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Workers push for laws on food, shelter

07 September 2017

Leaders of Asian Migrants Coordinating Body press for their demands at a recent protest in Central.

By Vir B. Lumicao

Asian domestic workers met with Labour Department policymakers on Aug 25 to propose a $5,500 minimum wage, regulation of food provision and accommodation, and a halt to the practice of employers forcing their maids to work in China.

But the Labour officials only lent them an ear and made no firm commitments, a migrant leader said.

Eni Lestari of the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body said the meeting at the Labour Department offices at Harbour Building was not a standard discussion but the officials “just listened to us” without offering anything substantial to workers.

She said she was not happy with what she described as “a not so open dialogue, because it doesn’t include many of our fellow domestic workers who cannot join (us).”

The workers demanded a $5,500 minimum wage, but the officials replied they could not commit that much because they had been granting increases in past years.

Lestari said the workers reminded the officials that for the past 18 years, the wage hike was only $450 in total because their salaries in 1998, already at $3,860, had risen to just $4,300 in 2017—a $23 per year increase.

On the accommodation issue, she said Labour was asked to ban certain areas of the flat, such as the kitchen, cupboard, toilet, floor, rooftop, clothes-drying area, laundry area, pet room and other very inhuman places sleeping areas for the workers.

They also asked Labour officials to allow a worker to find a new employer if she is forced to sleep on any of the areas mentioned. She said food and accommodation is the topmost complaint, but these are not considered violations of the contract.

The group also raised the issue of employers taking their maids to China to work in relatives’ houses there, but the Labour officials told them to report to the Immigration Department.

Lestari said the officials were told the number of helpers being forced to work in China is growing, and two have already died there – a Filipina who fell to her death three weeks ago and an Indonesian who was electrocuted while doing housework two weeks ago.  

“We came up with accommodation and food. Practically, in terms of accommodation and food, we want them to regulate, we need them to regulate,” Lestari said.

She said the group asked for a food allowance of $2,500 but if the employers reject it, the Labour Department should regulate and specify the food that bosses provide the workers. Lestari explained that in this arrangement, workers can tell their employers what kind of food the latter should provide under the law. But, she said, the food allowance would be a “more negotiable option”.

But she said the Labour officials could not commit anything, but that they would educate the employers about their obligations to the workers, and to treat their workers well.

Fifteen leaders of workers’ and employers groups and NGOs were invited to the meeting, but only five including Lestari could attend because most were at work.

Others present were Cynthia Abdon-Tellez, general manager of the Mission for Migrant Workers; Edwina Antonio, executive director of Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge; and Dolores Balladares, chair of United Filipinos in Hong Kong.

Representing the department in the closed-door meeting were members of Labour’s policymaking body led by Assistant Commissioners Queenie Wong and Rebecca Chan.

The Labour Department said in an emailed reply to The SUN that the meeting was part of its regular consultations on the review of the MAW and food allowance.

The Department reiterated that in reviewing the MAW, the government “takes into account Hong Kong’s general economic and employment situation”.

It added that it hopes to announce the result of its consultations with FDHs and employers (and as a consequence, the new MAW) “as soon as possible”.

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