Have we swept the maids under the carpet?
MORE pay and easier working conditions - Hong Kong's foreign domestic helpers are taking to the streets and the headlines with their demands for a better deal.
In the rallying words of campaigner and union leader, Remedios Borlongan, who organised a march on Central Government Offices last Sunday, ''the Government has forgotten us . . . it is time for us to shout and raise our voices.'' As chairperson of the 2,000-strong Asian Domestic Helpers' Union, she has presented a list of ''demands'' to the Labour Department and the Immigration Department.
The pressing needs, says the union, are an increase in the minimum wage from $3,200 a month to $3,800 and the scrapping of the contentious ''two-week rule'' which states that employees must leave Hong Kong within two weeks of the termination of a contract.
But both are unlikely to happen.
By the end of the month - six days from now - a Government inter-departmental working group says it will announce its pay decision.
An inside source, however, said that a decision had already been reached. The pay increase will be $300 a month not $600.
This working group - made up of three policy branches, Security, Education and Manpower and Economic Services, and the Labour and Immigration departments - is also conducting a larger review of foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong.
Responding to pressure, the group has made the two-week rule a priority. But while findings of this wider study are not due out until next month, sources again say it is a fait accompli - the restriction is here to stay.
The news will dishearten Ms Borlongan, who has gone as far as to call for a strike if demands are not met, but will please Joseph Law, founder and vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Employers of Overseas Domestic Helpers Association.
Yesterday he described the near 20 per cent pay increase demand as ''unreasonable and excessive''.
The association also objects to a dropping of the two-week rule, saying it was introduced to stop ''job hopping and moonlighting by unscrupulous maids'' and says a set limit to working hours was ''impracticable and unenforceable''.
''I admit there are some bad employers and there are bad employees. We are trying to defend the good employers and the good maids, who are the majority,'' said Mr Law.
''We are trying to protect the present policy and good relationship.'' The ''relationship'' between the maid and her employer has been a subject of lengthy debate and as the numbers swell - at the end of July total domestic helpers had reached 113,480 - the voices on either side are likely to strengthen.
The Government is currently attempting to address the issue with its broader review. The last such study was conducted in 1990.
The working group has also been dubbed a paper group because the inter-departmental party drafts and redrafts its review by sending reports to each other.
Among the areas which have come up are complex issues such as the impact of the domestic worker on the labour market by importing labour for work mostly refused by traditional Chinese help.
It is also debating whether a quota should be imposed restricting the numbers of foreign workers, but this is said to be unlikely. The group is considering to what extent the foreign domestic helper contributes to the local economy - it has already acknowledged that without the live-in maid many women would not be able to stay in the workforce.
It is even looking at the relationship between the helper and the employer and to see how the Government can ensure the domestic worker is ''adequately protected''.
''We may also review whether foreign domestic helpers are being generally abused,'' said the government source.
''The aim is to find out if there is room for improvement and whether existing legislation is adequate to protect both parties.'' At the 600 square foot office-cum-refuge in Kennedy Town which is home to United Migrant Workers, there is plenty of evidence that abuse is going on - and getting worse.
A harassed Jovitao Leano was on case number 30 by late yesterday afternoon and judging by the queues, it was going to be another long night.
There was nothing special about yesterday's case load - physical abuse by employers and their children, termination of contract without reason, due pay not received.
She has no quick-fix solutions, she only knows that conditions can be bad, that they are getting worse and it is generally the employer who is to blame. Why is it getting worse? Probably just a matter of ever-increasing numbers, she supposes.
She believes the present salary is ''okay - the girls don't mind the minimum salary, they just want to be treated like human beings ''. If there was an extension to the two-week rule she would be ''very grateful''.
The idea of setting a working hours limit was met with a question: ''How would it work? Is there anybody to check it? ''We all agree that the working conditions of the maids should be made better, but I don't know how we could do it,'' said Ms Leano.
While many employers treat their maids ''like rubbish'' and the problem is getting worse, there are times when exasperation overcomes her.
''Sometimes I don't understand my own countrymen. They can be very difficult as well.''