And a Week Went By

2 March 2009

Farewell to a Brave Friend

Vanishing, by alicepopkorn, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution 2.0 Generic)Time has stretched and bent in the Poole household recently, pushing events out of sequence and priorities in new directions. Of course, these are just perceptions, but they affect us though clocks had truly run awry. Our friend Y, who lives with us, is returning to Indonesia tomorrow after seven months that no person on this earth should be forced to endure. A domestic helper here in Hong Kong, she was beaten severely by the wife of her employer, treated with contempt by the police and dismissed as unreliable by the Department of Justice. In the last seven days she’s had to relive that in an attempt to gain recompense through the Labour Tribunal. We’ve all been living with one eye on the past, stepping cautiously through the days.

Y now has a little money, dragged out of her employer only because he forced her to work two years without a single day of rest. But justice and a sense of resolution? Well, that’s not quite possible. Y returned to the police station two days ago to retrieve money held as evidence – money, I should add, that had been ‘confiscated’ by the woman who beat her. The police would only grant the release if Y rescinded part of her original statement, and it takes no genius to imagine the legal consequence of a statement that has suddenly become a false allegation.

Nice trick boys.

Over seven months we’ve seen this woman suffer simply for doing her job, and then for standing firm and shouting NO MORE! The flight home should have been something of a release. But when she leaves tomorrow she’ll be carrying two suitcases of clothes and a whole plane-load of disdain. That’s a greater burden than anyone should bear.


Back on the Block

8 February 2009

One Woman’s Brief Interlude in Indonesia

Big Wheel, by kevindooley, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution 2.0 Generic)The capacity to surprise is more often praised than panned. We tend to see it as a valuable characteristic, the mark of a person who can change the way other people think, guide them into new ways of understanding the world. Surprise is a synonym for excitement, adventure – those things that make our days unusual, or at least more pleasant. But that’s not always the case, and confusion, disappointment and despair can follow. At the minimum, an unpleasant or unwelcome surprise can cause a good deal of inconvenience and frustration. Consider the case of M, whose travails with a loan scam I mentioned recently.

M is a domestic helper here in Discovery Bay, Hong Kong, on the block in which my family lives. Recently she woke unusually early at the urging of her panicking employer who had received a letter from the Immigration Department asking why his live-in employee had not left Hong Kong in four years. Foreign domestic helpers are required to leave town at the end of each two year contract, which doesn’t give them right to residency, unlike standard work visas (which can be renewed here). It was a problem that could have waited a while but it suggested an illegality on the employer’s part – he hadn’t actually ‘granted’ the two weeks holiday that was due at the end of M’s last contract.

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And Now for the Bad News

22 January 2009

A Savage Beating Unpunished

Hope, by My Own Worst Nightmare, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)Hope is a fragile emotion, smashed so easily on the jagged rocks of life. In my last post I wrote with a degree of optimism that the maltreatment of domestic helpers in Hong Kong might just receive a little more attention in future, given a small increase in recent newspaper coverage. And that could still come about, because the case I’m about to describe might yet make the news. We’re working on it, and the circumstances deserve more coverage than I can attract here. But it just won’t come to the attention of the courts.

In early August last year I wrote about an Indonesian domestic helper who came to stay with me and my family after suffering repeated beatings at the hands of her employer’s wife. She was bruised from head to groin and had reported to both a local hospital and the North Lantau police station. We were confident that she would have her day in court, given the evidence of assault, an account of earlier sexual assault by her employer, and a witness not only to her condition every morning, but also to her being forced to work at another premises, outside the scope of her employment contract.

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Biting the Hand that Feeds

20 January 2009

More Domestic Helper Abuse in Hong Kong

In a manner of speaking, yes (Fatalist Palmistry), by nobleIgnbole, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)A face, a name, a certain movement of the arms – what is it about a personal presence that gives recollection the value of truth when mere words alone might not suffice? I’m often aware when writing about the maltreatment of domestic helpers in Hong Kong that anonymity is both a blessing and a curse. It protects identities but dulls the terrible stories a good deal, to the extent that the posts could well appear as stale anecdotes, sliding down the screen. But once in a while the news becomes far more public – as it did last week.

The South China Morning Post managed to stagger past its usual neglect of issues out of the ordinary last week to run a piece on a domestic helper who was twice attacked by her employer’s dog in Causeway Bay at the end of December. It’s an important piece not so much for the content, alarming as that may seem, but for the fact that it ran as a small feature, spawned a follow-up article by the same author, of whom I have been critical in the past but certainly not now, and featured the helper as a person with expectations and limits that should have been respected.

The story, in brief, is this: in late December a Filipino domestic helper, Lilibeth Tumaca, whose picture appeared in the paper, was mauled by her employer’s dog after she was told to ‘familiarise’ herself with it by making it eat out of her hands. This happened in only her second day in the job and Hong Kong itself. She went to a doctor, who dismissed the wounds as minor. Then the dog attacked again and she was admitted to hospital. When she hadn’t returned to work by the seventh of January, she was summarily dismissed. The full story is attached in a PDF file – please read it if you’re interested.

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No Offence, No Defence

14 January 2009

Further Observations on a False Accusation

289/365 banging my head against a wall, by obo-bobolina, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)What happens when justice is done but punishment is impossible? Unlike cases in which no verdict is likely or the jury finding is improbable, when a person is accused of a crime and then cleared of any wrongdoing, there is – more often than not – something of a villain lurking somewhere just out of sight. Police investigations are often dropped for lack of sufficiently relevant evidence, but when there is no evidence of any sort to consider, and seemingly never was, who censures the accuser?

I recently wrote about a domestic helper here in Hong Kong’s mild-mannered Discovery Bay who was accused of sexual assault against a boy just under 3 years of age. This might have been a community horror story had not the employer suspiciously retracted the complaint and asked the woman back to work. That’s not the sort of thing you do if a complaint is even remotely true. But the worst aspect of this little saga wasn’t anything to do with the little boy or his capricious father. No, it was the disturbing fact that the complaint was withdrawn only 2 days after it was made, and in the meanwhile the accused woman had been incarcerated.

Locked up. In detention. Deprived of her freedom.

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So this is Christmas

26 December 2008

Hong Kong, in Three Street-Side Scenes

I'll get you the moon and the stars, by lenchensmama, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)Words are sometimes not enough to express the feeling engendered in a moment, the sense that something ineffable has shifted and changed. There are only glimpses, flashes of memory like single frames in a half-forgotten movie, and if you transcribe it all into prose befitting the moment you’ll lose it to the syntax, the unerring formality of the written word. A series of images might suffice, but even then the meaning will stir somewhere below the surface, not quite escaping, never really extending to anyone else. Allow me, then, to offer a compromise, a word picture, a witness statement of Christmas in Hong Kong.

See first the carollers, singing with conviction that outstrips talent, some shuffling notes to read the words by candlelight, others with song after song ingrained in memory. In a doorway they stand, the entrance to a church. The façade has seen better days and the indifferent crowd shuffles past, drawn by the call of commerce. In Jordan something – everything – is always for sale. But the carols rise above it all, drown even the wail of taxi horns and the deep, deep throb of double-decker buses waiting impatiently at traffic lights. Look back into the doorway and see who these people are. Chinese, yes, and Indians. Africans and Australians. Filipinos and Indonesians.

This moment could be an emblem for everything that Hong Kong so often fails to be. It speaks volumes that the few people who stop to watch do so in patient wait for photo opportunities, as they might with caged pandas and as they do at stylised Christmas displays throughout the city. Sometimes someone else’s idea can be enticing, but not enticing enough.

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Undue Process

13 December 2008

How Not to Terminate a Labour Contract

Rust Never Sleeps, by Prawnchop, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)Not all processes happen by themselves – some are shaped, shifted and cajoled into being. They’re products of social interaction, and in so being are inherently tied to status inequality. Like contracts, to which they are so often linked, many social processes involve protocols in which people assume set roles, whether buttressed by necessity, convention or formal influences like the law. Exchange, for instance, is a social process in which unequal parties, a buyer and a seller, meet through necessity to solve a problem of relative scarcity. In this example the inequality doesn’t necessarily mean that one party has a good deal of leverage over the other – a buyer can be as desperate to sell, or not, as a buyer is to buy. But there are other forms of exchange, and labour exchange in particular, in which one of the parties is necessarily at a disadvantage.

In many ways that labour is exchanged, inequality of outcomes is of little consequence and indeed necessary for the continued functioning of an organisation. The firm for which I work could well gain more from the product of my labour than I do, but it also has to pay me a salary that a doctorate holder will accept. And I gain more for my efforts than I would in some other, but not all, situations. In that sense my employment is a trade off – not equal, but by no means exploitative. Both parties gain something and have to set something aside. The process is one of give and take, a constant negotiation in which my income has increased as the business for which I’m responsible has prospered.

But consider another situation, in which an employee signs a labour contract under which strict boundaries are set on pay, living conditions, movement and responsibilities. In this example the process of employment is not only more rigid, but it’s also far more significant each and every moment of the day. The employee relies on the employer’s understanding of the process, including the legal rules attached to it, to ensure that it is operating as it should. There is an element of mutual respect here, or at least the possibility, and a sense that ethics has a central role to play. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or whatever your religious or other persuasion might offer up.

085, by Ravages, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)Then, of course, there are people who just don’t care, employers whose status relative to their employees is so great that they simply destroy the process and flout the conventions. Consider this: last week a domestic helper who had been employed long term by a woman here in Hong Kong – an Australian ex-pat of significantly more wealth than her unfortunate employee – was sacked for taking out a personal loan to pay for treatment of her husband, who has cancer. The employer, as it turns out, had just lost her job (her own husband had not) and feared that she would somehow be implicated in her employee’s rather small loan (the equivalent of three months’ wages) should it not be paid.

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