Stop penalising employers of foreign maids
Almost four years ago, the government cut the minimum wage of foreign domestic helpers by HK$400 a month and, at the same time, imposed a HK$400 a month levy on their employers. The net effect was that maids lost HK$400 a month, the government got richer by that amount and employers came out even.
The total amount levied, plus interest, now amounts to more than HK$3.2 billion and is still sitting in the hands of the Employees Retraining Board. The government, it turns out, has no idea how this money should be used.
It is difficult for the government - any government - to admit that it has made a mistake. But the decisions to impose a wage cut and a levy were not well thought through, and should be scrapped.
One difficulty is that the decisions were made by Donald Tsang Yam-kuen when he was chief secretary. Now that he is chief executive, it is unlikely that he will want to undo what he did in his previous job. But the mark of maturity is a willingness to revisit issues and, if necessary, to make different decisions.
At the time, Mr Tsang was charged with preparing a report on population policy. What does the pay of maids have to do with this? Well, not much really, either then or today. But, somehow, Mr Tsang got it into his head that their pay should be cut, and he announced it at the same time that he issued his population report.
The then chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, explained in a meeting with Philippine foreign secretary Blas Ople that foreign domestic helpers who lived and worked in Hong Kong had to feel the pain that other Hongkongers were feeling.
If that was the reason, then perhaps a cut in their salary could have been justified, in view of the deflation Hong Kong had been experiencing. However, what was the rationale of the HK$400 levy? The government insisted the two decisions were not linked. Perhaps if the two decisions had been announced by different officials - or even by Mr Tsang on separate occasions - then the government might have been a little more persuasive. But they were announced by Mr Tsang at the same time as he made public his report on population policy.
Mr Tsang, in a statement to the legislature in February 2003 on the taskforce on population policy, actually had nice things to say about foreign domestic helpers; they made a contribution to Hong Kong by providing help to families.
He also acknowledged that 'there are two distinct markets for foreign and local domestic helpers', so the foreign workers were not taking jobs away from locals.
But, having said that, Mr Tsang made the seemingly illogical declaration: 'We do believe that the employers of foreign domestic helpers should play a role in helping Hong Kong in training and retraining, and upgrading the skills of the domestic workers.'
What's the connection here? He had just conceded that there were two separate markets and that foreign helpers did not compete for jobs with locals, so why should employers of foreign workers help to train local ones? The leap in logic boggles the mind.
It is not as though locals could be trained to do the jobs the overseas workers do. They simply don't want to do those jobs. Local Chinese maids have their own homes and their own families. They don't want to live with their employers. They prefer to work set hours and then go home. It has nothing to do with a lack of training.
Foreign domestic helpers contribute substantially to our economy by allowing more local people to enter the workforce.
In the past few years, the government has gradually raised the minimum wage of overseas helpers, to HK$3,400, although that is still below the original level of HK$3,670. The HK$400 levy on their employers should be scrapped. There is no reason why they should still be penalised.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator firstname.lastname@example.org