploitation and makes it very difficult and in some cases dangerous for those exploited to seek the protection of laws which the government itself makes scant effort to enforce.

But although there are obvious flaws in the current system which make exploitation and brutality so easy, the bigger issue remains the unwillingness of the authorities to enforce the laws which exist already. The failure stems partly from an often contemptuous attitude towards poorer Asians and partly to unwillingness to upset the middle class employers of the helpers, many of whom are not in a financial position to pay the minimum wage, holiday entitlement and living amenities, supposedly required by law.

There are currently some 320,000 helpers in Hong Kong, or about one for every eight households who are paid – assuming they are paid the designated official rate and work 45 hours a week – half the official minimum wage for other workers. In practice many work 70-plus hours a week and many paid as little as HK$2,000 a month.

Now the government says it will revise punishments for abusive employers and step up monitoring of the recruitment agencies which are supposed to have limits on fees and not allowed to keep helpers’ passports – in reality a widespread practice which makes the helper a slave to the agency, or the employer. Placement fees often run at five or six months official salary, and perhaps twice that for the lowest paid.

Instances of over-charging are rife but the Labor Department’s Employment Agencies Administration bureaucrats typically do nothing on the grounds of “insufficient evidence”. On a recent occasion where action was taken against a recruitment agency, the agency was fined a mere HK$10,000! Observers may ask whether there is more to this inaction on the part of the department than mere inertia.

Every year several thousand helpers seek refuge from their employers in one of several shelters set up for them. According to a researcher quoted by the South China Morning Post, one such, Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge, receives more than 1,000 a year.

The police do take action on reports on violence towards maids and there are prosecutions. But researchers say most physical abuse goes unreported as helpers fear the loss of job and income that usually follows thanks to a system which forces helpers to leave Hong Kong within 14 days of termination of employment. The police claim that physical abuse is rare despite a mountain of academic evidence to the contrary. When cases do go ahead, maids can stay in Hong Kong but cannot work until the case is determined, which takes months.

Furthermore, most abuse takes other forms – 16 hour working days, no holidays, wages below the statutory minimum, etc. These are so widespread that no attempt is made to enforce the laws and the precarious circumstances of helpers’ employment makes complaint difficult and hazardous.

The government has specifically declined to change a requirement that all helpers must live in the same house as their employer. This not only submits them to living conditions often in breach of the law – for example being required to sleep on the kitchen floor rather than being provided with their own rooms. It also in effect makes them liable to work any hours the employer cares to demand, including depriving them of the right to the 24 hour day off once a week and on public holidays.

The government makes a major effort to prevent helpers overstaying after they have left or been sacked from their jobs and penalizes those who manage to live outside their employers’ house – which suits many employers who lack sufficient space at home. Police raids of bars and restaurants, ID card checks yield a constant supply of helpers who end up with jail terms. But police enthusiasm for crackdowns on helpers acting illegally does not extend to checks by them, the Labor or Immigration departments on whether they are paid properly, given holidays etc.

Procedures deliberately make it very difficult for helpers to complain about under-payment or mistreatment because if they lose their jobs they will be forced out of the territory in two weeks, thus losing not only their jobs but often leaving them still indebted to recruitment agencies and loan sharks.

The current bad publicity for Hong Kong will lead to a few procedural changes which should bring some small improvement. But the underlying cause of such widespread is the mindset of officials. They simply believe that foreign helpers – Chinese are not allowed to be helpers – are lucky to have jobs at all. The notion that they are entitled to the same legal protections as other members of the society is alien.