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 The police would only grant the release if Y rescinded part of her original statement, and it takes no genius to imagine the legal consequence of a statement that has suddenly become a false allegation.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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The Spacemen Speak

6 December 2008

Dispatches from the Twilight Zone

Windup metal spaceman, by zen, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)Relevance is not always an exhaustive criterion in Hong Kong journalism. A vague association, the merest hint of connection, a slim link between national prestige and local humdrum is often all it takes to crank out a feel-good headline. Hong Kong’s minority English-language newspapers, in particular, are adept at trumpeting thinly-disguised irrelevance as news. Not always, but it sneaks in there often enough. Consider the front page of today’s South China Morning Post. The banner headline tells of a high court judge who gave an oral ruling in an appeal case and then reversed his decision when he gave the formal written ruling eight months later. The judicial system under the spotlight, a real case for concern – now that’s worth reading about. But with equal billing at the top of the page is this far less explicable headline: “Astronauts confident HK can weather financial turmoil”.

And thus the spacemen speak.

In a world that matches naiveté and nous, credulity and common sense, this is not an entirely unsurprising headline. But it truly beggars belief that any newspaper, save perhaps the Weekly World News, would even try to cast astronauts as in any way knowledge about a very complex financial crisis. Still, the SCMP is ever willing to pander to the overlords of the north and their lesser representatives. The astronauts, members of the Shenzhou VII mission that featured China’s first spacewalk in September, are in town with their support crew to speak about their experience and, it seems, to relate that experience to Hong Kong, even if by the weakest of analogies.

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Notes on a (Slightly) New Direction

2 December 2008

And Another Case of Cruelty

Weather Vane, by Leo Reynolds, with Creative Commons licenceChange, even the slightest redirection, is what keeps us aware that we’ve moved, that we might move again. We look back, reconsider, and move forward. Or, as the Maori have it, we look ahead at the past in plain view, and then anticipate the future behind us, as yet out of sight. In either case we take our bearings and make new decisions, tempered by experience. Now that the Vicky Flores case has closed, at least for the time being, I’m winding down the blog dedicated to it, which has also carried news on the many difficulties face by foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong that hasn’t appeared on Greetings Earthlings. But so much of my family’s everyday life is dedicated to helping these women that I’ve decided to post about them more often here.

One of my most enduring impressions of domestic helpers in Hong Kong is their dignity in the face of adversity, their ability to suffer the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortunate” as Shakespeare had Hamlet lament. And there is something Shakespearian in the many little tragedies they face, the love they leave behind, the hope bottled for decades, the grind of their lives as virtually indentured workers. But there’s also much joy and company in the quiet moments, over the phone, in person, on their one day off a week.

To stretch the literary metaphor, these women exist in a sort of Dickensian social landscape, in a space between the poverty of their origins and the relatively meager payment they receive for their troubles. The ‘satanic mills’ of Guangdong might well be away to the north, but the relations into which they are sometimes forced are not always far removed from the wash-housery of Oliver Twist. There is, for many domestic helpers in Hong Kong, the potential for cruelty in every day.

Consider the case of a woman who arrived here from the north of the Philippines only four months ago. And think, as you read, that a senior staff member at the Philippine Consulate told my wife today that this is a common occurrence in Hong Kong. On the weekend this woman was accused of molesting one of her two charges (both aged under ten). Now this is a serious case for concern, but perhaps not for the reason you might be imagining.

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A Small Measure of Justice

1 December 2008

One Case Resolved, on the Face of it

The gavel, by &y, with Creative Commons licenceJustice is a slippery concept, almost at hand one moment then suddenly out of reach. As soon as you think you have it worked out a new aspect eludes you, squirting like a soap bar from your grasping hand. But there are other moments, a few minutes of grace when the legal system finally works the way social expectations direct it. At these times, even a small measure of justice is enough to move someone on to a new beginning, to shift their troubles from the bitterness of immediate experience to the sweet release of memory. Today in Hong Kong’s Labour Tribunal, things went pretty much that way.

I mentioned recently that in leaving behind the disappointment of Vicky Flores’ inquest those who had worked so hard for justice to be done needed to refocus on other tasks at hand. To move on in disappointment is to learn about assessing one task in relation to another, to gain perspective. So I helped to rewrite the statement of a woman who had been brought to Hong Kong as a domestic helper, employed for a month and then pushed out the door into compulsory illegal employment with someone else.

Welcome to Asia self-described ‘World-City’.

DOING THE DISHES, by spike55151, with Creative Commons licenceThe employer claimed that the woman needed extra ‘training’ from the employment agent, who just so happened to be her sister-in-law. So the scam played out, and another helper was hired for a month. You can probably see where this is going, and it’s not hard to imagine that it had been a successful little operation until someone had the courage, and sufficient desperation, to stand against the process, to simply say no. For her trouble, our friend received no wages for the time worked, no severance pay as prescribed under Hong Kong Law, and no ticket back to the Philippines – a condition of her contract. In the eyes of the employer, she was a runaway.

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Moving On

22 November 2008

What Comes After the Jury Finding

Run . . . by Face it, with Creative Commons licenceOne of the more difficult, but sometimes comforting, aspects of being involved in a cause is that there’s always a new case to pursue, another direction in which to channel energy. I met with fellow members of the Justice for Vicky Flores concern group last night and we decided to move on after the jury finding that put her death down to suicide. None of us could possibly draw the same conclusion given the evidence available, but we accept that the finding brings us to the end of our campaign to ensure that justice was done for the woman and her family. Procedural justice will just have to be enough this time around.

But even as we spoke of how we felt, how we failed and how we succeeded, we were aware that other people need our help as well. Some things we can’t change, but some we can. Tomorrow we’ll sort through the Labour Tribunal case of a domestic helper who was used as free labour for a month, sacked and then shifted over to the apartment of the owner of the employment agency through which she was recruited for ‘extra training’ – a clear breach of contract, amongst a few others. It just so happens that the owner of the employment agency is the sister-in-law of the employer, who has filed a counterclaim with the Labour Tribunal. Pure maliciousness is an epidemic amongst employers of foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong.

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Vicky Flores Inquest Finding

20 November 2008

Death by Suicide

Cemetery, by Comrade_S, with Creative Commons licence The jury has given its finding at Vicky Flores’ inquest here in Hong Kong. After accepting directions from the Coroner to weigh the overall evidence and consider the reliability of the witness whose evidence I called into question in my last post, in a 4-1 majority decision they found that Vicky committed suicide. This is obviously a blow to her family, who now cannot draw from an insurance payout to cover the costs of Vicky’s funeral. It also leaves the suspicion that the jury failed to understand a wide range of Filipino cultural references, which were not explained in court.

The Coroner did direct the jury to ignore any evidence they found insubstantial, but the standard rules of hearsay clearly do not apply to jury findings in an inquest. Still, and this is a very important point to remember, the group I’ve worked with since April to push the process this far succeeded in having natural, otherwise known as procedural, justice delivered.

Now we’re at the end of the line, which has always been the major goal. Despite the jury’s finding, evidence has been very hard to come by in this case and no revelations were expected at the inquest. We expected either an open finding, meaning that the evidence could not support a substantial decision, or a finding of suicide.

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