Where's the political will to help parents with childcare?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 December, 2011, 12:00am


Members of the Civic Party were probably right to question legislation regarding the right of abode for migrant domestic helpers. We should scrutinise laws that look discriminatory, regardless of whether or not it is politically savvy to do so. But the party that gets my vote will be the one that proposes affordable childcare solutions for working mothers. Isn't that the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about in the tiresome debates about migrant domestic helpers?

We should not be surprised that there is almost no viable alternative to affordable childcare in Hong Kong other than to hire migrant workers. Women make up less than 20 per cent of the Hong Kong government. If the government was comprised of 80 per cent women and 20 per cent men (compared to the other way around), would there be more political will to provide affordable childcare for working parents? Or imagine a world in which only men could biologically bear children. Would there be the shortage of hospital beds and midwives to assist with childbirth that we have at the moment?

In the 1980s, the government assisted migrant domestic helpers in their bid to come to Hong Kong because Hong Kong residents needed them: for childcare, housework and to care for elderly parents. In Britain, where I grew up, the government similarly imported migrants from former colonies in the 1950s to fill a growing demand for cheap unskilled labour. They learned the same lessons about immigration that Hong Kong residents are learning now. There will be costs and inconveniences. You can't have your cake and eat it.

Domestic helpers do not pay tax. But they do provide welfare. If the Social Welfare Department were to pick up the bill for the childcare, housework and care of elderly family members that these helpers now undertake, I doubt that the government could boast of the economic surplus that it currently enjoys. To say that helpers contribute little towards the economy, as some claim, hangs on a very narrow definition of economic productivity indeed.

For every tax-paying working mother in the workforce today, there is a probably a migrant domestic helper picking up her children from school and preparing meals at home. Statistics suggest that men certainly aren't doing it. Women alone continue to do most the regular housework and childcare.

Further, the proportion of our population over the age of 65 has risen sharply in the past 20 years and will continue to do so. Who will be taking care of them?

Above the cacophony surrounding the right of abode, it should be obvious that we treat domestic helpers differently because they do women's work in a society in which women's contributions are at best undervalued, and, at worst, rendered invisible. If the Equal Opportunities Commission was serious about promoting opportunities for women in Hong Kong, it should be vigorously supporting both domestic helpers and their employers. Why don't we hear from them on this issue?

It is of course understandable that, since Hong Kong's return to China, Hong Kong residents worry that the unique way of life that they have enjoyed in this city might be submerged by uncontrolled immigration and the inevitable tide of globalisation. I worry about that, too. But anyone who sincerely cares about livelihood issues in Hong Kong has far more to fear from, say, wealthy mainlanders and greedy property developers buying up affordable housing and doubling rents so that small businesses can't survive, than the peaceful assemblage of nannies in the park. Poor women make easier targets than those behind these more sinister commercial interests.

It is intellectually easy and politically expedient to ruminate about migrants, rights, resources, entitlement and so on. When it comes to childcare, however, everyone likes a party, but nobody wants to clean.

Julian M. Groves is a visiting associate professor in the Division of Social Sciences at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology