The subject of foreign domestic helpers is certainly one of the most controversial of the topics addressed in Hong Kong dialogues. According to the statistic of Hong Kong Immigration Department in 2004, there are 120,000 Filipinos and 87,842 Indonesians served as domestic helpers and Hong Kong is the top destination in Asia for newly deployed Filipino domestic workers accounting for 40-44% of the new hire from 1998-2001. Foreign domestic helpers could be defined as adults who voluntarily migrate from one country to another to find work in the domestic service sector. They are usually being identified as ethnic groups in low paying niches specifically reserved for their employers and their low economic status together with different physical appearance have urged the society to treat them as second-class residents.
There are two main theoretical explanations of migrant workers that is the neo-classical and the world system debates. Neo-classical theorists believed that it is a rational choice for individuals to be free agents in the transnational labour market while the world system theorists thought that there is a core-semiperiphery-periphery relations and this is a structural force to draw labour force from periphery to the core. Wee and Sim(2005) argued that these theoretical debates does not address how a place to become the migration destination and these destinations are actively shaped through the macro-politics at policy level, meso-politics at socio-cultural level and micro-politics at individual level. The writers use ‘articulation theory’ to analyse how Hong Kong becomes an essential destination of human circulation contextualized by the changing position during capitalism development within the world economy.
Hong Kong always serves as a process of migration-in-transition and a stepping stone for further migration to other destinations such as Canada and European countries, it is estimated that over 90,000 Filipino domestic workers has been moved from Hong Kong to Canada under the Foreign Domestic Movement Program. Another reason forcing this kind of labour away from their home country is that most of them are came from poor peasant families and it is difficult for them to find a job without a well social network. Hong Kong’s household based social reproduction came to be linked to female labour supplied by the less developed economy namely Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka and the paid domestic work became increasingly important as greater numbers of women received education and joined the formal sectors.
The overseas migration of Filipino domestic helpers started in 1972 when the Philippine government adopted labour migration as a temporary measure to ease unemployment due to an economic slump. Since then, the number of domestic helpers has increased steadily during the 1990s. This created an ‘economic plus’ bringing considerable part of the foreign earnings within their own countries for the Philippine and labour export has become a key feature of the Filipino economy, this situation later mirrored by other weak Asian economies particularly Indonesia and Thailand. Foreign domestic helpers are now compromising 2.85% of the Hong Kong total population and 52% of non-Chinese ethnic population. Filipinos are the second largest ethnic group in Hong Kong. However, their racial, gender and class composition usually put them at the lower levels of minority groups in Hong Kong.
The first problem is employment security. Foreign domestic helpers theoretically enjoy the same legal rights as local workers covered by the Employment Ordinance and the Hong Kong Labour Department has strict regulations and enforces standard employment contracts for migrant workers. But they still, have no security of tenure because of the issuance of ‘one month notice’ by employer who wishes to terminate her domestic worker as stipulated in this ordinance and the ‘two-week’ rule make them only have two weeks to find new domestic employment when their contracts are completed. If they are unsuccessful to take up other areas of employment when their employer unexpectedly terminates them, they will be faced heavy penalties, prison sentences or deportation.
Secondly, despite that wages of migrants in Hong Kong are higher than other Asian countries such as Singapore or Malaysia, it is still comparatively low in local standard. The average wages for Filipinos are HKD$4000-5000 and even less for Indonesian which is about HKD$3200 and 55% of foreign domestic workers are underpaid in 2001 according to the Asian Migration Centre. Although there is a minimum legal wage set by the government, supposed to be a form of protection in recognition of the specific vulnerability of foreign domestic helpers, the some employers may threaten to dismiss them if they do not accept underpayment and even their due salaries and other entitlements are denied to them. The most serious problem concerning their income is that foreign domestic workers have to pay a lump sum of dollar to satisfy the foreign employment agency fee.
Although Hong Kong legislation restricts the agency fee to be 10% of the worker’s total income, the lack of common consensus between their home country and the working destination always make them pay much more than that. In the case of Indonesian helpers, they usually have to pay more than HKD$ 21,000 for the agency free which equal to 90% of their first seven month’s salaries, and the actual income is only HKD$300-500 per month according to the Asian Migration Centre. Agents sometimes saddle workers with large initial loans and overcharge for transfer fees, and room and board, sinking domestic workers deeper in debt, in a few cases placing them in situations akin to debt bondage.
They may also place domestic workers in employment situations different from those to which they had originally agreed even to employers they know to be abusive. The problem is not only caused by consensus of governments but also corruption between employment agencies and government of their home country. There is also lack of a strong community or labour organization for them to bargain and do not have media for them to express the unfairness. The working hour is also a serious question, as most of the workers provide live-in service who may be required to be ‘on call’ 24 hours a day, therefore the mechanism of their responsible work and their right for leave and holidays need to be recognised.
Contemporary labor migrants negotiate not only on the working condition but also psychological stress and cultural bias against this category of workers. Owning to the nature of their work and the low income, they are unable to take their families to the places where they are working and therefore are forced to be separated from their families, the widening gap between these sojourners and his or her family and community of origin, caused a lot of family breakdowns. The sense of alienation, dissatisfaction and apprehension is reinforced by the conditions of work, the cultural differences between foreign domestic helpers and the people in the countries they serve. Many of the physical and sexual abuses and general discrimination are justified by the cultural discourses and stereotypes of the host regions.
Abuses including confiscation of passports, personal belongings, and religious items, threats and physical abuse, illegal or dangerous employment assignments, inadequate accommodations and insufficient food. Some domestic workers are afraid to report problems to their employment agents because of threats, outstanding debts, or poor treatment during other interactions, others had negative experiences seeking assistance from their agent after facing abuse from employers as agencies treat maids badly. The image of foreign domestic helpers is always be depicted as a group of uneducated housekeepers, willing to do anything for money. The persistence of negative images generates important questions about the vulnerability and contributes to the social violation of this invisible community.
The foreign helpers are usually targets of anti-immigration movements motivated by the fear of disruption brought about by globalization and economic restructuring because they are the most visible symbols of these changes while the real causes are invisible. What is sad about this is that HKSAR government is using these discriminatory policies under the pretext of protecting local workers. Not only do the public but also some policies on foreign domestic workers can said to be racially discriminatory as government restrictions placed upon them on what types of jobs they are allowed to do and they are not given equal opportunity to pursue professional or managerial careers even they have higher education background.
In theory, the mass media is expected to inform audience by providing balanced and impartial reporting of events and issues. However, it is no secret that the news media is market-driven, it is the reason why the problem faced by foreign domestic helps is still on-going as the issue of domestic helpers are always lack of commercial values. The media tends to cover ethnic issues only when it impacts mainstream society, and there always lack of sensational report showing what difficulties foreign domestic worker is facing that can catch public attention. Unless vast and drastic changes occur within the media, minorities will still continue to be marginalised and treated as categorised individuals under the constant threat of prejudice.
In conclusion, legislation is one of the ways to combat difficulties foreign domestic workers are facing, but may not be effective or enough. The government has to make a decision to educate the public and more importantly the private sector about discrimination rather than legislating against it. However, there is little sign of behavioral changes by the public towards foreign domestic workers showing the recent educational approach has shown little evidence of effectiveness. Action must be taken to educate and legislate in all sectors and should be continually reported in the news on a regular basis.
Wee, V and Sim, A. 2005. ‘Hong Kong as a destination for migrant domestic workers’. In Yeoh, B S A, Huang, S, Abdul Rahman N (eds), Asian women as transnational domestic workers. London and Singapore: Marshall Cavendish. Pages 155-189.