There are some interesting aspects to the recent ruling by the High Court in Hong Kong that a Filipina domestic helper who has lived in the territory since 1986 has the right to apply for permanent residency status. However, the most significant point to note is the hostility of many local politicians to the idea, which probably reflects the inherent racism of many local voters.
When large numbers of Filipinas first came to Hong Kong to work as domestic servants, in the 1980s, the correspondence columns of the South China Morning Post often contained letters from local residents complaining about the behaviour of such women. There were frequent accusations of both sexual promiscuity and general dishonesty, usually with not a scintilla of supporting evidence, and it was impossible to avoid the conclusion that the accusers were virulently xenophobic racist bigots.
It is to this constituency of opinion that unscrupulous populist politicians such as Regina Ip seek to appeal. Ip, chairwoman of the New People’s Party and a former high-ranking government functionary, has suggested that if the Court of Appeal upholds this decision, the Hong Kong government should refer the matter to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress for an interpretation of the Basic Law on this issue.
This procedure can be used to overturn Hong Kong court rulings, but to invoke it would finally kill off the illusion that the territory’s judicial system is independent of the mainland’s less than transparent arrangements. And this would be despite Hong Kong’s autonomy being guaranteed, in theory, by the Basic Law.
In other words, this is a local matter that should be decided by local courts. If the Hong Kong government were to ask the Chinese government to step in, anyone who wanted to sue on any matter to do with individual rights in the future would not need to trouble Hong Kong’s court system.
Overriding this compelling legal argument is the moral argument. I wonder how many of the hundreds of thousands of families who have employed domestic helpers over the years are aware of the level of economic exploitation that this arrangement entails, and how much more prosperous they are because having a servant allows a second adult to go out to work, invariably for a salary that is a significant multiple of the servant's. It should not be forgotten that domestic helpers are the lowest paid segment of Hong Kong society, and when their statutory minimum salary was cut a few years ago, it was not because the measure would ameliorate the severe financial conditions of the time. It was imposed because these women were an easy target, and the measure would be widely applauded by their employers, who had a vote in local elections, while their servants did not.
And this is not the only financial burden that domestic helpers have imposed on them. The vast majority find employment in Hong Kong through agents, and the going rate for setting up an initial two-year contract is seven months’ salary! Fees for subsequent contracts are much lower, but only if the employee remains with the same employer. It would be wrong to label these agents ‘vultures’, because vultures perform a useful role in removing carrion from the landscape. ‘Blood-sucking parasites who prey on the vulnerable’ is a more accurate description. Part of the problem is that the negotiation of contracts is extremely complicated, and government documentation is provided only in English and Chinese, but natural justice demands that any justifiable fees be paid by the employer.
A lot can be deduced about a person’s attitude to this matter by the term they use to describe the many women from the Philippines and Indonesia employed on domestic duties (they are legally barred from working in any other capacity). The original term used in the 1980s was ‘maid’, but as someone whose mother worked in domestic service in England before the Second World War, I regard this term as both demeaning and offensive. The morally neutral term is ‘domestic helper’, which emphasizes that the relationship is one of employer and employee, but I frequently refer to them as ‘servants’, because this is how they are often treated by their employers.
Overturning the High Court’s verdict, especially if this involves the connivance of the Chinese government, would torpedo Hong Kong’s claim to be ‘Asia’s world city’. The single most important criterion for any city to be considered world-class and cosmopolitan is that it operates under the rule of law, and venal politicians like Regina Ip should remember this when they propose that the Hong Kong government sell out.