City of Silence

In Hong Kong, Who Speaks to the Unspoken?

There has long been a crucial link between politics and the mass media that plays out in the background of our lives. Leaving aside self-congratulatory accounts of the so-called ‘fourth estate’, the media communicates what politicians want known. Occasional exposés break this comfortable relationship, but even in criticising government action, the media more often than not barely scrape the surface of the issues behind political decisions. The focus remains on the head of the body politic, not the organs that make it function. So it comes as little surprise that media commentary on the Hong Kong government’s decision to suspend a levy placed on the employers of foreign domestic helpers completely misses the point.

First, a little background. Following the economic downturn generated by the SARS epidemic in Hong Kong, during 2003 the local government decided to reduce the minimum wage payable to foreign domestic helpers – mainly Indonesians and Filipinos – and tax their employers to the tune of HK$400 a month. You might not see the immediate logic in this, until you realise that the euphemistically named ‘levy’, promoted as a way of collecting funds to help retrain locals disadvantaged by economic restructuring, was meant as a disincentive. Hire a foreign maid and pay for it. The operative word here is foreign; the idea was to have employers hire local helpers. Given the draconian conditions and low pay involved, few took up the offer.

In fact, the much vaunted multi-billion dollar retraining slush fund seems never to have been touched. With every request for information about it the government slides almost effortlessly toward another topic. The media doesn’t press too hard, so the issue fades until the government stumbles in one of its convoluted populist gestures. That happened recently when, as part of hastily assembled package to limit the effects of inflation, the government proposed a suspension of the levy for two years.

Given that the suspension applies to all contracts initiated within the period, it seems like a reasonable saving, until you realise that the HK$9,600 saved over the two years would be barely a few months’ lunch money for many employers, and hardly an amount substantial enough to somehow, miraculously, mitigate against inflation. As the package of ‘relief’ measures includes no incentives for saving, any money retained will most likely go to increased consumption.

Hey, presto! More inflation.

And what about the intended recipients of this ill-judged largesse? Well, some of them just can’t wait until September, when the suspension was first slated to start, and have started giving their maids notice – although in my neighbourhood some helpers have already been summarily dismissed. It would be entirely reasonable to ask why, and the tortured logic behind it is that the employers can save money now by dismissing their helpers and re-hiring, or hiring again, when the suspension comes into effect. Aside from the fact that this is completely illogical – the employers will save the entire amount when they renew the two-year contract anyway – it shows a callous disregard for the helpers themselves.

So, is the media focusing on this breach of human decency? No, not at all – and that observation covers both the English and Chinese language press. Typically, the coverage is mentioning the situation and interviewing NGOs that help maids, and the ever quote-worthy head of the foreign domestic helper employer group. But no-one has bothered to interview a single helper. The English language dailies could easily do that, given that most Filipino domestic helpers here, at least, have a better command of English than some of the reporters. But not a word.

In today’s print edition of the South China Morning Post, opinion columnist and Legislative Council member Albert Cheng notes that “a good number of foreign domestic helpers fear that they will be fired” and describes their inhumane employers as “the shame of Hong Kong”. Yes Albert, they are, but talk to a few domestic helpers – many of them constantly fear dismissal because the Immigration Department requires no reason on the part of an employer to process the termination of a contract. I’ve seen enough of the forms myself – the reason section is almost always left blank. Explanation invites investigation.

Albert Cheng, one of the few democratically elected members of the Legislative Council, seems genuine in his anger towards these people, and dismayed that labour representatives in the body have shown no solidarity with “their working class comrades”. That’s a huge concession, given that foreign domestic helpers are most often considered tradable commodities in Hong Kong, but disappointing nevertheless. It just helps to push the government line – that the suspension of the levy should, somehow, benefit everyone involved.

Leaving aside how desperate the government seems to generate credibility in the eyes of its largely disenfranchised populace, allow me to ask a simple question. Who speaks to the ‘unspoken’ in Hong Kong, who converses with foreign domestic helpers about the condition of their lives? No-one in the traditional media. But listen for a while and they have a great deal to say; they’re speaking about their concerns, their fears and their hopes every day. It just isn’t what Hong Kongers want to hear.

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