No Offence, No Defence

14 January 2009

Further Observations on a False Accusation

289/365 banging my head against a wall, by obo-bobolina, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)What happens when justice is done but punishment is impossible? Unlike cases in which no verdict is likely or the jury finding is improbable, when a person is accused of a crime and then cleared of any wrongdoing, there is – more often than not – something of a villain lurking somewhere just out of sight. Police investigations are often dropped for lack of sufficiently relevant evidence, but when there is no evidence of any sort to consider, and seemingly never was, who censures the accuser?

I recently wrote about a domestic helper here in Hong Kong’s mild-mannered Discovery Bay who was accused of sexual assault against a boy just under 3 years of age. This might have been a community horror story had not the employer suspiciously retracted the complaint and asked the woman back to work. That’s not the sort of thing you do if a complaint is even remotely true. But the worst aspect of this little saga wasn’t anything to do with the little boy or his capricious father. No, it was the disturbing fact that the complaint was withdrawn only 2 days after it was made, and in the meanwhile the accused woman had been incarcerated.

Locked up. In detention. Deprived of her freedom.

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Moving On

22 November 2008

What Comes After the Jury Finding

Run . . . by Face it, with Creative Commons licenceOne of the more difficult, but sometimes comforting, aspects of being involved in a cause is that there’s always a new case to pursue, another direction in which to channel energy. I met with fellow members of the Justice for Vicky Flores concern group last night and we decided to move on after the jury finding that put her death down to suicide. None of us could possibly draw the same conclusion given the evidence available, but we accept that the finding brings us to the end of our campaign to ensure that justice was done for the woman and her family. Procedural justice will just have to be enough this time around.

But even as we spoke of how we felt, how we failed and how we succeeded, we were aware that other people need our help as well. Some things we can’t change, but some we can. Tomorrow we’ll sort through the Labour Tribunal case of a domestic helper who was used as free labour for a month, sacked and then shifted over to the apartment of the owner of the employment agency through which she was recruited for ‘extra training’ – a clear breach of contract, amongst a few others. It just so happens that the owner of the employment agency is the sister-in-law of the employer, who has filed a counterclaim with the Labour Tribunal. Pure maliciousness is an epidemic amongst employers of foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong.

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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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Success, of Sorts

20 October 2008

A Change of Status in the Vicky Flores Case

Sometimes success can bring a little melancholy, a pause to recall what else could have happened when everything you’ve done has really been in defence of something second best. Just over six months ago Vicky Flores disappeared from Discovery Bay here on Lantau island in Hong Kong. Her body washed up near a ferry pier on the other side of the island a few days later. From the outset it seemed that the police were not culturally competent enough to investigate the case, and were lacking in enthusiasm under any circumstance. A week passed before they bothered to interview neighbours. The death of a Filipino domestic helper in Hong Kong is not always a cause of urgent concern.

In the intermission, as the Justice for Vicky concern group has asked, agitated, accused, coordinated and waited, our primary aim has been to achieve just what the title suggests – Justice, in whatever form it may come. The police seem to have passed an open finding to the Coroner’s Court, which is hardly satisfactory but far superior to their earlier inclination towards suicide with some sort of fanciful ‘occult’ involvement.

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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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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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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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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.

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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1 June 2008

A Brief Interruption

083/365 - Ahead and Up, by Just.K, with Creative Commons licenceIn a recent post on the limitations of traditional news I mentioned the importance of looking past events, of understanding happenings as a sort of ill-defined continuum. The point should always be to ask what happened next, and what should happen now. That entails speculation, of course, and ways of anticipating the future, to the extent possible. It’s also a fundamentally activist position, moving past the passive reception of news, actively seeking evidence of change where none seems apparent. So with that in mind I’m putting my short series on mental health and human rights on hold for while to offer an example of what news might look like, after the event.

Frequent readers of this blog will know that I’ve recently been involved in a difficult campaign to have the Hong Kong police thoroughly investigate the disappearance and death of Vicky Flores, a Filipino domestic helper who lived and worked in my community of Discovery Bay. It seems increasingly likely that they’re taking the easy route to an explanation, which the major English language newspaper foreshadowed in an article claiming that Vicky had “occult-links“. In many ways, the group to which I belong – the Justice for Vicky Flores Concern Group – is powerless to change that insinuation, but we have been fortunate in raising the profile of migrant worker rights in a small part of Hong Kong.

A week or so back Joan Gill, a writer for the community magazine Inside DB called me to ask questions for a feature article on Vicky and what has been happening in response to her death. She also spoke to Edwina Antonio, another member of the group and a tireless helper of migrant workers in Hong Kong. Joan wanted to know more about the situation as it stood, and what we wanted to do in the future, what we needed to do in the future. I was very pleased to offer my thoughts, and hopeful that the article would highlight the difficulties faced by women who earn less here in a month than what many people spend on lunch over the same period.

The result was astounding, and a perfect example of what the media, even the community media, can do if it wants to look past events. The following is a modified version of a post on the article I published earlier on A Death in Hong Kong.

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Farewell Vicenta Flores

19 May 2008

A New Journey has Begun

Life is so very often a difficult path to travel; the ground underfoot is rarely steady, the scenery can be unfamiliar and we constantly leave behind many unanswered questions. Last night I published a slightly different version of the following post on A Death in Hong Kong to mark the start of Vicenta Flores’ final journey to her native Philippines. Vicenta – a Filipino domestic helper in my community of Discovery Bay, Hong Kong – disappeared under mysterious circumstances on 7 April, and her body was found only four days later.

Goodbye and God Bless

As the service beganFamily, friends, supporters and Discovery Bay residents gathered today, 18 May, to pay their final respects to Vicky Flores before the repatriation of her remains to the Philippines. In a service held at the Universal Funeral Parlour in Hung Hom, Kowloon, prayers were offered, eulogies were given and tears flowed in mourning for a woman who spent too little time on this Earth.

United in their grief, the group – like many others in Hong Kong – were still asking questions about Vicky’s disappearance and death, questions the local authorities have yet to answer, or even indicate they are fully capable of answering.

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