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The Capitalist and The Slave: Inequality in Hong Kong

Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong have been working under inhumane and abusive conditions for decades; Cheuk Yin Chan takes a closer look at the stem of this inequality.

Violence against foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong is not a new issue, but the photos that have surfaced showing Erwiana Sulistyaningsih’s body covered in wounds caused by chronic physical abuse by her employer has given a face to the problem, both in Hong Kong and internationally.

The story was not only widely covered by local media, but also by international media like Time Magazine. The Hong Kong government has now finally been forced to respond to the unjust and unfair labour system, in order to maintain its image of being a democratic and civilized international city.

23-year-old Erwiana arrived in Hong Kong last year. Like all other 300,000 foreign domestic workers who are currently working there, she came with the goal of earning enough money to support her family back home in Indonesia.

She suffered serious physical abuse during her eight-month employment period as a domestic worker in Hong Kong. She had to work 21 hours a day and was only given two pieces of bread and a bowl of rice every day. Her employer – a middle-aged women and mother of two – beat her and kicked her every day, causing more than 20 wounds and bruises on her eyes, face, mouth and body.

Erwiana is not the only victim. There are many other cases where foreign domestic workers get physically and sexually abused. They are also easily exploited, working extremely long hours, since they are forced to live with the employer according to the current labour regulations.

A Structural Change in Hong Kong’s Labour Market

Hong Kong started importing domestic workers in the late 1970s when a structural change to the economy occurred. Factories began to move to mainland China, so Hong Kong refashioned itself as a financial centre and transformed into a tertiary industry. As a result, well-educated female labour had to be mobilized to cater for the demand of the new labour market.

The minimum wage is lower than the minimum wage applicable to Hong Kong citizens, and there is no regulation of foreign workers’ actual working hours.

Simultaneously, the Philippines was devastated by poor economic performance, and therefore many (mainly women) were imported as domestic helpers at a low cost to take up positions as live-in maids. As the demand for these domestic workers increased in Hong Kong, more workers were also imported from Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia.

These foreign domestic workers usually come to Hong Kong with a high-level of education from their home countries. They choose to leave their home country, family and friends and move to the  over-crowded city to work for and live under the same roof with complete strangers because the salary is better. Their responsibilities include taking care of the children, taking care of the elderly who are disabled, cooking for the family and cleaning the house. They are entitled to officially one day off (as opposed to locals who are entitled to two) per week and a minimum wage of $4,010 HKD (378 euros) per month, which can sometimes be more than the salary if they work as a professor at home.

Credit: SACOM HK
There have been protests in Hong Kong against broader labour market conditions – here at the opening of HK’s first Apple store in 2011.

Inequality Ingrained in Labour Laws

Under Hong Kong’s Labour Law, foreign domestic workers do not receive equal treatment with local workers.

The minimum wage is lower than the minimum wage applicable to Hong Kong citizens, and there is no regulation of foreign workers’ actual working hours. These workers are also subject to the “two-week rule”, which states that if they are not re-employed within two weeks of becoming unemployed, they have to be deported to their home country. As a result this discourages them from reporting a complaint whenever they face violent abuse  because according to current legislation, they may not work during the time they file a complaint against an employer.

These legal procedures usually take more than two weeks, often stretching to months. In order to avoid being deported back to their home country, the abused workers often choose to tolerate the horrible working conditions. On top of this mistreatment, foreign workers who come to Hong Kong through recruitment agencies are usually charged a high agency fee, which takes them months to pay off.

Since Erwiana’s story has been publicised, many domestic workers’ rights groups and social activists have launched protests and campaigns to urge the government to amend the existing employment rules for foreign domestic workers. They are lobbying for the abandonment of the “two-week rule”, a maximum limit to the working hours of the workers, and the removal of the illegal agency fee.

Some opinions put the blame on recruitment agencies for charging workers unreasonable fees and exploiting them by adding unfair terms to their contracts. Others argue that the government should tighten the regulation of these recruitment agencies, to protect foreign workers’ rights.

Inequality reinforced by the Government

However the inequality stems from the way the system is set up by the government to intentionally take advantage of foreign workers, in order to benefit the Hong Kong labour market. Instead of redistributing resources and providing childcare service and domestic support for local families, the Hong Kong government fills the gap by reinforcing a system that exploits foreign workers.

Violent abuse against foreign workers is certainly inhumane, unjust and a reflection of inequality in Hong Kong society, and it is a positive development that more attention is now being paid to the issue. However, there should be just as much focus on how for decades people in power manipulated the capitalist system to exploit the underprivileged in Hong Kong.

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Will the new publicity be enough to force serious change in Hong Kong regarding the treatment of foreign domestic workers?  Has the government done enough yet?  Has Erwiana’s case exaggerated the extent of the problem? Let us know your thoughts in the ‘Comments’ section below.

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