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Government claims on migrant job-hopping just ghost stories

HONG KONG (Mabuhay) : In response to the Immigration Department of Hong Kong refusing visas to 170 foreign domestic workers on the basis of job-hopping for financial gain, migrant rights groups say that it amounts to nothing more than creating a smoke screen to detract attention from the horrific abuse suffered by an Indonesian worker in the city that has been published worldwide.

Eman Villanueva, the secretary general of the United Filipinos in Hong Kong, accused the department of telling ghost stories about job-hopping by domestic workers, as they come out of an imagined world far removed from the one on the ground.

Villanueva believes that the government of Hong Kong is deliberately demonising foreign domestic workers to divert international attention away from its inability, and even lack of will, to provide real protection for them in the workplace.

Since the story of the horrific abuse suffered by Indonesian domestic worker, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, has highlighted the ineffectiveness of what the government claims are its protection mechanisms, Villanueva believes that a decision has been made to present foreign migrant workers in a bad light.

He believes it is a publicity campaign aimed at presenting foreign workers as an abusive group that must be kept in close check, so the government can justify its compulsory live-in rule, two weeks from termination of a job contract and you are out of town practice and refusal to take any decisive action against overcharging by recruitment agencies.

“They want to project that we are abusing the system whereas the truth is, this system has failed all foreign domestic workers in protecting our rights and wellbeing.” Villanueva said at a rally held outside the Immigration Tower in Wanchai on February 26.

He called on the government to stop creating a baseless public scare and instead look into the demands for review of policies on foreign domestic workers.

Dolores Balladares, from the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body, went even further, accusing the government of telling lies. She said that the claim made by the secretary for security, Lai Tung-kwok, that a worker can make money out of switching jobs is simple fabrication.

She pointed out that even if a worker does irritate an employer to the extent that they would terminate the contract and pay out one month’s salary in lieu of one month’s notice, because of all the other restrictions applied to foreign workers, it would be impossible to make money, even if the employer does throw in the airfare home as well.

Balladares called doing the sums just simple arithmetic.

She pointed out that when the cost of paying out between $9,000 and $15,000 to a recruitment agency for a new job and enduring the forced period of at least one month of not being able to work or collect a salary, plus exiting Hong Kong and returning is factored in, the only possible benefit that could be attained by quitting is escape from an unacceptable situation.

It looks like an equation that even a primary school student could understand does not add up to making a financial profit.

Balladares added that these are just the costs that come before you add in the financial outlay for living in Hong Kong, finding someone to give you shelter and the extra expenses that go with job hunting.

“So no one in her right mind will do such a thing as terminating a contract with her employer, unless the working conditions and the treatment are really bad,” Villanueva said.

He also pointed out that the further accusation of quitting for the extra severance pay can only apply to workers who have been at least 24 months in the one job and anyone who stays in one position for that length of time cannot be accused of job-hopping.

He added that he wonders whether Lai, as a secretary of a government department is really that ignorant of the law, or if he is deliberately distorting the facts just for the purpose of demonising a particular group of people.

Either way, it is not good news for anyone.

Both Villanueva and Balladares said that the ridiculous nature of the claim made by the Immigration Department and the secretary for security shows that there is a smear campaign being aimed at destroying public sympathy that domestic workers may have built up over the Sulistyaningsih abuse case.

Employment in any sector is not simply a matter of performing tasks, but also involves the stress of human relationships, which in the case of a migrant domestic worker is magnified many times, as they have to live in their employer’s homes.

In addition many employers seek to take control of a worker’s whole life, including freedom to communicate with their families at home and their social life.

This simply makes the likelihood of a harmonious workplace less likely than in most occupations.

In addition, over 50 per cent of domestic workers said they had been verbally abused by their employers in a survey carried out by the Asian Mission to Migrant Workers in 2012.

This was backed up by a another survey carried out by Amnesty International in November last year.  

Around two-thirds of those interviewed said that they had been either physically of psychologically abused by their employers.

The two surveys cast a dark shadow of doubt over claims that Hong Kong employers are by and large not a bad bunch.

However, because of the tight rein kept on workers’ freedom in Hong Kong, Villanueva believes that they are not decisive when it comes to terminating a contract, because of the financial loss they will incur.

He said they think twice, or even 10 times, before making a complaint about an employer.

He added that most complaints received by his organisation relate back at least six months.

On February 20, the South China Morning Post quoted Lai as saying that 40,000 visa applications were received from foreign domestic workers in the past seven months.

Among them, 3.4 per cent or  1,372 cases were suspected of job-hopping, as the applicants had frequently terminated their contracts within the previous 12 months.

The Immigration Department turned down 170 applications from foreign domestic workers, while 158 withdrew their applications voluntarily.

However, Balladares questioned his interpretation of the data, saying that Lai has no evidence to classify these applications as job-hopping for profit and his conclusions are arbitrary and unreasonable.

“People who voluntarily withdrew their applications cannot be conclusively classified as job-hoppers,” she pointed out.

However, Villanueva asks, “If a worker finds an employer unacceptable and wants to get a better job, why should they be punished? Would the government make it illegal for local people to job-hop?”

He said he believes that the government is picking the wrong issue in its attempt to defend its anti-migrant policies.

“If these policies fail to prevent job-hopping as they are supposed to, why not scrap them?” he questioned, adding that making false claims only shows a lack of sincerity on  the part of the government and a refusal to take real action against abuse.

 

He believes it is a publicity campaign aimed at presenting foreign workers as an abusive group that must be kept in close check... ‘This system has failed all foreign domestic workers in protecting our rights and wellbeing...’