If you don’t like it here, get out: why Hong Kong’s downtrodden domestic helpers can never win
Yonden Lhatoo asks what hope there is for this marginalised but vital sector when, instead of addressing their grievances, we argue they are welcome to leave if life here is unbearable
“If you don’t like it here, you can always leave, go back to where you came from,” is a regular refrain in Hong Kong to discourage the less fortunate among us from speaking out about their plight.
It has to be the most defeatist argument in defence of existing ills in society and the biggest impediment to progress, this boneheaded belief that only a bona fide son of the soil has the right to complain and anyone else should either just suck it up or go away.
Which is why it’s so disheartening to see a High Court judge, no less, offering the equivalent of this interpretation in the first judicial review of the government rule that forces Hong Kong’s 370,000 foreign domestic helpers to live with the families who hire them.
It was a landmark test case that held out hope to countless women who have to put up with slave-like working and living conditions, but the judge threw out the argument that the live-in rule was unconstitutional.
“It cannot seriously be argued that the imposition of the live-in requirement would directly constitute, or give rise to, a violation of the [foreign domestic helper’s] fundamental rights,” he said. “If, after coming to work in Hong Kong, the foreign domestic helper finds it unacceptable, for any reason, to reside in his/her employer’s residence, it is well within his/her right or power to terminate the employment.”
The courageous Filipino domestic helper who challenged the live-in requirement told her lawyer of hateful messages on social media reminding her that she could always go back home if she found life unbearable here.
The lawyer lamented the similar tone of the court ruling: “The judge effectively said if she didn’t like it she could leave. Outside of the law and in practical consideration, the judge has reinforced the stereotype that domestic helpers are second-class citizens.”
The live-in rule has long been seen as an enabler of abuse, as in the case of Indonesian domestic helper Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, whose story of sustained torture and assault at the hands of her employer made global headlines. But our government clings to it as a pillar of labour law, purportedly to prevent illegal employment and protect local menial workers.
The true reason, I strongly suspect, has more to do with race and class stigma. It explains why anyone who has lived in this city for seven consecutive years is automatically entitled to permanent residency, but foreign domestic helpers are permanently ineligible.
The fact is, it’s not only the hired help: many families would much rather their domestic workers didn’t have to share their cramped living space.
It has already been pointed out in court that the live-in rule meets five of the 11 indicators of forced labour identified by the International Labour Organisation: abuse of vulnerability; restriction of movement; isolation; abusive living and working conditions; and excessive overtime. Just that the judge didn’t see it that way.
Of course, there are many domestic helpers in Hong Kong who are treated well by their employers, but we’re talking about the many others who are not. When you’re the sole breadwinner for your family back home and you’re still paying off huge debts to the employment agencies that brought you here, terminating a contract with an abusive boss can be complicated.
Second-class treatment in “Asia’s World City” makes it OK because it’s twice as bad if they go back home? There’s no limit to this asinine line of argument.
Complaining about bus safety? Shut up and catch a train or a cab. Air pollution concerns? Try Beijing or Delhi and see how you like them apples.
Don’t agree with what I’m saying here? Go read something else then.
Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post.