June 16, 2005

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Hong Kong is considered one of the best places to work in Asia for helpers, partly because of the strict contract and labour laws that govern their employment. But the theory does not translate to practice. There has been a massive shift towards employment of Indonesian helpers instead of Filipinas, partly because employers can get away with paying Indonesians far less than the minimum wage without fear. Now let's contrast two articles in today's newspapers.

The Standard says cheated employees 'will have to blow the whistle' if they've been cheated on salaries by their employers, and testify if they want redress, otherwise the Government won't help them. The article is concerned with Government contractors but the same applies for domestic helpers. For proof, let's turn to a staggering case reported in the SCMP:

A Labour Department suggestion that a domestic helper who complained about harassment, death threats and abuse by her employer should be less sensitive and focus on her work has been described as "hopeless" by a judge... Under discussion was a Labour Department reply to a five-page hand-written letter sent by Ms Aquino detailing the extensive abuse she said she was suffering at the hands of her employers, Betty So Mei-ngor and her husband, Leung To-kwong.

In the letter, dated December 7, 2003, Ms Aquino alleged Mr Leung wanted to kill her, that he and his daughters had tortured her, and that he was demanding $40,000 from her because their dog had got onto the sofa. She claimed Ms So constantly yelled at and belittled her, fined her, withheld money and threatened her with violence.

Project officer Kwok Fu-ming from the department's Tuen Mun branch office replied on Christmas Eve that year. "Do you think you should be so sensitive to the insulting words exhibited by the employers," he wrote after saying the contents of the letter had been noted. Focus on your job and reflect your feeling toward your employers' temperament. Should you need further service, approach Family Services Centres of Social Welfare Department or other non-governmental services at your district."

Discussing whether or not to call Mr Kwok as a witness with Ms Aquino's representative, David MacKenzie-Ross, Judge To said the response was "hopeless"...Ms Aquino alleges she was sacked after the family discovered she had three deformed fingers. It is alleged that, knowing she could not sack her for having a deformity, Ms So instituted a campaign of harassment to try to get her to quit.

Ms Aquino documented the haranguings she said she received from Ms So as well as the items for which she was fined and forced to replace or pay for out of her own pocket. These included being fined $5 for eating a piece of bread and $50 for not closing the refrigerator properly.

Ms So has denied she dismissed Ms Aquino because of her disability. The hearing continues next week.

You would think the Labour Department's job is to intervene in cases like this to protect employees. You'd be wrong. Is it because of the undercurrent of racism in this city, where helpers are often considered slaves and sub-human? Is it because this city is based on protecting the big over the little in commerce? Is it because a poor city rapidly became a rich one? Is it simply incompetence from Hong Kong's "underpaid" civil servants?

Domestic helpers are taxpayers in this city, despite their low wages. They pay and average tax rate that is higher than what a person earning HK$1 million pays. There is something very, very wrong with the system.

posted by Simon on 06.16.05 at 10:42 AM in the Hong Kong category.


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