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‘We are not slaves’

08 September 2018

By Daisy Catherine L. Mandap

This is something that Hong Kong, being the world-class city that it claims to be, will never admit: that many migrant workers are being treated like virtual slaves here.

For just over $4,000 a month, foreign domestic workers are expected to work for as long as their employers want them to, and that means 12 hours on average daily. Some, as several studies have shown, actually work for 16 hours straight, leaving them with just eight hours to attend to personal needs, and sleep.

For most, this also involves long hours of backbreaking work – non-stop cleaning, marketing and cooking, taking young wards to and from school, washing and ironing clothes, and just about anything that the employer could fit in a day.

The expectation, fueled in large part by the government’s mandatory live-in policy, is that a foreign domestic worker must be able, and willing, to do all the household jobs set out by the employer, at practically all hours of the day.

What makes it worse is that many workers, on top of not having enough rest periods, are not given a decent place for rest and sleep. Well-documented are the cases of domestic workers being made to sleep in storage rooms, laundry areas, terrace, the sofa in the living room, kitchen floor, and even the toilet.

But despite the recurring reports of such blatant disregard for the safety, health and welfare of migrant workers, the government has not done much to ease their plight. For the longest time, the only positive step it has taken was the ban on dangerous window-cleaning, and only because our Consulate, particularly Labor Attache Jalilo dela Torre, had taken the initiative to put a stop to the disgraceful practice.

Given this scenario, it is just right for support organizations like the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body to start taking a new tack in solving these age-old problems plaguing foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong.

Instead of reiterating its previous call for minimum work hours, AMCB is now demanding 11 hours of uninterrupted rest for migrant workers. This means that a domestic worker would still be at the beck and call of the employer for up to 13 hours – but nothing longer than this.

And instead of pressing for a more detailed description of what “suitable accommodation” in the standard employment contract of migrant workers means, AMCB is now calling for some sort of an exclusion provision, in which all the unsuitable sleeping areas are listed down. This should end, once and for all, any subjective interpretation of this vague provision in the contract.

But beyond these, AMCB and its affiliate organizations are keeping up the fight for a more humane treatment of migrant workers overall. This includes raising their minimum wage to $5,500 a month, a figure they say is based on hard data and not on some amorphous calculations, as what the government is wont to do.

Less strident but no less reasonable, is the call to raise the food allowance to $2,500 a month. At this rate, a worker who is not given free food by the employer or facilities for cooking, will get an extra $100 daily, which is a fair amount, given that an ordinary lunch box in fast food outlets costs upwards of $40 nowadays.

Still in the cards is the demand to make live-in arrangements optional, and for the policy that requires all terminated workers to leave Hong Kong within 14 days, scrapped.

There are still many other problems confronting migrant workers that need to be addressed, including the persistent overcharging of fees by employment agencies, the failure of the police to immediately act on cases involving them, and Immigration’s apparent crackdown on those whose contracts are terminated prematurely.

But for now, AMCB’s Eman Villanueva says what his group is asking for are the bare minimum – a living wage, a decent place to sleep in, and basic protection from abuse for one of society’s most vulnerable sectors.

Surely that’s not asking for too much?

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