Rights and Wrongs

26 October 2008

A Revised Legal Manual for Domestic Helpers

The extent to which individuals are protected from wrongdoing is not always sufficiently addressed in all societies. Some dither with human rights, others are slow to enact civil rights. In each case the individual is at risk not only from the state, but also from other individuals. Consider a work environment in which basic rights such as time to rest, sickness leave, sufficient accommodation and a clearly defined minimum wage are sometimes withdrawn, arbitrarily. This is a situation that involves both government regulation and employer responsibility – each party can be held responsible, to a certain extent. But who should be pursued for recompense, and in what direction should that pursuit head?

Knowing your rights is often more difficult than it seems, especially for people who work long hours, live in their place of employment and often suppose that the government will not help, simply because it’s not their government. That’s a fact of life for many foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong. James Rice set out to set out to provide a remedy for this situation in the first edition of his manual Take Your Rights Seriously, and he’s now offering the second edition online at no charge. You can download it from the sidebar at the right. Read the rest of this entry »

The Evil People Do

29 July 2008

Human Rights Violated in Hong Kong

Imagine the worst day of your life. Think for a while about a beating that leaves you stunned and panicking. You have a black eye, you’ve been kicked in the groin, your clothes are ripped and otherwise cut – all of them, not just what you’re wearing – your paper money has been torn up and flung to the ground. Clearly this isn’t a mugging because the money meant nothing. And it’s not a rape – the intent was purely malicious, meant to harm, and harm well, rather than violate. How do you feel?

Now think about one more thing. You were beaten for doing your job. Nothing more, nothing less. You were asked to clean up each day after workmen finished renovations at one of your employer’s rental properties. For three days you returned home to be beaten by your employer’s wife for no reason.

This is the life of one domestic helper in Hong Kong.

As I was writing a post on the meaning of freedom earlier I received a phone call detailing the case. The victim has now given evidence to the police, and has been taken to hospital. Two of the group I’m part of are with her and two more are on their way to the police station. They’ll meet another member of our group with yet another domestic helper who is speaking to the police. Still another woman who was beaten by her employer last week has just returned to my family’s apartment – she’s been staying with us since being threatened with a knife and grabbed at so hard her arms bruised.

Physical violence is a daily possibility for many domestic helpers in Hong Kong, but the inhumanity doesn’t end there. At a legal rights meeting on Sunday one woman spoke about only being given one day off a month; others said that they received no pay or were forced to work when sick. Last week another woman was asked to sign a rider on her contract barring her from visiting certain public places, amongst other draconian conditions. She refused, and her employer has been persecuting her ever since.

What links all of these cases, and many more, is that they each involve employers violating the civil and human rights of people who come from other countries. There’s nothing as grandiose as state abuse of power involved – just people being evil to people less fortunate than themselves then returning to their tranquil middle-class lives. The police seem genuinely surprised that it’s happening and most people here would deny that it could happen. Foreign domestic helpers are abused and otherwise mistreated in purely domestic situations, set apart from prying eyes and waging tongues. Like other forms of domestic violence, the victims most often silence themselves for fear of reprisal should they take a stand.

Evil wins because it dares the victim to ask for change, and few societies really want that. We’re working every day to make a difference in a few lives, involving NGOs to do what we can’t, thinking of new ways to identify those brave women who have had enough, who understand human rights are those things that keep them alive. Our task is to make change acceptable, one day at a time.

If you’re reading this in Hong Kong and know of a domestic helper who is being abused or otherwise mistreated, please ask her to contact the police in her district immediately. The phone numbers are available on the police contact page, and the emergency number is 999. The following organisations also provide invaluable help, every day.

Helpers for Domestic Helpers: phone 2523-4020
Mission for Migrant Workers: phone 2522-8264

If you live outside of Hong Kong, please tell someone else about what’s going on here. Every word, anywhere, will help to break the silence.

It’s A Numbers Game

18 July 2008

Will the Hong Kong Racial Discrimination Bill Make a Difference?

Sometimes monumental decisions slip past the public gaze, attracting comment for a while then fading into obscurity. The excuse could well be that we didn’t understand, that events blinded us to reason. But sometimes it’s just because people don’t really care. Hong Kong’s Legislative Council passed its ineptly named Racial Discrimination Bill last Thursday, yet the reaction has been muted. Anti-discrimination groups have been critical of the lacklustre attempt at abiding by global standards of decency, but they’re easily ignored. The focus has been on a simple numbers game, and minorities are always set up to lose.

Freedom from racism is a human right long ignored in Hong Kong. Almost 40 years after Britain signed the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, compelling Hong Kong to enact appropriate legislation, the postcolonial result is a mixture of whimsy and whitewash. Crucially, the government has reserved its right to be racist in anything but employment matters. Look under the lid of that particular situation and you’ll see a desire for racial discrimination in immigration policy leap out at you.

Much is said about multicultural Hong Kong, this cosmopolitan ‘World City’, but the government constantly trundles out two time-worn figures – 95% of the populace is Chinese, and only 5% is ‘foreign’, which is a word spoken with gritted teeth hereabouts. The distinction is important because non-Chinese, even long-time ‘foreign’ residents, can never become fully legal citizens.

In other words, civil rights are circumvented in the denial of a human right.

But the infatuation with numbers runs even deeper than that. Non-Chinese are always lumped together as undifferentiated minorities – occasionally under the illusion that they form a coherent “ethnic minority community” – to show that even at their mightiest they can have but little influence. The media commentary that followed the passing of the law last week didn’t focus on how racism deprives people of liberty, and it skipped over the fact that racial discrimination is just plain wrong. Instead it waffled on about a provision in the bill whereby so few non-Chinese speakers could ask for such expensive translations in their own language, in particular situations.

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Art Thou A Survivor?

3 June 2008

Mental Health and Human Rights Part 2

2007-08-05 -- Allow the Defect -- a Monday Night at AACA, by Roy Blumenthal, with Creative Commons licenceOne of the most difficult aspects of mental health is to know when a mind is ill. How do you measure the point at which sadness becomes depression, or the moment when anxiety becomes a phobia? For most of us there is no clear answer because we lack sufficient knowledge of our own complexities to adequately judge any deviation from what we might presume to be normal. We also tend to hide our defects, to doubt their very existence, and to doubt ourselves in the process. In the first post of this short series I mentioned that people with mental illness tend to push aside their own concerns and focus on the verdict of authority. What does the doctor say? What do the institution and the system do for me? The corollary, of course, is that if society ignores someone who is mentally ill, if one of the most significant institutions in society causes that illness, then nothing has happened.

That, I would argue, is a deprivation of the right to medical care, to a cure.

This is not a post about the widely known and appreciated aspects of mental illness. It’s a post about growing up the child of alcoholic parents. Or of an alcoholic step-parent, or a de facto parent. The family is society’s most revered institution regardless of culture or location. Governments inevitably foster it, often urging growth but always ensuring stability. Even dysfunctional families receive funding or tax relief in many parts of the world – for having more children, though sometimes for having less, for buying their first home, for sending their kids to school. Welfare services can regulate family life, but they’re not terribly good at finding drunks. And even when they do, the children of alcoholic parents can slip all too easily through the social safety nets.

A failed social duty of care is a human right denied.

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A State of Mind

31 May 2008

Mental Health and Human Rights Part 1

Shame, by FredArmitage, with Creative Commons LicenceNot all stories go away when the last interview is conducted, the last comment noted, when the final connections fade. Some linger because they defined a moment, or a decade – a vital arc of time – and remind us of a shame that’s never really shifted. They need to be retold because other people should know, have to know. I recently met a very well-respected psychiatrist for whom I’ve been editing almost eight years now – the vagaries of operating over the Internet simply meant we’d never crossed paths in all that time. I mentioned in passing that I grew up in Townsville, the second largest city in Queensland, northern Australia. He responded with a question: did I remember Ward 10B, the psychiatric wing of the Townsville General Hospital, did I know what happened there?

I did, and I also recalled a more recent echo.

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Feeding Your Mind

14 May 2008

Some of the News that’s Fit to Read

RSS Feed IconNews is what you make of it, and not all that’s written is worth reading. Much of the initial reasoning behind this blog was to capture something of the illogic in what passes for news, to question assumptions entrenched in the public domain. Of course that leaves me well open to criticism of my own position, but it’s a risk worth taking if I want to encourage others to re-think and see things again, in different ways. So I’m extending my efforts now to other voices, those saying things that aren’t often heard in precisely the same way.

I’ve always included links to other sites – some deliberately silly, others very serious, most somewhere in between – in the sidebar to offer alternatives and compliments to what I write about. They’ve now been joined by a small selection of news feeds.

If you look towards the bottom of the sidebar you’ll see three new text boxes, carrying what are usually called RSS feeds. There’s some debate about what RSS stands for – Internet development is often so rushed that no-one really pays attention to who names what, and less-than-helpful abbreviations abound. It could stand for Really Simple Syndication, or for Rich Site Summary. But it’s probably just as easy to think of yourself as reading some stuff that comes to you, rather than having to look for it every day.

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Blogging for Dissidents

13 May 2008

A Handbook and a Change of Heart

Colour my community, by carf, with Creative Commons licenceBlogging, like life, has a habit of sneaking up on you and offering something different from what you expected. I had intended to use this post to introduce a new set of microreviews in the sidebar, but circumstances led me to a change of heart. I decided to drop the negative No! No! No! review category and use the spare text box for something far more important – a link to the Handbook for Blogging and Cyber-Dissidents published by Reporters Without Borders. A copy of the handbook’s cover is there now on the right, with a brief explanation of what it’s all about.

I came by the handbook through a slightly twisted route that’s worth mentioning because it’ll feature in another post soon. Like the photographs in this post, a good few of the photos I’ve been using lately were posted on Flickr by the Children at Risk Foundation. CARF operates in Brazil and the Netherlands to defend the rights of street kids, and to help them out. Gregory Smith, the organisation’s founder, takes the stunning photos, which shift me through a range of emotions even as they move through other people’s more difficult but no less promising lives.

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Avoiding Human Rights

12 May 2008

How Less Obvious Abuse Persists

Every child has their rights, by carf, with Creative Commons licence Mention the importance of human rights and you’ll usually conjure haunting images of freedom denied, societies ruined and bodies maimed. That’s serious stuff, and surely enough to make even the most light-hearted person stop and think. But not all violations are as noticeable or straightforward. Often protection is in place for the most minor of rights, but it’s systematically challenged, eroded and finally ignored.

Following my last post on the lack of substantial rights and clearly defined obligations for foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong, I added an ‘I blog for Human Rights’ button to the sidebar at the right. My intention was to identify the rights I’m concerned about within their proper context, and not as purely local issues.

Human rights tend to attract romantic notions about grand errors in the progress of civilisation. But more specifically they’re rights that governments tend to trample on, and their recognition helps to limit state action. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes human rights as “international norms that help to protect all people everywhere from severe political, legal, and social abuses”. The key word here is ‘severe’, and the article goes on to argue against “rights inflation”, or the inclusion of less than urgent, universal problems as human rights.

Human right, by riacale, with Creative Commons licenceThe main difficulty with this definition, and one that the writer grapples with, is that situations one person considers urgent, severe or somehow reflecting a universal problem might not be the same those that trouble another person. Some abuses are obvious – torture can do no good, and neither can slavery. But what about migrant worker wage inequality and contracts that insist a domestic helper in Hong Kong must live with her employer? Are they abusive, and are they severe enough to be considered restrictions on human rights?

Yes they are, for the very simple reason that they violate internationally recognised agreements on the sort of rights that everyone should have.

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Human Rights for Tomorrow

30 April 2008

The Persistence of Discrimination

March against discriminations . . . by youkeo, with Creative Commons licenceDiscrimination isn’t always obvious, and it’s often explained away as something else. Racial discrimination becomes a matter of ‘unsuitability’, social discrimination becomes a lack of proper ‘skills’, discrimination against people with disabilities becomes an attempt to redefine what’s ‘normal’. There are even situations in which the very possibility of discrimination is rejected because ‘that sort of thing doesn’t happen here’. That’s hardly a logical position, but there’s no real defence against it.

What can you say to someone whose mindset fails to accept the presence of discrimination at all? To give an example mentioned here previously, how do we react to the Hong Kong government’s refusal to even address, in law, acts of racial discrimination outside the workplace? Long-standing claims by the Chief Executive that his government’s policies are “people-based” clearly depend on what sort of person you are – your skin colour, your wealth, whether or not you’re prepared to be critical.

But Hong Kong is just a dot on the map when it comes to the many forms of discrimination, both covert and overt, that deny human rights around the globe. A world that has nourished discrimination based on race, class, sex, perceived ability and any other deviation from a shifting sense of ‘normality’ will always throw up barriers to change, to the natural right to be treated as a fellow human, without fear or favour. Still, even as the struggle for human rights continues there is one area in which discrimination could well be stamped on before it properly takes hold – genetics.

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