Hong Kong can forge stronger ties within Asia, starting with better treatment of its foreign workers

Philip Bowring says the unfair system by which Hong Kong benefits from foreign labour, mainly domestic helpers, must change, not least given the geopolitical tensions in Asia

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 June, 2015, 9:01pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 June, 2015, 9:01pm

At a time when China's relations with most of its Asian neighbours are under stress, it is important that Hong Kong, as "Asia's World City", makes an effort to be a bridge, not a barrier. Unfortunately, Hong Kong may be adding to the problem via the de facto identification of race not just with menial jobs but with limitations on rights.

The column in this space last week by Zuraidah Ibrahim, who is Singaporean, drew attention to the acceptability of browner skins in that city compared with Hong Kong. This is a reality which can be explained firstly by the fact that, though Chinese dominate, a quarter of Singapore's citizens are of South or Southeast Asian origin. But there is another difference too: Singapore has a much higher proportion of contract workers on low pay and with very limited rights to welfare and security than Hong Kong, but they are drawn from a much wider Asian racial spectrum than in Hong Kong, including large numbers of Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonesians and Bangladeshis. All told, those low-skilled workers on work permits constitute 18 per cent of the population and 27 per cent of the workforce, compared with 4.5 per cent and 8 per cent in Hong Kong.

In the case of domestic helpers, Hong Kong provides, in theory, much better protection in terms of wages, days off, and so on, than does Singapore. One must wonder about the future of any society, such as Singapore, so reliant on a supply of disposable cheap foreign labour providing a massive implicit subsidy to the citizens. It is good reason for Hong Kong to focus on raising productivity. As it is, cheap brown labour contributes as much to this economy as construction, the industry with the government in its pocket.

Hong Kong's problem is not yet the size of the contract workforce but the attitude of the government, and some parts of the private sector, to these workers and brown people in general. It is reflected, too, in such thinly disguised racism as the supposedly pro-business Liberal Party wanting to end visa-free entry for Indians.

There has been a consistent failure to enforce the laws protecting domestic helpers, and a refusal to change immigration rules which promote abuses of the system by employers and agencies. At the same time, loan sharks are given free rein by the Monetary Authority to make exorbitant profits out of unfortunate helpers and use recovery methods which should land the lenders, not the borrowers, in jail.

The extent of abuse has been widely documented in this newspaper, by other media and in studies by academics and civil society groups. The list includes a lack of effort to enforce minimum pay rules, holiday and long-service entitlements, and living space which provides privacy - and without the bedroom cameras which are favoured by paranoid Hong Kong employers.

Next is the failure to enforce rules on fees paid to employment agencies, often three or up to six months' salary. These imposts are in many cases financed by loans at exorbitant interest rates provided by one of a myriad of loan shark companies, mostly (but by no means all) money lenders registered with and supposedly supervised by the Monetary Authority.

This is compounded by the rules which give a helper whose contract has been terminated (often for trivial reasons) only 14 days in which to find a new job, and pursue unpaid wages and attend to other issues, if needed. Even assuming the helper is fortunate enough to get a new job within the time limit, she will probably have to agree to pay another few months' wages in agency fees.

Some who do not make the deadline stay on illegally, perhaps resorting to prostitution in Wan Chai as they seek income to pay off debts to loan sharks who have (illegally) kept their passports. Police crackdowns on overstayers are commonplace but policing of loan sharks is almost non-existent.

Major lenders to helpers are not only fringe finance companies but subsidiaries of licensed banks, such as Public Finance, an offshoot of Public Bank. These present themselves as friends of the helper community but go out of their way to entice them to take on big, very high interest loans. Thus, the June issue of HK Life, a newspaper for Filipinos, has a full back-page advertisement by Public Finance offering goodies such as a Samsung Galaxy Note and an ASUS notebook to those taking on loans of up to HK$48,000. It lists no fewer than 17 branches.

At several official levels, there is complicity between the illegal activities of employment agencies and some lenders. The Labour Department offers some relief for helpers sufficiently educated and determined to take their cases to it, but time is never on the helper's side. An employer ignoring a Labour Tribunal award of HK$90,000 was recently given community service rather than a large fine or the imprisonment which is fate of helpers who overstay.

The system advantages the already advantaged - the employer - at the expense of the weakest. And it feeds ethnic prejudices in society, which then equates ethnicity with social status. But does our chief secretary even consider this blot on Hong Kong's reputation and its rule of law as an issue, least of all one to be addressed?

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator