February 18, 2005

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The Economist (reproduced below in full) looks at amahs (domestic helpers) in Hong Kong. Somewhat more condesendingly, so does HK Phooey (already the cause of much angst).

The Economist begins with a question: why are people the reporter presumes should be miserable actually happy? The article has the interesting theory that is the nature of Filipinos in general. However it misses some rather important facts. A major bone of contention is the de facto tax on helpers in Hong Kong. The Government cut the minimum wage for helpers by HK$400 a month while imposing a new HK$400 per month tax per helper. The minimum wage is now HK$3270, implying a tax rate of 12.25% whereas a Hong Konger earning this amount pays zero. Furthermore the tax is regressive, being a flat HK$400, so the lowest paid helpers effectively pay proportionately more in tax. That's a grievance The Economist curiously overlooks.

More puzzling for a magazine of The Economist's ilk is the absence of free market forces. No amah is forced to work here. They come by choice to pursue higher wages than are available in the Philippines. It is demand and supply and globalisation at work. Low priced labour goes to better paid jobs with a minimum of Government interference. The HK Government mandates minimum living conditions, although the article indicates this is more observed in the breach. That is true but needn't be - amahs can and do stand up for their legal rights. The isolated incident mentioned in the article where one amah was burnt by her employer for not cleaning properly forgets to mention the outrage in the press, the woman being charged and the matter dealt with by the law.

As an aside, the article notes although the Filipinos in Hong Kong come from poor families, over half have college degrees. 'Tis true. As anyone who has ever interviewed amahs would know some of these degress come from such institutions as beauty colleges. There are degrees of degrees.

The article contains a telling paragraph:

It was not always thus. Two generations ago, the Philippines was the second-richest country in East Asia, after Japan, while Hong Kong was teeming with destitute refugees from mainland China. Among upper-class families in the Philippines, it was common in those days to employ maids from Hong Kong. But over the past two decades Hong Kong has grown rich as one of Asia's “tigers”, while the Philippines has stayed poor. Hong Kong is the closest rich economy to the Philippines, and the easiest place to get “domestic” visas. It has the most elaborate network of employment agencies for amahs in the world.
It's free trade and globalisation at work. I don't see any pseudo-slaves. I see economic opportunists, just like the rest of us. I've seen elsewhere (but can't find the link) some argue that HK's economic rise is in part because of this army of helpers. They have provided a cost-effective child care and support system that has enabled many people, especially women, to choose to work. Isn't that the dream of many feminists?

I'm not saying life is all rosy for amahs here. They work damn hard for their money and earn a low amount compared to Hong Kongers (median HK wage is HK$10,000 a month). But they are here of their own volition. Don't be so patronising as to decide they "should be miserable but aren't". Like any adult, their decisions should be respected rather than questioned. They may be happy because that is their nature; they may be happy because they earn more than a doctor in the Philippines; they may be happy because they work and live in a first world economy. Hell, they may not be happy but choose to do the work for the wages regardless. The point is it's their choice.

And so we move to Mr. Phooey. He has partially paraphrased The Economist's article and turned it into a condsending screed on the nature of amah employers in Hong Kong. His generalisations are patronising at best and racist at worst. For example:

Considering that the 'minimum' (i.e., set) monthly wage for foreign maids, the backbone of middle class HK Chinese society, is but HK$3,670 a month, we may assume that the 'free' in the superlative "the world's freest economy" refers to the freedom the HK Chinese (and others) enjoy to openly enslave and exploit workers from poorer states, who, perhaps not wholly coincidentally, typically have darker skin, (which in fact, at least as regards the comparison with the HK Chinese, is principally and purely a result of the Filipinos' not squandering their pennies on skin whitening products).
"Enslave and exploit"? I will pay HK$10,000 for proof that amahs are forced to work in Hong Kong. I dare say Interpol and the HK police would be interested too.

Mr. Phooey airs and rebuts two of the justifications for hiring helpers. They can be summarised as (a) amahs are paid a lot compared to where they come from and (b) if we didn't employ them they'd have nothing. (a) is a statement of fact while (b) is an insidious and meaningless remark. My justification is far more simple: as an employer I offer a wage, interview candidates and make an offer. A consenting adult evaluates the offer and accepts or rejects as they see fit. They are paid a lot compared to where they come from. That's why they're here, away from family and home. It's called economics. If Mr. Phooey thinks there should be a higher minimum wage for amahs he's welcome to campaign for it. I fear it would mean many the amahs he professes to help would end up being fired and forced to leave HK if that was the case. But otherwise what are "HK wages" that amahs should earn? Does the opposite apply as well? Should those that are paid higher than "HK wages" earn less?

Mr. Phooey says:

"It is a lot of money where they come from". This is clearly as outlandish as it is hideous. For, working by this logic, the slave master-to be may as well go to the poorest country in the world to recruit their maid so that it is even more 'where they come from'. In concert with this logic, we may very well ask how long it will be till HK is busting at the seams with domestic helpers from the Mainland. After all, one would only have to pay them a mere $500 a month, for that too would be 'a lot of money where they come from'. Of course, there are very good reasons why this is not the case now, not least the fact that they have no English to speak of.
He answers his own question. The potential exists for Mainland helpers to replace the current mix. The HK Government has even introduced measures to encourage the trend. But it hasn't happened for good reason. Filippinos do speak English well; they also tend to have a better work ethic. If the market thought that Mainland helpers would be better value for money they would be here. But the Government has mandated a minimum wage. And the market, hundreds of thousands of people, have made individual decisions that they prefer Filippinos (and Indonesians etc.). If the minimum wage was lower more Mainland helpers would be employed because more Hong Kongers would be able to afford to employ them.

The Economist's article redeems itself with some insights into the culture and condition of Filippinos in Hong Kong. Mr. Phooey, on the other hand, has nothing but disgust and disdain for HK Chinese and most western expats employers with his holier-than-thou attitude and crass generalisations. It's a shame because deep within his post there are good points made. Some amahs are treated atrociously by their employers. Some employers do seem to put a greater value on their car than the helper who minds their children and home. But covering it all with bile and malice obscures the points behind his almost hatred of employers.

Both articles miss the main point. Amahs are adults who are here because they want to be. They are free to leave or complain if they are unhappy or conditions are not up to scratch. Given 240,000 helpers are in Hong Kong with many more desperate to come the numbers speak for themselves.

No-one said the free market was pretty. But the alternatives would be enough to make even the happiest amah frown.

The Economist - An antropology of happiness

ONCE a week, on Sundays, Hong Kong becomes a different city. Thousands of Filipina women throng into the central business district, around Statue Square, to picnic, dance, sing, gossip and laugh. They snuggle in the shade under the HSBC building, a Hong Kong landmark, and spill out into the parks and streets. They hug. They chatter. They smile. Humanity could stage no greater display of happiness.

This stands in stark contrast to the other six days of the week. Then it is the Chinese, famously cranky and often rude, and expatriate businessmen, permanently stressed, who control the city centre. On these days, the Filipinas are mostly holed up in the 154,000 households across the territory where they work as “domestic helpers”, or amahs in Cantonese. There they suffer not only the loneliness of separation from their own families, but often virtual slavery under their Chinese or expatriate masters. Hence a mystery: those who should be Hong Kong's most miserable are, by all appearances, its happiest. How?

The Philippine government estimates that about 10% of the country's 75m people work overseas in order to support their families. Last year, this diaspora remitted $6 billion, making overseas Filipino workers, or OFWs, one of the biggest sources of foreign exchange. Hong Kong is the epicentre of this diaspora. Although America, Japan and Saudi Arabia are bigger destinations of OFWs by numbers, Hong Kong is the city where they are most concentrated and visible. Filipina amahs make up over 2% of its total and 40% of its non-Chinese population. They play an integral part in almost every middle-class household. And, once a week, they take over the heart of their host society.

It was not always thus. Two generations ago, the Philippines was the second-richest country in East Asia, after Japan, while Hong Kong was teeming with destitute refugees from mainland China. Among upper-class families in the Philippines, it was common in those days to employ maids from Hong Kong. But over the past two decades Hong Kong has grown rich as one of Asia's “tigers”, while the Philippines has stayed poor. Hong Kong is the closest rich economy to the Philippines, and the easiest place to get “domestic” visas. It has the most elaborate network of employment agencies for amahs in the world.

A bed in a cupboard

Although the Filipinas in Hong Kong come from poor families, over half have college degrees. Most speak fluent English and reasonable Cantonese, besides Tagalog and their local Philippine dialect. About half are in Hong Kong because they are mothers earning money to send their children to school back home. The other half tend to be eldest sisters working to feed younger siblings. All are their families' primary breadwinners.

Their treatment varies. By law, employers must give their amahs a “private space” to live in, but Hong Kong's flats tend to be tiny, and the Asian Migrant Centre, an NGO, estimates that nearly half of amahs do not have their own room. Some amahs sleep in closets, on the bathroom floor, and under the dining table. One petite amah sleeps in a kitchen cupboard. At night she takes out the plates, places them on the washer, and climbs in; in the morning, she replaces the plates. When amahs are mistreated, as many are, they almost never seek redress. Among those who did so last year, one had her hands burned with a hot iron by her Chinese employer, and one was beaten for not cleaning the oven properly.

The amahs' keenest pain, however, is separation from loved ones. Most amahs leave their children and husbands behind for years, or for good, in order to provide for them. Meanwhile, those families often break apart. It is hard, for instance, to find married amahs whose husbands at home have not taken a mistress, or even fathered other children. Some amahs show their dislocation by lying or stealing from their employers, but most seem incapable of bitterness. Instead, they pour out love on the children they look after. Often it is they who dote, who listen, who check homework. And they rarely stop to compare or envy.

Under such circumstances, the obstinate cheerfulness of the Filipinas can be baffling. But does it equate to “happiness”, as most people would understand it? “That's not a mistake. They really are,” argues Felipe de Leon, a professor of Filipinology at Manila's University of the Philippines. In every survey ever conducted, whether the comparison is with western or other Asian cultures, Filipinos consider themselves by far the happiest. In Asia, they are usually followed by their Malay cousins in Malaysia, while the Japanese and Hong Kong Chinese are the most miserable. Anecdotal evidence confirms these findings.

Happiness is kapwa

Explaining the phenomenon is more difficult. The usual hypothesis puts it down to the unique ethnic and historical cocktail that is Philippine culture—Malay roots (warm, sensual, mystical) mixed with the Catholicism and fiesta spirit of the former Spanish colonisers, to which is added a dash of western flavour from the islands' days as an American colony. Mr de Leon, after a decade of researching, has concluded that Filipino culture is the most inclusive and open of all those he has studied. It is the opposite of the individualistic culture of the West, with its emphasis on privacy and personal fulfilment. It is also the opposite of certain collectivistic cultures, as one finds them in Confucian societies, that value hierarchy and “face”.

By contrast, Filipino culture is based on the notion of kapwa, a Tagalog word that roughly translates into “shared being”. In essence, it means that most Filipinos, deep down, do not believe that their own existence is separable from that of the people around them. Everything, from pain to a snack or a joke, is there to be shared. Guests in Filipino homes, for instance, are usually expected to stay in the hosts' own nuptial bed, while the displaced couple sleeps on the floor. Small-talk tends to get so intimate so quickly that many westerners recoil. “The strongest social urge of the Filipino is to connect, to become one with people,” says Mr de Leon. As a result, he believes, there is much less loneliness among them.

It is a tall thesis, so The Economist set out to corroborate it in and around Statue Square on Sundays. At that time the square turns, in effect, into a map of the Philippine archipelago. The picnickers nearest to the statue itself, for instance, speak mostly Ilocano, a dialect from northern Luzon. In the shade under the Number 13 bus stop (the road is off-limits to vehicles on Sundays) one hears more Ilonggo, spoken on Panay island. Closer to City Hall, the most common dialect is Cebuano, from Cebu. Hong Kong's Filipinas, in other words, replicate their village communities, and these surrogate families form a first circle of shared being. Indeed, some of the new arrivals in Hong Kong already have aunts, nieces, former students, teachers, or neighbours who are there, and gossip from home spreads like wildfire.

What is most striking about Statue Square, however, is that the sharing is in no way confined to any dialect group. Filipinas who are total strangers move from one group to another—always welcomed, never rejected, never awkward. Indeed, even Indonesian maids (after Filipinas, the largest group of amahs), and Chinese or foreign passers-by who linger for even a moment are likely to be invited to share the snacks.

The same sense of light-hearted intimacy extends to religion. Father Lim, for instance, is a Filipino priest in Hong Kong. Judging by the way his mobile phone rings almost constantly with amahs who want to talk about their straying husbands at home, he is also every amah's best friend. He is just as informal during his Sunday service in Tagalog at St Joseph's Church on Garden Road. This event is, by turns, stand-up comedy, rock concert and group therapy. And it is packed. For most of the hour, Father Lim squeezes through his flock with a microphone. “Are you happy?” he asks the congregation. A hand snatches the mike from him. “Yes, because I love God.” Amid wild applause, the mike finds its way to another amah. “I'm so happy because I got my HK$3,670 this month [$470, the amahs' statutory wage]. But my employer was expecting a million and didn't get it. Now he's miserable.” The others hoot with laughter.

The Filipinas, says Father Lim, have only one day a week of freedom (less, actually, as most employers impose curfews around dusk), so they “maximise it by liberating the Filipino spirit”. That spirit includes communing with God. Some 97% of Filipinos believe in God, and 65%, according to a survey, feel “extremely close” to him. This is more than double the percentage of the two runners-up in the survey, America and Israel. This intimate approach to faith, thinks Father Lim, is one reason why there is virtually no drug abuse, suicide or depression among the amahs—problems that are growing among the Chinese.

The lifeline to home

There is, however, an even more concrete expression of kapwa. Quite simply, it is the reason why the Filipinas are where they are in the first place: to provide for loved ones at home. Most spend very little of their monthly HK$3,670 on themselves. Instead, they take it to WorldWide House, a shopping mall and office complex near Statue Square. On Sundays the mall becomes a Philippine market, packed with amahs buying T-shirts, toys and other articles for their siblings and children, and remitting their wages. More than their wages, in fact: many amahs borrow to send home more, often with ruinous financial consequences.

Father Lim tells a story. An eminent Filipino died while abroad, and it was decided that local compatriots should bid the coffin adieu before its journey home. So amahs showed up to file past it. When the coffin arrived in the Philippines and was re-opened, the corpse was covered from head to toe with padded bras, platform shoes, Nike trainers, and the like, all neatly tagged with the correct addresses.

It is their role as a lifeline for the folks at home that has earned the OFWs their Tagalog nickname, bayani. By itself, bayani means heroine, and this is how many amahs see themselves. Another form of the word, bayanihan, used to describe the traditional way of moving house in the Philippines. All the villagers would get together, pick up the hut and carry it to its new site. Bayanihan was a heroic, communal—in other words, shared—effort.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that Bayanihan House is the name the amahs have given to a building in Hong Kong that a trust has made available to them for birthday parties, hairstyling classes, beauty pageants and the like. One recent Sunday, during a pageant, one of the contestants for beauty queen was asked how she overcame homesickness, and why she thought the people back home considered her a hero. She looked down into her audience of amahs. “We're heroes because we sacrifice for the ones we love. And homesickness is just a part of it. But we deal with it because we're together.” The room erupted with applause and agreement.

“Nowadays, bayanihan really means togetherness,” says Mr de Leon, and “togetherness is happiness”. It might sound too obvious, almost banal, to point out—had not so many people across the world forgotten it.

posted by Simon on 02.18.05 at 06:20 PM in the Hong Kong category.


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This article is 3 years ago, you know! I don't why HKP described it as 'recent'.

posted by: Chris on 02.18.05 at 07:42 PM [permalink]

All very well said. It's rather outrageous that so many people jump to the conclusion that the amahs don't know what's good for them, and must be "victims" of exploitation in some way. One unacquainted with the realities of life for the poor in the Philippines might be forgiven for thinking that a life of guaranteed ease and plenty awaited these women, if only they could be made to leave their "exploitative" places of employment.

posted by: Abiola Lapite on 02.19.05 at 04:10 AM [permalink]

Very nicely done, Simon. I read all the links, and the Economist was informative about the social relations--how they bobbled the economics, I don't know. Mr. Phoo, on the other hand, was just silly (except some of the social observations made me chuckle).

Linked it just now...


posted by: Sam_S(ShenzhenRen) on 02.21.05 at 10:06 AM [permalink]

Well said, Simon.

I wrote a longish response myself to that Economist article some time ago. If anyone's interested, it's at http://www.batgung.com/articles/helpers3.htm

Mr Tall

posted by: mr tall on 02.21.05 at 10:54 AM [permalink]

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