One Case Resolved, on the Face of it
Justice 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’.
The 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.
Unfortunately, this sort of thing happen quite a bit and relatively few domestic helpers ever make it to the Labour Tribunal to seek restitution. Those who do often face the sort of grilling that makes them doubt their own resolution, with employers and their legal counsel quick to take advantage of small gaffes and momentary uncertainties. But not this time.
Today the judge not only awarded all outstanding allowances, but also berated the employer for her attitude and her actions. The jurisdiction of the Labour Tribunal doesn’t cover illegal employment and other specific breaches of domestic helper labour contracts – that is the domain of the Immigration Department, which is currently investigating the situation – but an all-out judicial derision of a domestic helper’s former employer is rare enough to force a smile on even the most cynical observer’s face.
And, I should add, face is an important consideration here. Moving from the physical to the sociocultural, the notion of face as a form of respectability is much abused in Hong Kong. In Chinese societies face usually has two meanings – in one sense it refers to a person’s own perception of their prestige, and in another it’s the social evaluation of that prestige. Everyone creates their own face and has it created for them. Reasonable people manage to balance to two concepts.
Yet the personal evaluation of prestige is more heavily weighted for some people in Hong Kong. In other words, the creation of a little personal domain of power – as exercised in the prerogative to fire a domestic helper for letting one mosquito into a flat in this case, with the high probability that it has happened before and would have happened again – far exceeds the significance of any opprobrium delivered by others in the community for the petty tyranny involved. If enough people focus on building their face in this manner, then there comes a point at which no-one will browbeat the miscreant.
Yet, and this is crucial, to have an employer scolded by a judge in court and have that disapproval entered into the court record tips the scales back a bit, adds a little to the possibility that Hong Kong really can be the welcoming society that it claims to be, that it can be. And on a personal level, the social opprobrium will override the employer’s petty prestige for a while. We can always hope for rehabilitation in the meantime.
So each move and countermove is small, as is the measure of justice done. Our friend will be returning to the Philippines tomorrow, and the Immigration Department will have no complainant for which to pursue the breach of contract case. Still, something has happened, something has shifted. Our friend won’t be back – she’s literally had enough of Hong Kong. But those of us who remain, especially those of us in this particular district, know that next time at least one employer will find malice a less comforting friend. Now there’s only a few thousand to go.