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Dare we treat foreign domestic workers as brothers and sisters?

HONG KONG (Mabuhay) : With the increase in the number of dual breadwinner families in Hong Kong, the demand for foreign domestic workers is on the rise.

Presently, there are well over 200,000 families employing foreign domestic workers, with Indonesians at 140,000 just outnumbering Filipinos by around 10,000.

These people leave their home country to make a better living abroad and improve their family situations at home. But their lives abroad are not rosy, as many of them are exploited by recruitment agencies, both locally and in their home countries.

However, foreign domestic workers are not treated in the same way as other people who migrate to Hong Kong, usually for the same reasons. Domestic workers have traditionally been denied the right to apply for abode, or permanent residency, in the territory.

This prompts the question of why foreign domestic workers are not treated in the same way as other migrants, who do have a right to apply for abode. They are barred from applying, even if they have fulfilled the required conditions.

Foreign domestic workers are excluded and placed in a separate category under the Immigration Ordinance. As such, they are considered more as a commodity, or cog a in the workforce, than a human resource.

However, in a landmark decision on September 30 last year, in a decision in the Court of First Instance on a case filed by Evangeline Vallejos, Johnson Justice Lam Man-hon ruled that the ordinance is inconsistent with the Basic Law.

The ruling provoked an outcry in Hong Kong and some even suggested that the government ask Beijing for an interpretation of the Basic Law. While this has not happened, the government is appealing against the ruling. It will be heard in the Court of Appeal on February 21.

In his encyclical, On Human Work (Laborem Exercens), Pope John Paul II says of migration for work, “Indeed, every possible effort should be made to ensure that it may bring benefit to the emigrant’s personal, family and social life, both for the country to which he goes and the country which he leaves” (23).

Pope Benedict XIV further elaborated on this theme in his work, Charity in Truth (Caritas in Veritate), “(Migration) policies should set out from close collaboration between the migrants’ countries of origin and their countries of destination; it should be accompanied by adequate international norms able to coordinate different legislative systems with a view to safeguarding the needs and rights of individual migrants and their families, and at the same time, those of the host countries.”

He continues, “There is no doubt that foreign workers, despite any difficulties concerning integration, make a significant contribution to the economic development of the host country through their labour, besides that which they make to their country of origin through the money they send home” (62).

However, in Hong Kong, the treatment of migrant workers does not always reflect this, and the need to earn money prompts many of them to remain silent in the face of discrimination and abuse, and tolerate exploitation.

A survey on Working Conditions of Indonesian Domestic Workers in Hong Kong, conducted jointly by the Hong Kong Catholic Commission for Labour Affairs and the Diocesan Commission for Pastoral Services to Filipino Migrants in October 2011, revealed that Indonesian workers are relatively younger than their Filipino counterparts and on average have a lower education level.

This, combined with the fact that, as a group, they are less organised than the Philippine community, means that they are less likely to take action over abuse or unjust treatment.

Less than 6.3 per cent of them told the survey they would make a complaint about sub-standard working conditions, even though 85.2 per cent said they are aware of the labour laws in Hong Kong.

In getting their jobs, almost all (95.6 per cent) said that they were charged a higher than standard recruitment fee by their agencies.

The reported amount in many cases was as high as $21,000, equal to nearly seven months’ wages.

They regard this as an unavoidable evil, as their government requires all employment contracts for workers going overseas to be processed through agencies, both before they leave Indonesian shores and if they make a new contract in Hong Kong.

Under this restriction, they may only use an employment agency approved by the Consulate General of the Republic of Indonesia to Hong Kong if they change employers for any reason, or if their work contracts are prematurely terminated.

Each time a new contract is processed, most of these agencies charge the same excessive fee.

Moreover, agencies in Indonesia collude with agencies in Hong Kong to exploit the workers. Once they arrive in Hong Kong, local agencies persuade Indonesian workers to sign a loan contract with a finance company, so that knowingly or unknowingly, they lose the bulk of their first seven months wages, or $21,000 in total, to repay their loans.

The survey also revealed that if they fail to repay the loan, the finance companies harass their employers or even their own families in Indonesia.

Their government in Jakarta seems to be blind to the malpractice. At the same time, the Hong Kong government believes its hands are tied, because it is happening outside of Hong Kong and consequently is beyond its jurisdiction.

According to local labour legislation, agencies in Hong Kong can only charge a fee equal to 10 per cent of a monthly wage, or $340 out of the legislated $3,740. The $21,000 charge, or what agencies call a training fee, far exceeds the legislative standard.

So, after making monthly repayments to the agencies, workers only have only a few hundred dollars left to cover their daily needs.

But maybe their greatest enemy is the two-weeks-and-you-are-out rule imposed by the Hong Kong Immigration Department. Foreign domestic workers can only remain in the territory for two weeks if they are out of contract, a small window of time in which to find a new employer and get a contract processed.

However, the social teaching of the Catholic Church says, “Every migrant is a human person who, as such, possesses fundamental, inalienable rights that must be respected by everyone and in every circumstance” (Instruction on Migrants and Itinerant People [Erga Migrantes Caritas Christi] May 3, 2004 [142]).

The cases revealed in the survey taken among the Indonesian workers, demonstrate the hardships all migrant workers of any nationality in Hong Kong face.

The debate on the right of abode for foreign domestic workers, further illustrates that the people of Hong Kong tend to treat migrant workers as a disposable commodity which can then be thrown away when they pass their use-by date.

If we truly follow the teaching of the Catholic Church, we must respect their rights.

Let us not burden them with any further hardship by going to the lengths of calling for an interpretation of the Basic Law, simply to deny them their basic rights.

“If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them” (Caritas in Veritate, 2009 [61]).

             ● Catholic Labour
                   Affairs Commission