Exporting labour

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 January, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 January, 1998, 12:00am

The female population of Indonesia has traditionally been the backbone of the country's economy.

In rural areas, women plant the rice, carry the water, run the home and raise the children. Now it appears that the Indonesian Government has recognised their export potential and plans to encourage 45,000 more of them to leave home for domestic work in Hong Kong, as one means of alleviating the severe financial crisis.

This is not altogether surprising, given Hong Kong's reputation for prosperity. It has always been a magnet for foreign labour, and is likely to remain so. Here, fundamentals are sound, and the population should weather this storm with the same resilience that it has shown in several similarly challenging episodes.

But there is no disguising the fact that we face an extended period of uncertainty during which the demand for domestic workers is likely to dwindle. If the Indonesian Government believes that it can simply announce a plan to triple the number of maids working here from 24,700 to over 70,000, expecting Hong Kong to instantly throw open its gates to absorb them, it may be in for disappointment.

Such an attitude is unrealistic. Hong Kong is to a significant extent the hapless victim of the regional crisis, which was caused, for the most part, by a lack of probity and good governance. While people are losing their jobs, and when many firms are struggling to survive, few families are likely to increase their domestic staff. Rather they will be looking for ways to economise.

The SAR Government is constantly under pressure to cut imported labour, and even though foreign maids do work which local workers are no longer prepared to consider, their presence is still, on occasions, a subject of some controversy. The bland way in which Jakarta has announced this plan shows little grasp of the situation here, and no sensitivity to local anxieties.

Perhaps Indonesian officials are so concentrated on their own crisis that they fail to appreciate its effects on neighbouring economies. They may soon realise that exporting their employment problems elsewhere is not likely to prove an answer. The plight of the Indonesian people is deeply troubling, and it is understandable that they will seek work wherever it can be found. But no area of the region is immune from the financial crisis, and while isolationist policies are no answer to Hong Kong's present difficulties, the job market for foreign workers here is hardly better than they face at home.