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There’s Always a Helper in Need of Help

Sometimes a little good news can seep out of the most strained circumstances. Two weeks ago I wrote about Bethune House, a temporary refuge for mistreated and otherwise abused domestic helpers here in Hong Kong. Outlining their travails – which are very much those of an underclass, as I’ll have cause to mention again soon – I offered a worrying ratio. The House has 22 bed spaces but was accommodating over 60 residents. Most of the women slept on the floor, and the organisation was in dire financial need. Today I received an email from Edwina Antonio, who works tirelessly in her role as Director of Bethune House. Amid other, far less palatable news, was a morsel of optimism – the House now only has 42 residents, with 20 women having moved on.

There is sometimes a little hope to be had in this mad, mad world.

But tomorrow I’ll be heading back to Bethune House with friends and family, remitting the small amount of money we’ve collected and delivering more much needed rice. To say that the residents are facing times could well be an understatement – Edwina is still struggling to drag in the cash and food that’ll tide them over for this month and next. After that the fates will have to decide.

I mention this now because in the interim I’ve been doing what I hopefully do best – writing about the situation. After Edwina used my previous post as an article for the newsletter produced by the Mission for Migrant Workers (the organisation to which she belongs), I posted a more formal appeal for help on the other blog I maintain, A Death in Hong Kong. One of the users on an expatriate website, GeoExpat, reposted it and we received a mild but favourable response. That led me to writing a similar article for GeoExpat’s monthly online newsletter, highlighting more problems Bethune House residents were facing and announcing another fund-raising effort – an open house on the 20th of this month.

One of the GeoExpat users took almost immediate exception to my piece, writing a lengthy reply even before I had time to click on the email link and go to the site to read it in situ, so to speak. Admittedly, I don’t check my private email all that quickly during the day, but this user was fast. The three main points of objection were that most employers of domestic helpers in Hong Kong were ‘good’, that I had somehow erred in describing these women as “Hong Kong’s underclass” and that they should try to work elsewhere under worse conditions, perhaps the more exploitative of the Middle Eastern destinations.

Now the last of these objections is easy to dispel, because it’s not really an objection at all but a logical fallacy. The somewhat primitive ‘if you don’t like it, leave’ argument is played out time and again in disagreements between happy locals – or their near analogues – and disgruntled ‘outsiders’, however they might be defined. It also does absolutely nothing to address any of the concerns raised; it’s a red herring that at best distracts, at worst shows the desperation of a baseless argument. And that allows me to consider the first objection. How did the user know that ‘most’ employers are good? It’s hardly an effective quantitative claim, and I had already cited 62 cases against it – that being the number of residents then in Bethune House. Even an attempt to name a few people who were good employers might have made the argument credible.

Oh, but there was a passing attempt, of sorts. This user’s uncle owns one of the employment agencies that act as go-betweens for helpers and their employers, almost always charging illegal recruitment fees if anecdotal evidence from almost every helper I have ever talked to, including my wife and both former helpers who are currently staying with us, are to be believed. Not really a great attempt, you’d have to say.

Of course there are good employers of domestic helpers in Hong Kong. I could cite at least 12 in my immediate neighbourhood alone. But that should never distract from the far more distressing fact that the women in Bethune House and similar shelters, through abuse by always callous and sometimes criminal employers, have been made an underclass, the user’s second objection to my piece. To declare an underclass might seem like an emotive gambit, but it really isn’t – it’s just a statement of observed fact, an empirical evaluation. The notion might have derived from Karl Marx’s less than generous assessment of the lumpenproleteriat, that unemployable sub-class of degenerates on the edge of society, and it has suffered a good deal from similar use in the hands of commentators like Charles Murray, but there is a far more common usage in the world of English speakers.

An underclass is the lowest class, below the working class, comprising truly disadvantaged groups.

I had two main motivations in labelling the women in Bethune House “Hong Kong’s underclass”. The first is a simple observation of the way in which imported labourers, including domestic helpers, are obliged to forgo new employment if they have legal cases pending against former employers. To pursue justice under Hong Law, they cannot work because their visas allow them entry into the region only for matters relating to the contract they initially signed. If they were to take action against that restriction they would soon find that all such matters are dealt with not through the courts, but – and as a matter of policy – at the discretion of the Director of Immigration.  This bar on work by the host society most certainly creates a underclass.

My second motivation was less prosaic – I had just described some of the horrific situations that a few of these women had faced before they escaped their employers. These examples, I thought, indicated a distinct social disadvantage, and not incidentally a disadvantage potentially experienced by all domestic helpers, given that they each face the same work conditions of isolation from public oversight in the employers home.

Allow me to cite the cases again, remembering that these are only a few of the women who stuff Bethune House to overflowing:

Hazel escaped physical abuse and only four hours of sleep a day. Djimi had her arm slashed with a knife – once, twice, three times. Tess was never allowed to use the toilet. Ever. Ikawati was denied even a shower for two months and only slept two hours a night.

Four women, four stories briefly told. But their very brevity strengthens the notion that these women have been made the lowest of the low.

My point, as in the initial blog post, was that despite their status, despite being pushed to the fringes of society, these women have refused to surrender. Theirs is a story of courage that the good employers might never hear, that the presumers might never believe. But they can’t do it alone. If you live in Hong Kong and would like to help, the Bethune House open day, featuring auctions of handicrafts by the women and paintings by local Filipinos artists, will be help on the 20th of September – the Saturday after next. The event will run from 10 am to 6 pm, with the main auction starting at 4 pm. If you can’t make it, perhaps you could spare a little cash. The contact details are below, and every little bit will help.

Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge

2 Jordan Road Kowloon

For more information contact:

Edwina Antonio at 94889044 or bhmwr@hknet.com

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