At the Edge of Reason

One Woman’s Unwilling Plight

Panic can be either public or personal. When it’s public it always involves some sort of herd-like behaviour, with private fears cascading into common action, usually without a great deal of logic behind it. When we talk of market panic we actually mean the mass-panic of market participants – people selling or buying on barely distinguishable good or bad news. There’s a sort of wilfulness about it. But personal panic is most often far more logical. It’s what happens when all avenues of alternative action have been blocked, or seemingly so, and there is little information with which to make adequate decisions about the immediate situation. It doesn’t usually involve not knowing what to do and finding comfort in moving with the human herd; it’s a form of alienation at the end of a logic process.

Personal panic is the stop sign at the edge of reason, the last chance not to plunge into abject, annihilating fear.

Earlier today my wife received a phone call from a Filipino domestic helper here in Hong Kong who has been forced, illegally, to work in a meat processing plant rather than in her employer’s home. In a state of panic she described how her employer had reacted when he realised that she had reported him to the Immigration Department for a breach of contract – not once, but twice. She quite literally feared for her life. In the many discussions about the net gains to be had from labour migration, this sort of scenario is rarely mentioned.

What drives a woman like this to panic when she just wants to earn a living? After appealing to the Immigration Department she would have expected action, given that forcing a domestic helper to work illegally is punishable by up to two years of imprisonment in Hong Kong. Apparently there’s some flexibility in enforcing that. Had she not done anything about the situation, she too would have been held liable, with the same punishment looming a good deal more quickly. So she did all she could, and everything she had been asked to do to remain a legal worker. She followed the logical path to its end, and her only option left was to panic.

Yet there are extra-legal ways of dealing with situations like this, and after consultation with a helper support organisation – after gaining more information about what she could do – the woman resigned and is ready to leave her employer’s home. The panic, you might say, has subsided for now; the woman has run to the edge of reason and then had the good sense to walk slowly away. But she’ll be left with next to nothing – no wages and little but what she can carry with her when she leaves.

What remains is another question. How can governments – not elected officials, but the vast bureaucracies that underpin them – be restricted in their capacity to cause personal panic? Common law jurisdictions rely on their offices of the Ombudsman to ensure procedural fairness in the slow grind of officialdom. There’s one here in Hong Kong, but as is often the case elsewhere the findings aren’t binding. They do have a sort of moral force behind them, but the complaint of a foreign domestic helper – who is, I should add, contractually unable to take up residency here – would be unlikely to cause much change.

Natural justice can only flourish when the distinction between the foreigner and the resident no longer waylays the law.  All people in Hong Kong are protected under its constitutional document the Basic Law, but high officials have a non-accountable discretionary scope to their powers that can filter down to the most trivial of departmental decisions. And, as in any jurisdiction, breaches of the law are not pursued if the consequence is ‘not in the public interest’, however that might be interpreted. But even so, these things happen at a higher level than this woman is ever likely to reach. In the anonymity of a domestic helper’s life, the panic generated by government inaction remains excruciatingly personal.

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