Hong Kong lawmaker draws ire by suggesting up to 10,000 ‘domestic servant’ jobs be reserved for people from ethnic minorities
Local activists upset by ‘unacceptable’ proposal, saying it has roots in flawed stereotypes
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho Kwan-yiu on Tuesday stood by his idea for Hong Kong to reserve 5,000 to 10,000 “domestic servant” jobs for people from ethnic minorities, as the government considers how best to use a HK$500 million fund to help them move up the socio-economic ladder.
Ethnic minority individuals who took on housekeeping jobs should not be required to live with their employers, and could be paid 110 per cent of the minimum wage of HK$34.50 an hour, Ho said. This would ensure they earned at least HK$7,000 a month for 22 days of work.
His comments drew the ire of rights advocates and activists, but the outspoken solicitor maintained it was his duty as a lawmaker to offer policy ideas.
“If some NGO really thinks my proposition was downgrading or showing disrespect or discriminating against ethnic minority people, then aren’t they treating the Filipino maids and Indonesian maids with disrespect?” Ho asked. “[Do] they think that this kind of work is suitable only for a lower or disadvantaged group of people?”
He added that he doubted a high-level committee – led by the chief secretary and tasked earlier this year to use HK$500 million (US$63.7 million) to improve the lot of the city’s non-Chinese individuals – would immediately come up with workable initiatives.
Ho first raised his controversial proposal on Monday evening at a Legislative Council subcommittee discussion, and though none of the lawmakers present supported his call, a person working for Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung – the city’s No 2 official – called it “very innovative”.
Businessman Abdull Ghafar Khan who was at the meeting objected immediately, saying: “I am very angry, I don’t see how Dr Ho has made this suggestion … This is unacceptable.
“Everyone in Hong Kong can become domestic workers; there is no need for such jobs to be reserved for non-Chinese in Hong Kong.”
Ho apologised and said his proposal was a short-term measure to tide over ethnic minority individuals in need of work.
“Mr Khan, you and I may have other jobs and we may not be too keen to do [domestic work] … but we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that someone in the community may want to take up this job.”
On Tuesday, Ho claimed his views showed that “no matter what [position] you are in we provide the same [upward mobility]”.
“Nobody is forced to be a slave,” he added. “Nobody is forced to stick to one job throughout his life.”
During the Legco discussion, 23 NGO representatives and members of ethnic minority groups made recommendations on how Cheung’s steering committee could spend its funds.
They wanted more resources for schools to teach Chinese as a second language to ethnic minority pupils; equal job opportunities for non-Chinese workers; and tougher anti-racism legislation to discourage discrimination.
The steering committee – composed of senior government officials – should also include minority members and be transparent in its work, they said.
Excluding foreign domestic workers, about 3.6 per cent of Hong Kong’s 7.37 million inhabitants are members of ethnic minorities. About 30 per cent are South Asians, comprising Indians, Pakistanis and Nepalis.
A government report released in February found that the poverty rate among ethnic minorities in the city had risen since 2011, with one in five living below the poverty line in 2016. It also found that those who were employed tended to be in low-paying jobs due to “low educational attainment and skill levels”.
Ho said lawmakers had been talking about the “disadvantaged” position of ethnic minority residents for almost two years. The city has about 370,000 foreign domestic workers, and more of them could be needed in the future to care for the rapidly ageing population.
“Why don’t we look inward to our ethnic minority residents and give them priority to take up such work?” he asked.
Angelina Kwan Yuen-yee, who heads the human resources planning and poverty coordination unit in Cheung’s office, called Ho’s suggestion at the Monday meeting “very innovative”.
But it remained to be seen how Hongkongers felt about the suggestion, as well as whether individuals from ethnic minorities were keen to be domestic workers, she said, as they too wanted “diversity of job opportunities and upward mobility”.
A statement from Cheung’s office on Tuesday said the steering committee would draw up “actionable measures” after taking in suggestions from meetings in May and June chaired by the chief secretary and other sources of feedback, including ethnic minority individuals.
“The government will continue to explore measures to provide support for ethnic minorities to ensure that they enjoy equal rights and opportunities in employment.”
It added there was no timeline yet for introducing any initiatives, as this hinged on how long it would take to identify and formulate policies, and get the necessary funding.
“Ho wants to stereotype us. I don’t understand why he thinks there should be two types of Hongkongers.”
Khan added that people from ethnic minorities were looking for equal opportunities and not for suggestions that non-Chinese should go and do certain jobs.
The executive director of advocacy group Unison, Phyllis Cheung Fung-mei, said she believed Ho was not the only person harbouring such ideas.
Kristeen Romero, a Filipino digital marketer born and raised in Hong Kong, thanked Khan for speaking up.
“We were sitting there really angry,” she recalled of the Legco meeting, which she attended.
Rubilyn Gabayan, a Lingnan University political science student who aspires to pursue a law degree, said Ho was implying “that ethnic minority individuals should only do domestic work, security jobs, and construction work”.
“There are a lot of members of ethnic minorities who have good educational backgrounds and want to pursue a career,” she added.