Equal Rights for Foreign Resident Workers?

Equal Rights for Foreign Resident Workers?

The Case of Filipina Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Singapore

Middle- and upper-class citizens of wealthy, industrialized countries must grapple with the question of who will do the low-status and difficult but socially necessary work that locals are unwilling to do. The answer, usually, is to import foreigners from poorer countries. This often results in two classes of residents with unequal rights and privileges. Is this arrangement morally tolerable?

Liberal democratic theorists typically argue that foreign resident workers should be put on the road to citizenship. There may be a case for differential rights in the short term, but those who live and work within a territory, pay taxes, send children to schools, and participate in neighborhood activities should not be treated as permanent second-class (non)citizens. They belong, and belonging matters morally. As the University of Toronto political theorist Joseph Carens puts it, long-term membership in civil society creates a moral entitlement to all the legal rights of membership, including citizenship itself. After a certain time, say five or ten years, the state should give equal rights to workers in its territory, regardless of their background.

This argument, as Carens recognizes, mirrors the emerging pattern in most Western liberal democracies. There is a trend toward extending to long-term residents most if not all the legal rights of citizens and improving access to citizenship for the descendants of immigrants and for immigrants themselves. The situation is different, however, in developed countries outside the West, and this gives rise to potentially troubling moral questions. I will focus on the case of Filipina domestic workers who do most of the paid housework and childrearing in Hong Kong and Singapore. These workers are denied the rights of citizenship and have no realistic hope of ever becoming equal members of the political community. In Hong Kong, for example, the contracts of domestic workers can be renewed indefinitely (it is not uncommon to find women who have been working in the territory for ten or twelve years), but they cannot apply for permanent residence. This situation gives rise to many injustices. It doesn’t follow, however, that the prescriptions of Western liberalism will help secure the interests of these women. The question is more complicated than these prescriptions allow for; global inequalities make for hard choices. There is much to learn from the experience of the two territories.

Does Democracy Benefit Foreign Resident Workers?

More than a hundred and fifty thousand domestic workers from the Philippines are employed in Hong Kong, out of a total population of approximately seven million (Filipinos constitute the largest non-Chinese group in the territory). In Singapore, foreigners account for 30 percent of the country’s workforce, the highest in Asia. Prominent among these are the Filipina domestic workers—approximately eighty thousand out of a population of four million. D...

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