HK Magazine Archive

Helping Hands: Ineffective Government

Foreign domestic workers are an essential part of many Hongkongers’ lives. But are they welcomed by the city? Adrienne Chum investigates what the government has (or hasn't) done.

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 July, 2015, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 4:47pm

 “We need to strengthen organizations, have a mass movement, and put pressure on the government.” – Victoria Cabantac

Agency fees, the live-in rule, the two-week rule: Victoria Cabantac of the Mission for Migrant Workers says that all of these issues have deeper roots. She says that employment agencies for Philippine and Indonesian workers are directly collaborating with their respective governments. Domestic worker visas have to be obtained via agencies for them to be endorsed by the consulates. No endorsement, no work. The governments? They profit from license fees that agencies pay the state. “It’s all about getting money out of the workers,” says Cabantac.

To counteract this, MFMW has been involved in political campaigns in the last two Philippine national elections, and is trying to gather more support for a candidate who has the interests of migrant workers in mind. “A mass movement is very important to make [the government] feel the pressure and listen,” says Cabantac, who is also the Vice Chair of the Migrante Sectoral Party’s Hong Kong chapter—a party that represents overseas Filipino workers. She says there are enough votes and support from foreign domestic workers, but not enough from people in the Philippines: There are too many candidates representing too many marginalized groups to be an effective force. 

“The SAR government has not taken any action because they say it is not their problem,” says Eni Lestari. The SAR says that many agency fees are charged in the country of origin, not here in city.

Given that Hong Kong and foreign agencies are linked, it’s a false distinction. That said, Hong Kong’s Employment Agencies Administration does investigate agencies that overcharge. But the problem is that the agencies are careful not to let it show up on paper. So far this year, just three agencies have been convicted.

Change has to come directly from the SAR government before the Philippines and Indonesia will take action. And for better or worse, the SAR’s influence over the Philippines isn’t to be scoffed at: In November 2013, Legco withheld visa-free access for Filipino tourists, to pressure the country into reaching a compensation deal for the 2010 Manila Hostage Crisis. (The same day, Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the Philippines, killing 6,300.)

The majority of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong are from Indonesia and the Philippines.

Mabel Au, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, notes that since the widely publicized Erwiana Sulistyaningsih abuse case, helpers have become more confident about reporting their issues. “The situation is pretty insane, but there have been relatively more domestic helpers willing to make complaints,” she says. But the government has made promises without taking much action. “The very frustrating thing is that we did not find any improvement,” says Au. “The Chief Secretary promised to do something, but we’ve only heard of a few agencies questioned by the government.”

But there’s some hope: Lestari notes that younger generations are more understanding of their plight: She says that more youth have been volunteering at migrant workers’ NGOs. Why? “I think they get more exposure to different cultures now,” she says. “They are curious. They want to know.”


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