Monday, 3 October 2011

maid in hong kong

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.


  1. No big surprise here. The Western World's prosperity (and that of the rich in general) is based on cheap labour -- if the "servants" were paid decent salaries, the prices would soar because the greedy businessmen would sooner slit their throats than sacrifice their profit growth rate, and we couldn't afford a lot of basic things, which would in turn result in a reduction in consumption and therefore economic recession or even collapse.
    It's a vicious circle and the society we have built.
    The only thing I can do is avoid buying things made in sweatshops by slave labour as much as I possibly can.

  2. It isn't just ‘greedy businessmen’ who employ these women Sarah. Many are employed privately by ordinary families to look after their elderly relatives (Hong Kong has a good healthcare system for acute cases, but chronic cases are left to fend for themselves). My wife’s family employed two domestic helpers for more than ten years to look after her mother after she had suffered a stroke.

  3. Which means that if your wife's family had had to pay these "domestic helpers" a decent-by-British-standards salary, they would have probably had to look after their mother themselves.
    Can we actually imagine living on their salary?

    On the other hand, if the third world countries have the same standard of living as the western world, contamination will almost certainly kill us all off, plus they will breed at an even higher rate...
    It's a no-win situation, so we aren't really too keen on changing the status quo.

  4. Thanks for your reply Stella, although I do think that your analysis is overly simplistic. For a start, paying a “decent-by-British-standards salary” is inappropriate: food, clothing and public transport are all considerably cheaper in Hong Kong than they are in Britain. Only housing is more expensive, and domestic helpers have food and accommodation provided on top of their salaries. “Imagine living on their salaries” — you are aware that most of this money is sent back home?

    And Britain’s treatment of its elderly citizens is nothing to shout about when you’ve got outfits like Southern Cross that are in the care business solely to make a profit, which means cutting as many corners as they can get away with. You can keep your moral disapproval.

    Finally, I take your implied criticism of my wife’s family as an insult. They treated the helpers they employed as members of the family and paid them significantly above the statutory minimum. They took the only realistic option in very difficult circumstances.

  5. I'm really sorry that you took my comment as an insult, it wasn't my intention and I didn't even mean you or your family.
    Actually, it is very simple: by "decent-by-British-standards salary” I meant the amount that a Brit would expect to be paid if he/she decided to work as a domestic helper in Hong Kong.

    I don't doubt your wife's family treated the helpers very well, but I've seen a lot of cases all over Europe and, in general, the rich take advantage of poor immigrant's plight, so a domestic helper's future isn't very bright anywhere.

    I suppose you're well aware that “food and accommodation” (pets get that and don’t have to work) ends as soon as the employment ends for whatever reason (not to mention non-resident domestic helpers that often live in infrahuman conditions and eat cheap low-quality food to scratch some money), that these people in most cases have no right to any kind of dole and that we employ them not because we care whether they can send money back home or not, but because occidentals won’t take these jobs.
    It has nothing to do with you or your family, it’s just the way our society works, like it or not. Neither you, nor me can do anything about it. It’s not about moral disapproval, it’s about a realistic view on life.

    Why do you think to-day everything is made in China and the like (where child labour is still common)?

    ‘Domestic workers are not slaves, maids, servants or family members, WE ARE WORKERS.”

  6. Apology accepted Stella. I can’t say that there is no child labour in China, but it certainly isn’t widespread. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there is no exploitation, because there is.

    However, if you want a real horror story, you should check out my latest post, Heart of Darkness.

  7. Gwailo Without a MaidMonday, 24 October, 2011

    I wholeheartedly disagree with Stella. This thinking that "that's life, that's how it works and there's nothing anyone can do about it" is either hypocritical or cowardly. If nothing could ever change, there would still be slavery. Every time slavery was abolished in a country, slaver owners could really not imagine how it's possible to survive in life without slaves. They protested like Hong Kong people protest against domestic helpers' minimum salary increase.

    I've spoken to many Hong Kong locals on the issue and they can't imagine raising the maid's minimum salary. How could we survive without maids? Well most westerners I know as well as people from other Asian countries grew up fine without domestic helpers. But in Hong Kong, even middle-low families can afford a domestic helper. That means there's something wrong. It's not because their meager salaries (for Hong Kong standard) is much higher than what they'd earn in their own country that it's not exploitation. It is exactly the definition of exploitation of their situation.

    Things have to change, and oh it's so sad that some Hong Kong families can't afford a maid on a decent minimum wage but that's the cost of progress, being a civilized society and wanting to be world-class.


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