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Hong Kong Tightens the Screws on Domestic Helpers
Government puts more barriers in the way of changing jobs
Whether or not it is a spinoff from Hong Kong’s Beijing-driven obsession with National Security issues, the government’s always-condescending attitude to non-white foreigners has acquired a new dimension of disrespect which, in other countries, would be defined by a simple word: “racism.”
On November 18, the Immigration Department took to attacking the domestic helper community for allegedly “abusing” a so-called “grace period” by using it to switch jobs. This so-called grace period is actually just a minor and temporary (due to Covid restrictions) increase in the time allowed to find a new job after a contract is terminated, whether by employer or employee, from two weeks to one month. The two-week limit had long been criticized as a ploy to prevent helpers from resigning and looking for new jobs in the face of being forced to work illegal hours, being paid less than the law requires, being forced to sleep on the floor, or otherwise being abused, or having their passports taken. Likewise, the rule gave the employer a hold over the helper, who would be sacked if she complained and then would find herself with scant time to find a new job.
The temporary increase in finding a new job coincided with a shortage of helpers due to lack of new supply due to Covid travel restrictions. The number of helpers fell from a peak of 399,000 in 2019 to an estimated 365,000 today. This shortage resulted in more helpers seeing the opportunity to change jobs. ‘How dare they!’ now exclaims the Immigration Department as though helpers, being neither Han nor white, are bonded laborers with no rights to seek a change in employment as allowed by the law.
The Immigration and Labour departments have long operated a system which in theory offers rights to helpers but in practice are seldom enforced because they make no effort to do so and helpers are mostly in too weak a situation to object to abuses. It is a shocking indictment of the mentality of the bureaucracy and how it is beholden to the prejudices and arrogance of employers, many of whom may themselves be too poor to provide the working conditions that in theory are required by law.
As it is, helpers provide a massive subsidy to the households which employ them – even assuming they work no more than 50 hours a week, have a full rest day, are paid the minimum helper wage and some personal privacy. The minimum wage for other workers is HK$37.5 an hour or HK$18,000 for a 50-hour week compared with HK$4,600 (plus accommodation) for helpers. About 15 percent of households now employ a helper. This provides a huge implicit subsidy to the middle-class employers which in turn increases the already huge income disparities within Hong Kong. Thus, it is bad for social cohesion among the territory’s people, as well as in practice, being a source of abuse and racist sentiment towards browner-skinned helpers.
That Singapore and the Gulf states have even more glaring gaps in wages and conditions for helpers compared to residents is no excuse for Hong Kong. But far from aiming to reduce this income subsidy – mostly for Hong Kong’s middle class – there are now suggestions that the territory needs even more such semi-bonded cheap labor.
Despite already comprising from 7 percent of the workforce and so easing the cost and time involved in child care, Hong Kong continues to have almost the lowest fertility rate in the world – 1.36 in 2019. So the answer to this lack of births? More helpers, says a study by Baptist University researchers. It found that couples with a helper were more likely to have more than one child. But that implies not only that more Filipinas and Indonesians will have to leave their own children to look after those in Hong Kong but that wages of helpers will have to be kept low so that more Hong Kong households can afford to employ them and produce more babies.
Official Hong Kong has also just shown its nasty, police-driven hostility to all kinds of dissent. A large group of delivery personnel for Food Panda went on strike with a list of grievances which included cuts in delivery fees paid to them. Some held a protest meeting outside the Food Panda local headquarters, exercising their supposed right of (non-political) assembly. But a big squad of police was soon the scene warning not just of Covid-19 rules about gathering but with a huge banner of the sort used during the 2019 mass demonstrations threatening the strikers with arrest if they didn’t disperse.
It may just be a coincidence but the Panda (and rival Deliveroo) workers are predominantly South Asian and assorted other non-Chinese.
In addition to the helpers, there are about 125,000 non-Chinese Asians in Hong Kong. Those of Indian, Nepali, and Pakistani origin are the great majority but there are also significant numbers of Thais, Filipinos, Vietnamese and Japanese. The South Asians include families there for generations but also some more recent arrivals. Though there are well-off business and professional people, the majority of non-Chinese Asians are relatively poor and now have almost zero representation on official bodies.