And a Week Went By

2 March 2009

Farewell to a Brave Friend

Vanishing, by alicepopkorn, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution 2.0 Generic)Time has stretched and bent in the Poole household recently, pushing events out of sequence and priorities in new directions. Of course, these are just perceptions, but they affect us though clocks had truly run awry. Our friend Y, who lives with us, is returning to Indonesia tomorrow after seven months that no person on this earth should be forced to endure. A domestic helper here in Hong Kong, she was beaten severely by the wife of her employer, treated with contempt by the police and dismissed as unreliable by the Department of Justice. In the last seven days she’s had to relive that in an attempt to gain recompense through the Labour Tribunal. We’ve all been living with one eye on the past, stepping cautiously through the days.

Y now has a little money, dragged out of her employer only because he forced her to work two years without a single day of rest. But justice and a sense of resolution? Well, that’s not quite possible. Y returned to the police station two days ago to retrieve money held as evidence – money, I should add, that had been ‘confiscated’ by the woman who beat her. The police would only grant the release if Y rescinded part of her original statement, and it takes no genius to imagine the legal consequence of a statement that has suddenly become a false allegation.

Nice trick boys.

Over seven months we’ve seen this woman suffer simply for doing her job, and then for standing firm and shouting NO MORE! The flight home should have been something of a release. But when she leaves tomorrow she’ll be carrying two suitcases of clothes and a whole plane-load of disdain. That’s a greater burden than anyone should bear.

A Small Measure of Justice

1 December 2008

One Case Resolved, on the Face of it

The gavel, by &y, with Creative Commons licenceJustice 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’.

DOING THE DISHES, by spike55151, with Creative Commons licenceThe 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.

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The Colours of Justice

19 November 2008

Observations at an Inquest*

Gavel, by noyava, with Creative Commons licenceBrown and beige are the colour scheme of bureaucracy. They combine to imply formality, procedure – the dull grind of life. Within them lies a nostalgia for fashion since past, a hint of the 1970s almost 40 years on, a sort of resistance to trends, to things of the moment. Bureaucracy resists change, remains outside the flow of happenstance, because it directs the momentum of society, modulates what is acceptable, determines the limits of permissibility. The Coroner’s Court in Hong Kong is brown and beige, with a touch of olive to induce a sense of refrain – nothing too bright, too noticeable, too complicated will happen here. All is sombre. It’s a place where people often cry, because death is a burden for the living.

An inquest is a difficult time – it revives the life of a person past, disgorges detail best left at peace. But the necessity of finding a reason for a previously unexplained death dictates witnesses, questions, counter-questions, a solemn jury, a stern Justice and associated personnel. It has a colour of its own, a sort of grey, a mood that pervades each step of the process. Old friends speak in fits and starts, new friends speculate, lawyers direct recollections toward possible evidence of suicide or its lack; all done subtlety, moving around the subject as though it wasn’t quite there.

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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 »

At the Edge of Reason

16 October 2008

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.

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Policed to Meet You

8 October 2008

Ignorance of the Law on the Hong Kong Beat

Allow me to begin with a hypothetical. Imagine a world in which police work was based on presumption rather than defence of the law. At times there might be sufficient coincidence of those two positions – should an offence be committed against you, now and then you might be protected under what could pass as fortification of the public good. But at others, many others, the good constable you meet could well presume that you are breaking the law, even when you’ve been the victim of harm. And because you could never judge which side of the presumption you might land on there is a very good chance you would be cowed into inaction, silence, sufferance.

When a state encourages police to act in this way the presumption tends to be increasingly arbitrary. We have a name for that – totalitarianism. But when it’s simply the case of officers on the beat being unaware of specific provisions under the law, and of particular policy directions laid down by the government, we should have a different name – wilful stupidity. Such is the state of Hong Kong’s street beat, wherein police officers have no idea they are trying to protect the illegal activities of employment agencies.

Now these are not just any employment agencies – that would make the situation far too obvious. They’re agencies that recruit foreign domestic helpers and bring them to Hong Kong. Anecdotal evidence, and quite a few documented cases, suggests that most of these agencies charge placement fees well over the legal limit, often involving large loans through allied companies in the Philippines, Nepal, India or Indonesia. That, in itself, is never investigated, but is not the point this time around.

What is particularly important, and what the police seem ignorant of, is that these agencies have a tendency to work as extensions of employer flippancy, often offering a sort of refund system under which an employer can chose up to three helpers through them if they’re not satisfied with the first. So far nothing illegal, but consider the women involved and the frequency of arbitrary dismissal and the word ‘unethical’ springs to mind. What is illegal is what happens to the women once they’re sacked.

Many employment agencies work like enforcers, collecting the dismissed helpers, making them stay at a particular boarding house for a fee, holding their passports and possibly – but not always – finding them a new employer. If no new employer can be found the women are driven to the airport, given their tickets for the next flight home and told to leave. Most of the helpers endure this through desperation and in the hope they might yet find a suitable employer. Many don’t.

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Credibility on Trial

2 October 2008

Untoward Words at Law

Manslaughter trials are intricate, terrible things, charged with emotion and ruled by the unrelenting logic of the law. The precision with which probative evidence is accepted or rejected can determine not only the verdict but also the possibility of being granted leave to appeal that verdict and the sentence imposed. Everything hinges on credibility – in the eyes of the law and in the minds of the jury. But less informative evidence, what you might call the background of each case, is scrutinised less thoroughly.

In determining the mental state of a manslaughter suspect, psychiatrist or psychologist reports are generally used to buttress more substantial evidence in one way or another. They’re not necessarily subjected to the rigours of cross examination, at least in their entirety. But what if there’s something wrong with one of those reports? Not overwhelmingly wrong, just somewhat untoward?

Consider the case of Chan Ka Fai, who killed his mother in Hong Kong earlier this year. At trial he pleaded not guilty to murder but guilty to manslaughter on the ground of diminished responsibility. Following the offence he had tried to kill himself, and when finally judged fit to explain his actions various psychiatric reports and a psychologist’s report indicated that he was suffering from avoidant personality disorder. He was duly found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years in prison.

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Who’s Responsible?

18 September 2008

Thoughts on a Local Hero

Responsibility and conformity are far too often confused. We tend to think of the responsible person as the one who smooths over trouble, avoids unnecessary repercussions and – by and large – supports the status quo. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Responsibility is about understanding the scope of a situation and acting in such a way that a defined set of beneficiaries – regardless of how small or large – do in fact benefit, or at the very worst don’t suffer unduly. Whether the status quo is maintained or mauled is well and truly beside the point.

What’s necessary is a clear understanding of the people to whom you are responsible, what they want and need, and what you can deliver them, in all likelihood. Nothing of this suggests that a responsible person should avoid change or risk. But still we imagine that a responsible father or a responsible citizen should never dream of struggling against authority. And we are so very wrong. It is well within my capacity as a responsible father to act against a government, thereby ensuring, or helping to ensure, that my children need not endure racism or other forms of discrimination, to ensure that they gain the full benefit of the law as it applies to them in its many forms.

But what about the responsible citizen? I would wager no small amount that civic instruction never encourages resistance to state power, never understands the necessity of questioning how that power is channelled towards the populace. The good citizen is the compliant citizen, the complacent citizen. Or so it would seem. But there is another model, the citizen activist, although it wouldn’t be difficult to brush aside many such people as ineffectual. You know, the always protesting type, the politicised refusenik. Still, there is one responsible person who can make a difference, who is always looking to a future of change  – but first allow me to set the scene.

In Hong Kong conformance means short hair and a career structure, a suit and a fist full of business cards. But that doesn’t mean that everyone toes the line. Jeans, t-shirts and deliberately bad haircuts are common, and despite what the stereotype might convey, not many people are really interested in careers. They’re just interested in getting by. One of the city’s true charms is that non-conformance is very much possible, in public life as in private.

Still, Hong Kong is perpetually trying to adjust to one of the least conformist though most responsible activists in its midst. On many levels Leung Kwok-hung is a typically disruptive anarchist – a self-confessed Trotskyite who has been at the throat of authority since the Maoist riots against the British in the late 1960s. In his first term as a Legislative Council member he continually disrupted proceedings, entirely failed to comply with the dress code (his somewhat cringe-worthy trademark is a Che Guevara t-shirt) and spent significant amounts of time either under arrest or in court for various protests. His nickname is Long Hair, and although it’s an accurate description – he refuses to cut it until the mainland government apologises for the Tiananmen Square massacre – it’s not difficult to detect the opprobrium therein

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On Race and Rationality

21 August 2008

A New Take on Race from Hong Kong

Look past the bias of the times, the certainties of this epoch or that, and race becomes a messy, various concept. At any given moment – and quite aside from the scientific definition of a single human race – it can define people of different types in any number of categories, depending on perspective. There was for many years, and perhaps still is, the perception of a British race, born of the concept that empire and a core of supra-national boundaries in the so-called British Isles could fuse biology and location to produce an identifiable people with certain physical and psychological characteristics. More often today, British people are subsumed under the generic appellation of Caucasian, and at a stretch – most often in the United States – as White. Regardless of how ludicrously broad these categories might or might not seem from your perspective, they are constructed according to a reason. Each has a nub of logic at its centre, from a certain point of view.

To claim that context is crucial in defining race might well seem equivocal, but it’s an observation rather than a moral judgement. It also helps to reveal the reasoning behind otherwise inexplicable definitions and their derivatives. Consider, for instance, this passage from Section 8(4) of Hong Kong’s soon to be enacted Racial Discrimination Ordinance:

The fact that a racial group comprises 2 or more distinct racial groups does not prevent it from constituting a particular racial group for the purposes of this Ordinance.

First, let’s consider what might make immediate sense here, given the context. Any legislation seeking to address racial discrimination, if not ban it outright, must first determine what ‘race’ really means before identifying how it can be used to disadvantage anyone. So the second half of this sentence, on constituting a ‘particular racial group’, is just a way of ensuring that the Ordinance does what it’s supposed to do.

But what about the seemingly nonsensical first part of the sentence? How on Earth, or even in Hong Kong, can one racial group comprise either multiple or distinct racial groups, let alone the two together? Surely that’s just gibberish. If, as the legal norm in common-law countries insists, the words of the Ordinance should be applied in their “natural and ordinary sense”, then good luck to any magistrate doomed to apply it. Right? Well, no – it just so happens that the words do make sense, in their own peculiar way.

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