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Media panders to what employers and workers want to read

HONG KONG (Mabuhay) : Hong Kong people hold an ambivalent feeling towards migrant workers.

They need them, as they provide low cost domestic service and put in long hours, but at the end of the day most people don’t trust them.

Nevertheless, the role of a foreign domestic worker is important to families, especially where both parents need to work and children or aged relatives need to be taken care of.

But at the same time, they are afraid to have a person who is not part of their family, or what they often call an outsider, take care of their children, as they are vulnerable and cannot discern abuse or report it when they are subjected to or witness it.

This kind of distrust is further aggravated by reports in local, mainstream newspapers, which target readers in the Chinese community.

Reports about foreign domestic workers abusing their wards appear two to three times every month.

On June 10, the Oriental Daily reported that a 34-year-old domestic worker pinned her 10-year-old ward to the ground and beat him, after the boy refused to stop playing and do his homework.

On May 10, there was a small report in the Apple Daily about a worker who was suspected of splashing hot water on her one-year-old ward’s leg.

The reports are not always long, but do serve to warn employers about ways in which a domestic worker can treat their wards badly.

However, these often short reports travel a long way, as they are frequently linked to parent forums to serve as a reminder to other employers.

While those who trust their workers may find them irrelevant, for those who already harbour suspicions that their workers maltreat their children, they serve to make them nervous and prompt them to do things like install CCTV cameras in the home, so they can monitor their behaviour.

No worker wants to lose their job, as they have to pay high agency fees to get a new one.

And no one wants to hurt small children either. So what prompts some domestic workers to take drastic revenge on a defenceless child or heartlessly inflict injury on someone else?

Often, for various reasons, the worker is suffering from a psychological problem and the violence can be triggered by even a seemingly insignificant incident.

The long working hours, lack of sleep, heavy workload, having what they sometimes call a precocious eight-year-old brat as a boss, the constant flow of verbal insults or denial of holidays that many are subjected to, also make people irritable and quick tempered.

Stress from personal problems can produce the same result too.

However, the manner in which the media presents these stories also needs to be scrutinised. They treat them as trivial and do not dig deeper into other aspects affecting the incidents.

It is as if the background of the worker or situation they are placed in is of no consequence.

Migrant workers are part of the Hong Kong society and, as such, the media has the obligation to explain their circumstances, no matter what they have done.

However, the motive or reason behind a domestic worker harming a child is never investigated by the local media.

On the other hand, if they are reporting on a fight in a company, for example if a clerk hits the boss, reporters from local newspapers will delve into the clerk’s background and investigate what prompted the sudden outburst.

So why is the background of a foreign domestic worker or the reason they reacted in the way they did not important to local readers? One reason is that, unlike any other local employees, they are treated as outsiders and who cares about how a foreign domestic worker feels, especially after they have done harm to their employer’s family?

The reports appear to be nothing but a warning to employers of the potential harm that these outsiders can do.

Consequently, an analysis of the situation is not judged to be necessary.

Good, responsible journalism requires the presentation of alternative viewpoints to make a balanced  report.

However, in practice, especially when reporting on the misdemeanours of migrant workers, most newspapers only present what is of interest to their target audience.

This places stress on employers, as it makes it difficult to keep a level head when reading these reports and hard not to let them affect the trust built up between themselves and their worker. 

It also prejudices the attitude of first-time employers.

This type of reporting leaves migrant workers at a distinct disadvantage, as it does not appear in the English-language media or newspapers targeting the Filipino or Indonesian communities, so they do not always know what is being said about them.

Such reporting on workers abusing wards are seldom found in newspapers read by foreign domestic workers, probably because they have suffered enough from their employers’ suspicions and it is tiring to read about related cases on Sunday, the only day for them to relax. 

A search for the word abuse in the archives of the Sun, a popular newspaper among Filipinos in Hong Kong, turns up cases filed by employers that are overturned for lack of evidence, or policies of the Hong Kong government that make workers prone to abuse by their employers.

What workers expect in these newspapers are articles which air their grievances.

This scenario also reflects that neither employers nor workers want to know more about how each other thinks.

Employers do not want to know why a worker feels stressed and workers do not want to understand why employers suddenly want to keep a watchful eye on their work and conduct.

As a result, the kind of newspapers they read will not carry news they do not want to know about. It is an unhealthy sign about the employer-employee relationship.

It is little wonder that communication is such a big focus for social workers serving foreign domestic workers.

Even the CCTV cameras have their limitations, as they cannot cover every corner of the home. True respect for the domestic worker is a better preventative, as it builds mutual respect and trust.

One purpose of establishing the Mabuhay newspaper in February 2001 was to strengthen communication between employers and foreign domestic workers.

It first appeared as a supplement inside the Chinese-language Kung Kao Po, a weekly published by the Hong Kong diocese, in the hope that employers would give it to their employees after reading it and get a general idea of what is happening  in their communities and their principal concerns.

We still publish articles encouraging workers to communicate with their employers.

A short report appeared in the Oriental Daily on May 5 about a fire in a building in Happy Valley.

It tells of a foreign domestic worker running for her life while holding onto her young ward and comforting her, while some others were rescuing their employers’ dogs.

Their response showed that there are foreign domestic workers devoted to their work and who indeed do love their wards.

If there is danger, their first response is to protect them. They can be angels in our homes and not outsiders.

The local media, though responsible for warning employers, are also responsible for building healthy employer-employee relationships by running more positive reports.

 

Employers do not want to know why a worker feels stressed and workers do not want to understand why employers suddenly want to keep a watchful eye on their work
and conduct