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Hong Kong’s Foreign Domestic Workers Struggle For Ordinary Life

Hong Kong Labour Party chair and independent labor leader Lee Cheuk-yan)
Hong Kong Labour Party chair and independent labor leader Lee Cheuk-yan)

By Joe Atkins, HottyToddy.com blogger

My recent trip to Hong Kong and Beijing came at a time full of news for those cities and the region. During my visit in Hong Kong, whistleblowing fugitive Edward Snowden was staying in a hotel in the city after revealing to the world how the U.S. government is snooping on practically everyone in the world, including U.S. citizens. While Snowden was in Hong Kong, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping were meeting in California, talking about cyber-hacking, among other things.

While in Hong Kong, I went to the massive June 4 vigil commemorating the victims of the brutal crackdown of the 1989 pro-democracy rally in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. I interviewed the man who organized that vigil. Tens of thousands attended—it was the only such large-scale public acknowledgement of the 24th anniversary of the 1989 crackdown in all of China.

A poultry plant fire in northern China killed at least 120, sparking yet more outrage after similar tragedies in Bangladesh and Cambodia. Some 300 Nike workers in Cambodia were fired after protesting their working conditions during my visit to Asia. In addition, a Chinese firm bought giant Smithfield Foods, the pork producer that fought unionization for so long in North Carolina, pitting black and Latino workers against each other. (Note Smithfield’s subsequent hypocrisy when it dropped TV chef Paula Deen as an endorser because of her admission to using racially insensitive language in the past.)

One of the reasons I came to Hong Kong—as part of this blog’s commitment to the Global South as well as the U.S. South–was to talk to workers and activists about the recent strike that pitted the city’s dock workers against Asia’s richest man, Li Ka-shing, whose holdings include 70 percent control of port activity in Hong Kong. I also wanted to talk to people there about the migrant worker issue and a recent high court decision denying foreign domestic workers any chance of permanent residency.

Among those I interviewed were: Lee Cheuk-yan, Hong Kong Labour Party chair, general secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions and thus the city’s top independent labor leader, and key organizer of both the dock workers’ strike and the June 4 pro-democracy vigil; Cynthia Ca Abdon-Tellez, general manager of the city’s Mission for Migrant Workers organization; and Geoffrey Crothall, communications director of the China Labour Bulletin, a non-governmental organization that monitors labor actions and rights in China. I also spoke with migrant workers from the Philippines as well as a Catholic priest whose ministry includes migrant workers.

It was a rich experience, both in Hong Kong and Beijing, and I’ll be reporting on it in various stories over the coming days and weeks. My first story follows below, an account of migrant workers in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s Foreign Domestic Workers struggle for an “ordinary” life while living as an “underclass”

Marian Carnate, a foreign domestic worker in Hong Kong
Marian Carnate, a foreign domestic worker in Hong Kong

HONG KONG – Mariane Carnate, on the steps of the Mariners’ Club after attending mass at St. Peter’s Catholic Church inside, considers herself lucky.

The 30-year-old native of North Cotabato in The Philippines is a domestic worker for a Russian family in Hong Kong that treats her well and pays her “a little more” than minimum wage. She lives with the family—a requirement of foreign domestic workers here–and works 10 to 12 hours a day. She has been in Hong Kong for eight years.

Others aren’t as fortunate. “Sometimes it is hard,” says Carnate, an attractive woman with long hair, carrying a large brown bag and wearing a green blouse and orange pants during her Sunday break from work. “Hong Kong is full of regulations. … Sometimes families are not easy to get along with. (Expenses) are more than domestic workers earn. I’m lucky. Some of my friends, their employers are not good to them.”

Carnate is one of more than 300,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong. Half of them are, like her, from The Philippines and they’re nearly all female. Others come from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India. Indeed, life isn’t easy for many of them. Hong Kong laws require them to live with their employer—a law intended to keep them from taking second jobs and thus competing with local workers—and also prohibits them from ever becoming permanent residents and thus eligible for state-run health care services and other benefits.

The city’s Court of Final Appeal ruled in March that foreign domestic workers don’t qualify as “ordinarily resident” and thus can’t apply for permanent residence after seven years like other foreign workers in the city can. The decision overturned an earlier lower court ruling in the workers’ favor.

Cynthia Ca Abdon-Tellez of the Mission for Migrant Workers
Cynthia Ca Abdon-Tellez of the Mission for Migrant Workers

“It is becoming more clear that we are creating an underclass unfortunately,” said Cynthia Ca Abdon-Tellez, general manager of the Mission for Migrant Workers, during an interview at her office in St. John’s Cathedral in Hong Kong’s Central District. “When you go down deeper into this worker migration … it is forced on the people. Their home countries do not provide their people decent pay jobs. Domestic workers’ salary here is equal to a junior executive’s in their home country.”

The Mission for Migrant Workers is one of several organizations in the city devoted to providing assistance to a vulnerable population that is easily exploited and yet blamed for societal ills.

The church, whether Catholic, Anglican, or non-Christian, is an important resource as well as a refuge for this population, said Father Valan Arockiaswamy, himself a native of India as well as priest at St. Peter’s Catholic Church. “There’s discrimination, racial abuse, exploitation. … They’re on call 24 hours a day. No proper facility to sleep. They may sleep in the living room or share a room with the children, with teenagers.”

Father Valan Arockiaswamy
Father Valan Arockiaswamy

Indeed, a 2013 study of Hong Kong’s so-called “live-in policy” conducted by the Mission for Migrant Workers showed that 30 percent of foreign domestic workers do not have a room of their own, 37 percent work 16 hours a day, and 9 percent said they worked 19 hours straight. More than half have suffered verbal abuse, and 18 percent reported physical abuse. Some 6 percent reported sexual abuse.

“It is important to support migrant workers,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, chair of Hong Kong’s Labour Party and general secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, the city’s largest independent labor organization. “This is the part of solidarity that is very important. It is very important to make sure they have the same rights as the local workers. … They had to leave their home to come to Hong Kong to take care of our families, and they are very badly treated.”


Joe Atkins is a veteran journalist and columnist who teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi. He can be reached at jbatkins@olemiss.edu

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