Flying Sand

Spare me the crocodile tears, Hong Kong’s treatment of domestic workers is modern slavery

As tens of thousands of foreign women continue to be shipped to Hong Kong to work, Niall Fraser says it’s time to take responsibility for our actions ... and our cleaning

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 December, 2017, 7:04am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 December, 2017, 1:34pm

The definition of insanity, as any self-respecting laboratory rat knows, is to perform the same task over and over again in the expectation that you will achieve a different result.

Humanity, I think we can all agree, is defined as the ability to show compassion, kindness, consideration, sympathy, tolerance, generosity and magnanimity.

Taking the above definitions as read, only a mad and/or bad man or woman could conclude that the treatment of domestic workers by Hong Kong amounts to anything other than inhumane insanity.

Time and again governments – be they of the British pioneers, bent on subjugation and servitude, or post-colonial special administrators for China – have pursued the vulgar plunder of humanity from one poor part of the world after another in search of the cheapest, most compliant and desperate servants.

The minute one group of poor and vulnerable people – overwhelmingly women – which wealthy Hong Kong and other gross domestic-product-rich places deem good for only cleaning, bowing and scraping – show the slightest sign of getting up off their knees, the planning begins to raid another, even more vulnerable part of planet for a new batch of – let’s not sugar-coat it here – slaves.

Christmas blow for domestic helpers in Hong Kong as flights home don’t exist

And why and for what? Because we are too busy working to clean what are among the smallest living spaces on the planet and too exhausted to attend to the children of whom so much is expected but who cannot be expected to lift a dishcloth, dustpan and brush.

This exploitative race to the bottom in which only the corrupt and compliant win has, so far, extracted people in their tens of thousands from the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar and most recently – as expertly exposed in these pages three days ago by South China Morning Post journalist, Raquel Carvalho – Madagascar, a shining jewel in the world’s natural crown just off the east coast of Africa.

Once these people who are shafted at home and abroad get organised enough to cause a headache over a HK$10 a month pay rise, where then for the next batch of servants? War-torn, famine-ravaged Yemen? The poverty-stricken streets of Palestine’s occupied West Bank? A robot? Or perhaps one of our oh-so-well-regulated employment agencies can book a seat on Elon Musk’s spaceship out of here in search of an alien life form devoid of human feelings.

As Giselle (not her real name), from Madagascar told this newspaper, she was expecting to make HK$4,100 a month, the minimum salary for Hong Kong helpers at the time she arrived, hoping the money would be enough to provide a brighter future for her children.

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“Hong Kong seemed good, because [it]offered a high salary and it seemed a civilised place, less dangerous than other countries,” she said. It was, as it has been for countless others before her, a dream that died on the rocks of greed and officially-sanctioned corruption which allows a practice of domestic servitude more suited to the times of Charles Dickens, to flourish in a 21st century city with the eleventh highest per-capita GDP in the world.

Nearly 20 years ago, on April 7, 1999, long before the highly publicised case involving abused Indonesian domestic worker, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, hit the headlines, I wrote a story about a fellow countrywomen of hers, 30-year-old Rukiyah from a village in Java.

Employed by the wealthy wife of a senior government chemist (who was eventually jailed for a short time), Rukiyah was paid only HK$260 of her then legally payable HK$3,860 monthly salary, got one night off a fortnight, was fed two slices of bread and one egg a day by her employer who removed the light bulb from her tiny cupboard lodgings for all but one hour of the 24-hour day.

Tortured Hong Kong helper Erwiana’s former employer claims her injuries were self-inflicted

Two decades – and a swathe of useless laws and regulations – on, and the shameless and obscene exploitation continues, fuelling an insane global search for cheaper labour.

There is little or no sign that the government seriously intends to stop this modern-day slavery, so it is time for the good people of Hong Kong to exert their humanity for themselves.

Clean your own flat and car, many, many other people just as busy as you do.

And spare me the crocodile tears and twisted logic that we are somehow the saviours of people who would be much worse of if they were back in their home countries. One race to the bottom is more than enough than we should be prepared to stomach.