Vicky Flores Inquest Finding

20 November 2008

Death by Suicide

Cemetery, by Comrade_S, with Creative Commons licence The jury has given its finding at Vicky Flores’ inquest here in Hong Kong. After accepting directions from the Coroner to weigh the overall evidence and consider the reliability of the witness whose evidence I called into question in my last post, in a 4-1 majority decision they found that Vicky committed suicide. This is obviously a blow to her family, who now cannot draw from an insurance payout to cover the costs of Vicky’s funeral. It also leaves the suspicion that the jury failed to understand a wide range of Filipino cultural references, which were not explained in court.

The Coroner did direct the jury to ignore any evidence they found insubstantial, but the standard rules of hearsay clearly do not apply to jury findings in an inquest. Still, and this is a very important point to remember, the group I’ve worked with since April to push the process this far succeeded in having natural, otherwise known as procedural, justice delivered.

Now we’re at the end of the line, which has always been the major goal. Despite the jury’s finding, evidence has been very hard to come by in this case and no revelations were expected at the inquest. We expected either an open finding, meaning that the evidence could not support a substantial decision, or a finding of suicide.

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Beth’s Story

26 September 2008

Tribute to a Woman of Character

Good fortune comes in strange packages. I wrote Beth’s story earlier this week for the October newsletter of the Mission for Migrant Workers here in Hong Kong, trying to squeeze a great deal of detail into a small space, searching for the essence of what she has endured. Beth is a Filipino domestic helper who came to stay with my family and I after her employer’s fiancé abused and fired her. In trying to tell her story I came to realise that she not only had a hell of a heart hidden within a very shy and often withdrawn personality, but that she had given us a friendship to treasure.

Read on . . .

When Beth arrived in Hong Kong the situation seemed promising. Her employer lived with his fiancé in Discovery Bay, a tidy, quiet and often friendly district on Lantau island. But on the first night she had to sleep on the couch because the separate room mentioned in her domestic helper contract was a lie. And when her employer left for Singapore two days later her life descended into misery.

With the employer out of sight, his fiancé proceeded to assault Beth. The slightest mistake in any aspect of housework brought swift retribution, first in foul language and then in beatings on the arm. One day she was hit in the face with a book. Desperately worried about her own safety and how she would support her three-year-old daughter in the Philippines if she fled, Beth fell into confusion, made worse by constant hunger because she was only allowed one meal a day.

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Certifying the Curmudgeon

23 September 2008

Or, You Can’t Always Frame the Feeling

Certificates are a lot like currency – their value ebbs gently through the years until they’re little more than paper, slightly spotted and out of date. The inflation of our expectations drags us away from the places, moments and feelings that once meant a great deal, leaving a residue of pride or satisfaction half remembered. In 40 years I’ve collected a few certificates, for Australian rules football, running, school, university, even interior decoration. They’re the detritus of life, jammed into mainly forgotten places, carried across continents because they mark stages of my life so I only have to remember those days when I discover that tattered piece of paper in a box behind the bookcase, almost out of sight.

I do keep two in frames – my honours degree and PhD testamurs – because I still value the effort and dedication with which I gained them. In a way they define me more than all the previous certificates because I worked towards them, I spent almost 9 years of my life edging ever closer to holding them in my hand. Through sickness, health, delight and disappointment I made it. But I didn’t bother attending the graduation ceremonies because the achievement was internal, something I couldn’t share. Perhaps that’s why the frames are now receding beyond the clutter behind me as I type.

It’s hard to stay focused on yourself for too long.

I arrived in Hong Kong a few months ahead of my PhD testamur, single and somewhat singular. But things have changed as time has passed. I’m married to a woman at once honourable and mischievous, feisty and calm. I have two small kids and a step daughter now. They came with certificates too – well, all but my step daughter. In any case, I love them all fiercely and through them I’ve learned the value of helping others, the importance of change in an unjust world, the significance of rights defended each day, every hour. The world is a bigger place.

But I only realised the most telling change two days ago. On Saturday we spent time amongst friends; some we’ve known for years, others for months, a few for hours. The gathering had a purpose, to raise funds for Bethune House, a shelter for abused domestic helpers over on Kowloon side, here in Hong Kong. I’ve written about some of these women before – the beaten and repressed, those stolen from and stabbed, abused and raped. They’re the dust of life, or they would be if they just settled, stopped agitating.

The day culminated in a charity auction preceded by a few formalities. A speech or two, some cultural presentations, a break for snacks. So it goes when people gather according to schedule – the prelude to the main event settles them down, prepares them for the action. Suitably prepared I was listening to a string of names called out, waiting for people to receive certificates acknowledging their efforts in making the day possible, and in allowing Bethune House to continue giving shelter when few other people care.

I was also thinking about my wife, crouched down on the floor in the dark two days after our wedding, crying because she had to be back at work in another, richer district by 6:00 am, would have to work until midnight or more, would have to endure three more months of domestic servitude and the aches and pains and demands. The perversity of it all is that she was lucky; her daily struggles against unreason inflicted no physical pain, no mental abuse.

And then I heard her name.

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Back to Bethune

12 September 2008

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.

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Kowloon by Night

26 August 2008

The Dark Side of Migrant Labour in Hong Kong

Evening falls on Kowloon like a mood, gently at first and then with a sting that drains the day. Nathan Road swallows traffic by the mile and spits back noise and fumes as pedestrians push up against each other on the bulging sidewalk. Neon signs hang from buildings like over-ripened fruit, hawking seafood and spirits, Chinese medicine and the melancholy of girlie bars where light never dares to go.

This part of Hong Kong the British barely even owned; they just left their little marks as time moved them on. Step around the corner onto Jordan Road and the crowd drifts away. Look beyond the high-rise shadows and there – look now, or you might just miss it – is one of those reminders that past days are gone. An old house, a church, perhaps a school, the shape suggests authority once remembered. The Romans offered the miracle of concrete to the Mediterranean world; the British multiplied it rudely in the sweated tropics.

The house has a name now – Bethune – and it stands as a monument to social change in the empire’s dying days, when Hong Kong’s wealth, or the fear of loosing it, swelled the ranks of foreign amahs as the local middle classes sent their wives to work for ten, twelve, maybe fourteen hours a day. In the intimacy of private homes commercial contracts tear and fray, and as amahs became maids and then domestic helpers – as Filipinos were joined by Indonesians and many more besides – the unreasoned contrast between employee expectations and employer arrogance spilled out onto the streets.

Bethune House is a migrant women’s shelter, a refuge for domestic helpers who have been unduly dismissed by their employers. Some have been abused – physically, mentally, sexually – and others exploited, underpaid, overworked, stripped of rights. All remain in Hong Kong because they’re pursuing justice through the semi-formal Labour Tribunal or the daunting courts, if their cases ever go to trial. Their employers have new maids now, new victims, but these women are forbidden to work again until they’ve finished with their recourse to the law. If they leave Hong Kong their chance of restitution evaporates.

Walk with me now into the building, retrace the steps I took last night with my wife, daughter and friends. Trudge up the long flight of stairs to the second floor. Pass the suitcases jammed in where handrails should be, the women standing, waiting, expectant. Impermanence leaks into everything, but one woman has been here two years now with no real end in sight. The scene is much like the overcrowded transit lounge of a rundown bus interchange, but the Greyhound might never come.

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Slowly Turn the Wheels of Justice

14 August 2008

Police Report Issued on Vicky Flores Death

Almost four months after Vicenta ‘Vicky’ Flores – a Filipino domestic helper in Discovery Bay, Hong Kong – fled her employers’ home and drowned under mysterious circumstances, the regional police have finalised their investigation. Today’s print edition of the South China Morning Post reports that the North Lantau police issued a report on the case “this week”, without specifying a day or any other details.

Vicky’s disappearance and death have been a very serious issue here in Discovery Bay, not only because the loss of life is tragic and the community has been diminished by her passing, but also because the government reaction to it has revealed a distinct lack of enthusiasm in dealing with people from other cultures, and an inability to communicate meaningfully with minority ethnic communities.

Following standard procedure, the police report has been forwarded to the Coroner, who will consider whether an inquest is necessary. Given that the police refused to investigate the circumstances of Vicky’s employment and focused on ludicrous insinuations of “cult-like” connections, a re-investigation of the situation through the Coroner’s Court will be most welcome.

Around a month ago the Justice for Vicky Flores concern group, of which I’m a member, received independent advice that an inquest would be likely due to the publicity and genuine concern surrounding the case. This was complemented more recently by an indication from the Lantau District Police Commander that “a death inquest is very likely to be held”. Of course, that in no way guarantees an inquest, which will bring much needed transparency to the case in an open court, but it’s promising given the latest news.

Dealing with the police in Hong Kong isn’t an easy task, despite a wealth of propaganda that suggests a mission to serve and protect. For the sake of Vicky’s family – especially her sister Irene, who has struggled through a mountain of difficulty both here in Hong Kong and at home in the Philippines to make sense of the situation – any news of the police finding and a prompt indication of an inquest date will be vital.

In a humane society, people care for people, even foreigners.

Meanwhile, Back in Hong Kong . . .

12 August 2008

‘Care’ in a Callous City

One of the fundamental comforts any modern society can offer is the knowledge that emergency medical care will be available when you need it. Although few would ever have cause to consider it in precisely this way, the emergency room is a metaphor for effective governance, a symbol of the social contract at work. Those countries that lack emergency care, and those in which only begging or bribery will obtain it, are clearly deficient in their duty of care towards residents. As are those that discriminate against certain people when they arrive at a hospital, in need and in pain.

“RosesmdCW” is one of those people, a Filipino working as a domestic helper in Hong Kong. Last week she left a comment on the other blog I maintain, A Death in Hong Kong, describing the treatment that she and her sister have experienced in a local emergency room. It pays to remember that Hong Kong is not part of the Third World, has every obligation to offer proper emergency care to all people within its borders, and has an otherwise efficient (if sometimes overwhelmed) hospital system.

I’ll quote her comment here at length, slightly edited to ensure clarity and broken into paragraphs to highlight the main points:

I have been here in Hong Kong for almost 14 years now, and it makes me sad to say that most of us believe that the “LAW” here in Hong Kong is much better than in the Philippines, but yes I do agree that the discrimination here is much worse than I had ever imagined. If you are only a mere servant, even in cases of emergency, people here will just ignore you.

I have experienced going to the emergency section of the government hospital several times with a severe stiff neck pain, and still the staff haven’t attended to me immediately (you have to wait 2 to 3 hours before being attended).

I took my sister to one of the hospitals yesterday as she was bleeding, but she was still sent home and advised by the doctor to wait for an appointment on November 21, 2008. My question here is: What does “emergency” mean? Does emergency mean that you should be drawing your last breath to be considered?

I really can’t understand the hospital rules here … I saw people waiting at the emergency section with just slight problems. To make matters worse for my sister, she was immediately terminated by her employers when they knew she was going to attend Emergency! They had objected to her going to see the doctor and made her continue work even though she was in pain and bleeding.

I wish the government would really act on this, and not wait until the reputation of Hong Kong deteriorates further.

Beyond how the two women were treated at the hospital lies a truly disturbing reaction from the sister’s employer. I’ve communicated with “RosesmdCW” before and have no doubt that what she has written is an accurate description of events. If there is a social contract in Hong Kong, if social decency is at all valued, then neither consideration extends to domestic helpers.

When Justice is (Almost) Done

4 August 2008

Or, How Did You Spend Your Sunday?

Sometimes the least words are the most welcome. So I’ll very quickly report that a crime investigation is now under way into the callous, wanton abuse of the domestic helper I mentioned a few days ago. The victim spent 10 hours giving a statement to the police yesterday, which should indicate that this is no trivial matter. Her case will proceed through at least one court and one tribunal here in Hong Kong, and I’ll write about the results when I can do so without legal ramifications. For now I should just mention again that domestic violence in all its forms, whether tinged with racism, presumptions of social superiority or marital dysfunction, is appalling.

Wake up people, the home is a refuge.

Double Standards

31 July 2008

More on Maid Mistreatment in Hong Kong

A journalist once told me that letters to the editor are the last refuge of the anally retentive, a view I’m often happy to agree with despite my reservations about the suitability of any journalistic advice. But today I read the print edition of the South China Morning Post here in Hong Kong and decided that silence changes nothing. Adorning the front page was an article encouraging the employers of lowly paid domestic helpers to cancel their contracts and rehire them to take advantage of the suspension of an employer-paid levy I mentioned recently.

The absolute irresponsibility of that article and other coverage in the issue should be clear from the letter I wrote to the editor a few hours ago.

Dear Editor,

I am appalled at the tone of your publication’s irresponsible lead article on 31 July (‘4 years off maid levy for some’). Suggesting that employers of foreign domestic helpers can “get the most” out of the levy suspension by breaching a set-term contract, which will force a period of unemployment on their employees, is the epitome of callousness. Leaving aside the fact that any such actions would not be “terminations” as reported (a contract is terminated due to wrong doing, not fiscal expediency), the chances of many employers even bothering to secure agreement from their helpers is small, given that the Immigration Department does not require them to fill out the reasons section of the form they submit when a contract is prematurely ended. This fact alone makes nonsense of the Secretary for Labour and Welfare’s claim that helpers should not fear being sacked because of the new arrangements. What will constrain irresponsible employers?

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Of Culture and Callousness

27 June 2008

An Important Account of Domestic Helpers in Hong Kong

la mà de Cromos, by isburlas, with Creative Commons licenceSpeak of culture and others will immediately imagine depth, profundity, an underlying explanation of the way things are. But culture is a notoriously slippery term, often promising more than it delivers. It literally means ‘to grow’, whence comes ‘cultivated’, which we tend to associate with being civilised. That’s hardly a guide to living. But as Clifford Geertz so persuasively argued in his Interpretation of Cultures, the term more properly denotes the way in which meaning is transmitted symbolically through human communication – we speak and act our cultures rather than experience them dumbly. And we do so across time, with cultural change at the epicentre of our lives. So when someone works for 10 years on a doctoral dissertation entitled ‘Culture of Indifference’ and describes the trials and abuse of Filipina domestic helpers in Hong Kong, it’s more than worth listening to the new, counter-cultural voice.

Estelle Kennelly’s ‘Culture of Indifference: Dilemmas of the Filipina Domestic Helpers in Hong Kong’ is available free for download through a Creative Commons licence. Kennelly completed the dissertation in 2007 while a graduate student of social anthropology at St Andrew’s University in Scotland, having conducted extensive fieldwork in Hong Kong from mid-1999 to early 2001, including at migrant women’s shelters. Released online this week, her findings shout what others only whisper – that engrained into Hong Kong society, at the individual, social and judicial levels, is a culture of indifference towards foreign domestic helpers that fosters abuse.

Indifference, by Tahoe Sunsets, with Creative Commons licenceThat abuse – and there is no other word for it – ranges from exploitation through extraordinarily long working hours to verbal, physical and sexual violence, drawing in underpayment, deliberate isolation and the deprivation of freedom. But the situation remains an elephant in the room of Hong Kong life seven years after Kennelly completed her fieldwork because a climate of fear suppresses the capacity of helpers to adequately defend themselves.

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They Can Have My Support . . .

18 June 2008

But I’m Keeping My Mind

The Passage of Time, by ToniVC, with Creative Commons licenceTime plays terrible tricks on rhetoric. A statement that might once have seemed self-evident or deeply insightful can, with passing years and changing circumstances, become stale, then dated and eventually ludicrous. The slogans of the seventies and the formulas of the fifties don’t always work in the here and now. They retreat from understanding, with social cues and passing references no longer able to carry the intended meaning. But they persist in a kind of Twilight Zone, uttered by those who want change yet don’t really know how to achieve it, or are relatively powerless to do so in one way or another.

If you think the rhetoric of revolution is dead in the developed world, you’ll need to think again. It’s alive, though barely, in some migrant worker organisations, and it surfaced here in Hong Kong recently.

Attending the opening session of an international migrant worker conference on the weekend I was in turn bewildered, amused, annoyed and finally, almost inevitably in hindsight, stunned by a barrage of rhetoric that I thought no longer had a place in political discourse. Raised voices, thumping on the lectern, fingers stabbing at the air, all these things shouted indignity at the capitalist world system, the ‘imperialist’ agenda of multinational business, the sins of the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the relentless ‘toil’ of comrades in struggle.

Now, regular readers of this blog will know that I’m very much supportive of migrant worker groups, and write often about the virtual commodification of domestic helpers here in Hong Kong. An image that will never leave me is my wife, crouched on the floor at 4 o’clock the Monday morning after we married, crying because she had to be back at work in an hour. That, and worse, is the constant outlook for the domestic helper in Hong Kong – few escape it and most are items to be used, and discarded when no longer needed.

A Night out at the Opera..., by CARF, with Creative Commons licenceSuch is the exploitation inherent in the wage differentials between developed areas and those like my wife’s native Philippines, which is in the chronic grip of underdevelopment, mismanagement and the sheer avarice of massive corruption. When you move from the glare of poverty to the shadow of wealth your situation obviously improves, but we should never under-estimate the capacity of employers to sense vulnerability and exploit it.

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From Another Perspective

25 May 2008

The Benefit of Bifocal Thought

Exploring an Idea, by JJay, with reative Commons licenceIdeas are never stagnant – they move, they change, they make way for other, better, more enduring ideas. In every mode of thought, circumstance dictates just what remains useful and the extent to which inquisition should eventually reach. But we never think without a framework; we’re always bound by a directive, a whispered voice of reason, in one way or another. Writing in The Scientist recently, Steven Wiley pointed out the inherent flaw in presuming that research can be conducted without a theoretical base, that the information ‘out-there’ can somehow speak for itself. Hypotheses, he argued – whether explicit or not – provide a “level of simplification” at which meaning can be usefully extracted from data.

We need similar guides to the broad sweep of thought, directions in which to look for everyday answers in an ever-puzzling world. I wrote recently about the flexibility of ideology, how it remains as a sort of uber-hypothesis when circumstances change. Marxism dies, you might say, but the quest for social justice remains. But now I want to ask a more pointed question, given the passing of doctrines, given just how fast lives can reconfigure themselves without much effort from those concerned (think of a death in the family, or the community, and its repercussions). How can we know that our way of thinking is sufficiently developed, appropriately fine-tuned, to help others?

As with many of the questions I’ve been asking here recently, I only have a partial, tentative answer. It springs from my struggle to balance Greetings Earthlings! as a blog of sometimes wayward ideas through which I’ve mixed a heavy element of activism and A Death in Hong Kong, a blog of activism in which ideas are very carefully administered. This blog is my own, I can write what I like; the other belongs to a group, on behalf of which I write. Quite often the content is similar or the same – most of my recent writing has been a reaction, in one way or another, to Vicky Flores’ death here in Hong Kong.

Empathy, by Irina Souiki, with Creative Commons licenceYou could point to that preoccupation as my guide, the thesis to which I’ve been writing on both blogs, the hypothesis for more developed thought. But a greater concern, a more specific concern, has been to see things from a different perspective.

To explain, allow me a short detour. A recent edition of the Economist provided an interesting overview of a study conducted in America that sought to show how a “win-win” situation could best be obtained from a two-party negotiation. Now, negotiations aren’t terribly renowned for providing happy endings – one party more often dominates, and benefits. But Adam Galinsky presumed that if both parties were to benefit, a slight change of analytical direction was necessary. Instead of considering empathy and the ability to take another person’s perspective as one and the same thing, Galinsky separated them.

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