The day before yesterday, four foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong were arrested. Taken by police from their beds at the crack of dawn, these women will likely be deported and never be able to work in the city again.
The plight of the domestic worker in Hong Kong is sadly not just fodder for the occasional sob story. Weekly – or daily, if you really care to look – cases emerge, which regularly show the mistreatment, abuse and discrimination faced by hundreds of thousands of foreign domestic workers who help to keep Hong Kong running.
Those arrested the other day were simply found to be living in their own apartment. One of many forms of discrimination found in the working contracts of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong is the stipulation that they must live under the roof of their employers. In an effort to prevent this group of mainly women (who mostly come from the Philippines and Indonesia) from taking away part-time work from local domestic workers, the government insists that they must work for and live with one employer in the city. With living space in Hong Kong restricted for many, live-in domestic workers often find themselves staying in spaces that can only be described as cupboards or even simply given patches of kitchen floor to sleep on. An estimated 6.5 per cent of foreign domestic workers are sexually abused, with much of this taking place in the homes of their employers. And when contracted to work six days a week with no hourly limit, domestic workers living in employers’ homes have little chance of rest.
Despite imperfect conditions such as these (and regular exploitation by labour agencies), the foreign domestic workers who get deported from Hong Kong may face an even tougher time back at home. The remarkably low minimum wage that some of these employees are paid here – equivalent to around €450 a month – is often more than they could hope to earn in their own countries. And while they may be treated as second-class citizens in Hong Kong, there is at least a legal framework for their employment: something that is missing in other locations where domestic work is conducted by immigrants.
As the third-largest Catholic nation in the world, the Philippines was abuzz when Pope Francis visited earlier this month. Among many other issues, the Pope discussed the social and economic problems that have been caused by the more than 10 million Filipinos who have left to work abroad. Supported and encouraged by a government that seems more keen to see remittances flow back in than to create a sustainable employment model for its citizens, Filipino overseas workers are being failed not only by foreign powers but also their own leaders.
Towards the end of this year, Manila will host the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit. While territorial disputes and trade pacts within the region will likely top the agenda, it is also time for President Benigno Aquino and his colleagues to press (and be pressed on) the issue of equality and the rights of his countrymen and women working abroad.
Aisha Speirs is Monocle's Hong Kong bureau chief.