Occupy Central: The Migrant Workers in Democracy’s Blind Spot

Occupy Central: The Migrant Workers in Democracy’s Blind Spot

Hong Kongers have never been quite comfortable discussing the 300,000 migrant domestic workers, most of whom are female, to which the city currently plays host. Complicating the discussion further is the media’s tendency to steer such discussions from issues of fair wages and workplace safety toward the still more vexing question of citizenship.

Migrant domestic workers sharing space with 2012 “Occupy Central” crowd on the floor of HSBC bank

The Bethune House shelter houses just a few more women than its twenty or so adjacent bunk beds can accommodate. These women came to Hong Kong as domestic workers from neighboring Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, because being a factory worker, a sari-sari shopkeeper, a criminology master’s graduate, or even a high school principal back home pays less than nannying a middle-class child in Hong Kong. They ended up in the shelter because their contracts were prematurely terminated, which, in most cases, means they had run away from abusive employers. Their working lives are now on hold as they wait for their court cases to be settled by a labor tribunal. They are not allowed to find new employers while their cases are pending, and their families—children, spouses, and other relatives in their home countries—will somehow have to survive without their remittances. Meanwhile, in between court hearings, their former employers go about their daily lives, untouched by the allegations of underpayment, assault, or intimidation. These settlements can take many months and sometimes more than a year.

Andrea was preparing a generous pot of curry rice and chicken wings in the kitchenette when I visited the shelter, founded by migrant women in the late 1980s and tucked in a plain, low-rise building in a postindustrial area of Hong Kong. The women, or “clients” as they are called here, take turns cooking for everyone and cleaning what has become their temporary refuge. Amenities are functional, but there is also a projector screen for the occasional karaoke night—“a brief but very entertaining distraction” from the workers’ ordeals, as a volunteer at the shelter described. As clients, they also have access to resources like legal or paralegal assistance and take part in a range of programs organized by other domestic workers, activists, and volunteers, such as in-house support groups, language and self-defense classes, and even trips to museums and to Disneyland. Andrea heard about the shelter from a friend, and when her employer threatened to kill her, she decided to escape. Moving to the shelter was her only way to fight back and seek legal redress.

Andrea slept on her employer’s bathroom floor for months because she did not want to lose her job. Hong Kong laws require employers to “provide the Helper suitable and furnished accommodation with reasonable privacy,” and Andrea’s contract promised a private room of forty square feet. But her accommodation turned out to be a bathroom so small that she had to prop her legs against the toilet while resting her head next to a pile of dirty laundry.

Andrea slept on her employer’s bathroom floor for months because she did not want to lose her job.

Back in 2012, Hong Kong was momentarily outraged by headlines in local papers about some of the workers’ sleeping arrangements; papers referred to arrangements such as a custom-made “loft bed” built over a toilet and a “coffin room,” a narrow compartment in a cabinet adorning an employer’s sleek living room. But these news items barely scratch the surface. A study evaluating the controversial live-in policy mandated by the state found that many domestic workers are relegated to sleeping in corridors, verandas, or “makeshift beds on top of cupboards and ovens.” Andrea’s employer, guilty of injustices much like those widely condemned in the media, even confiscated her phone charger in order to further confine her. Andrea used the last bar of her phone’s battery to photograph her “bedroom” as evidence to present to the court.

The most recent episode that shamed the city and sparked global disquiet was the battery and, some have argued, torture of twenty-three-year-old Indonesian Erwiana Sulistyaningsih by her employer. (Two other abusive employers were arrested in the subsequent two weeks, though much less conspicuously.) This April Time magazine named Sulistyaningsih one of the hundred most influential people in the world, highlighting her efforts to “advocat[e] for better laws to protect . . . a vulnerable and often invisible population” and acknowledged the precarious conditions of domestic workers and guest workers as a top international concern.

Two months after Sulistyaningsih was admitted to a hospital in Sragen, Central Java, even the South China Morning Post editorial page took a stand on what local residents consider a politically sensitive subject, urging the government to “respect the rights of domestic helpers.” The article concluded, “If the government is to compel maids to live in a master-servant relationship with their employers, it has a responsibility to maintain a regulatory regime that upholds fairness and respect for human rights.” Despite its measured tone, however, the editorial could scarcely conceal its derision for the “master-servant relationships” pervading Asia’s self-branded “world city.”

The media uproar surrounding the treatment of domestic workers has led to some changes. In late February, the Hong Kong Labor Department announced that it would overhaul regulation, set up surveillance, and punish “unscrupulous employment agencies” accordingly. This effort, however, ignores other longstanding demands on the part of workers and activists, such as abolishing the mandatory live-in policy that leaves domestic workers beholden to their employers night and day. To many, the live-in requirement seems unobjectionable given the city’s high rents and overcrowding in the claustrophobic urban centers. But activists counter that when workplaces and personal living spaces are conflated, working hours for domestic laborers become less defined and more subject to their employers’ capricious demands: “work sixteen hours, on-call twenty-four hours,” as a popular slogan has it. Activists also seek the repeal of the “two-week rule” implemented in 1987, under which workers who have quit or been fired for any reason are deported if they are unable to find a new employer within two weeks—a rule that effectively discourages workers from leaving abusive situations.

Meanwhile, the privately run recruitment agencies responsible for bringing so many migrant women to Hong Kong—until now rarely cited in domestic worker–related scandals—have entered the public debate as trafficking profiteers in a largely unregulated global industry. According to a report published last year by Amnesty International, prevalent complaints against these agencies include excessive fees and the seven-month salary deduction charged by several Indonesian firms; wrong and intentionally misleading information about working conditions, hours, and wages; the use of coercion to get documents signed; abuse and harassment by labor brokers; compulsory residence in hazardous pre-departure dormitories; and confiscation of identity documents and handbooks distributed to workers in the Hong Kong airport. Ganika Diristiani, a former client at the shelter who went on to chair the Association of Indonesian Migrant Workers, told me that the staff at her first agency forced her to sign a blank contract and forbade her from discussing her working conditions or wages with anyone; they threatened to send her to jail if she did. At the time, she had no information about her job or the industry. Nor did she know how much she was supposed to be paid.

Activists also seek the repeal of the “two-week rule” implemented in 1987, under which workers who have quit or been fired for any reason are deported if they are unable to find a new employer within two weeks—a rule that effectively discourages workers from leaving abusive situations.

The government’s plan to improve conditions for migrant workers has, predictably, met considerable backlash. One self-described “decent employer” complained in a letter to the South China Morning Post that her household “[plunged] into chaos and disruption” when her caregiver of five years unexpectedly resigned after a “holiday”—presumably a trip home to visit her long-distance family. As is typical with employers, despite her indignation at the inconvenience caused in her family life and the minor financial loss incurred with the broken contract, there is little acknowledgement of the far greater disruption that takes place in workers’ own homes and communities, when mothers and children are separated according to terms set by nefarious recruitment agencies and unfair foreign labor laws.

Hong Kongers have never been quite comfortable discussing the 300,000 migrant domestic workers, most of whom are female, to which the city currently plays host. Complicating the discussion further is the media’s tendency to steer such discussions from issues of fair wages and workplace safety toward the still more vexing question of citizenship. Just last year, the highest court in Hong Kong ruled that all migrant domestic workers were ineligible to apply for permanent residency in Hong Kong, a constitutional right that is afforded to every other foreigner who has lived in Hong Kong for at least seven years. The court concluded that these workers, whose conditions of stay as “Foreign Domestic Helpers (FDHs)” are uniquely restricted by the Immigration and Labor Departments, should not be treated like other foreigners. The legal reasoning, in other words, was that the government’s existing discrimination against migrants—in the form of a separate legal classification excluding them from rights enshrined in the Basic Law of Hong Kong—justifies further discrimination.

Applauding the court’s final decision, the chairman of the Hong Kong Employers of Domestic Helpers Association announced: “We appreciate the workers’ contributions; we compensate them reasonably; but the right of abode is not part of the package.” The chairman’s abrupt turn from the question of compensation to that of citizenship is misleading: permanent residency is not a priority for Hong Kong’s migrant women, and exaggerated fears around the issue of citizenship only serve as a distraction from more fundamental questions of human rights. In a 2011 survey, Ming Pao found that only 21.3 percent of Hong Kong’s migrant women would even consider applying for residency; many of those who expressed interest cited higher income, since the “minimum allowable wage” for domestic workers is currently still a separate category and was set lower than Hong Kong’s minimum wage. The survey also revealed that most of the women, who have strong ties to their homeland, do not plan to stay in the city in the long run.

In the short term, these women are more preoccupied with everyday concerns such as getting a decent meal—something that is not always easy when “underpayment” and “inadequate accommodation and food provision” are common, as an Amnesty International report found in 2013. Edlyn, a client in the shelter who quit her job after her employer forcibly cut her hair as punishment for allegedly mishandling her plants, told me she was sometimes given orange peels and expired food for dinner.

When Ganika, the chair of the Association of Indonesian Migrant Workers, raised the subject of minimum wage with a local reporter, he distorted her question and asked, “You want the Hong Kong minimum wage? So you want to be a ‘Hong Konger’?” Such press coverage demonstrates precisely how a basic economic question is translated into one of the most charged political controversies in the city. By conflating economic rights with the desire for citizenship, the mainstream media in Hong Kong stokes panic over the influx of migrant women (and their dependents) in a city already plagued by acute housing shortages and income inequality. Notably absent from public discussions, meanwhile, is the question of race. Outwardly, political and economic arguments are used to frame the debates about migrant domestic workers. Yet the verbal and psychological abuses recounted by women in the shelter evince persistent xenophobia, both casual and deliberate. One employer, in a statement to the court, attributed her housekeeper’s alleged “dishonesty, greed, and high demands” for redress after months of underpayment and abuse to the notion that “she is from the Philippines and her parents have not disciplined her well.”

Many local residents see the handful of extreme incidents that have captured the media’s attention as anomalies that do not necessarily reflect most workers’ experiences. Yet the impulse to physically assault workers—from daily slapping to sexual assault to lashing with a hot iron—demonstrates a pattern of abuse and underscores a pervasive contempt for the perceived foreignness and inferiority of Hong Kong’s domestic workers.

Since April scandals around migrants’ rights have been displaced from the headlines by Hong Kong’s growing struggle for democracy. On June 4, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park for a vigil. On July 1, 92,000 residents—a conservative police estimate—took to the streets again as part of Occupy Central. The campaign was first proposed by law professor Benny Tai in January 2013 and has since grown to include pro-democracy lawmakers, students, activists, and some former government officials. An emphatically nonviolent occupation of the city’s government district and financial hub, known as Central, the movement targets the elites who orchestrate the “small-circle” election (vetted by the Chinese Communist Party) for Hong Kong’s highest office—that of chief executive. Beijing promised a direct election for the chief executive in 2017, but many fear that the government will devise a nomination system that bars pro-democracy candidates from running.

The movement’s momentum has been growing since some 2,500 Occupy supporters gathered on a “deliberation day” on May 6 to shortlist three reform proposals for an unofficial, citywide referendum in late June. The biggest contentions are whether the proposals—all of which include elements of public nomination already rejected by the Chinese and Hong Kong governments—reflect public opinion or alienate moderates and others who find the proposals too narrow in scope and doomed to failure. Despite these technical disagreements, the referendum drew a high turnout of nearly 800,000 voters, indicating its symbolic importance at a time when residents are anxious to protect Hong Kong’s unique freedoms, which many sense are gradually being eroded.

Democratic processes and universal suffrage are necessary focal points in this movement. But as they fine-tune their electoral strategy, few participants seem to note another irony: what does it mean for a society to fight for democracy when the ranks of its disenfranchised keep growing? The highest court’s decision last year to exclude migrant domestic workers from the broader category of foreigners—signaling a departure from its constitutional duties in favor of the administration—has not alarmed supporters of democracy either, even though Hong Kong’s judicial system is seen as a bulwark of independence from Beijing’s direct control. (In fact, politicians have used an exclusionary rhetoric, feeding off local residents’ fear of migrant workers, to garner voters’ support.)

What does it mean for a society to fight for democracy when the ranks of its disenfranchised keep growing?

Most domestic workers in Hong Kong hail from the Philippines and Indonesia, with women from Thailand, Nepal, and Sri Lanka making up a minority. Recruitment agencies and governments have recently started introducing women from Myanmar and Bangladesh to the city amid charges of abuse, both in high profile and underreported cases. Doris Lee, the founder of Open Door, an organization of employers who advocate for workers’ rights, explained to me that recruitment agencies capitalize not only on new pools of workers but also on the women’s lack of familiarity with the industry, thereby making them more susceptible to exploitation. The Ministry of Labor in Myanmar has temporarily halted a pilot program to send several hundred workers to Hong Kong following the torture scandal, pending the evaluation of the experiences of the first nineteen young women.

Migrant care workers still make up only a small minority—about 4 percent—of the total population. Nonetheless, the democracy activists’ demand of universal suffrage—which if realized would be a pivotal victory with significant implications not just for Hong Kong residents, but for the rest of China—will remain a privilege in a society that excludes and tolerates the abuse of its most vulnerable denizens. Bankers and financiers have joined Occupy Central to voice their concerns about Hong Kong. When will those at the other end of the social ladder—those critical to the everyday functioning of this world-class financial capital, who allow those bankers to work long hours without having to worry about whether their children will be fed or their bathrooms cleaned—get to do the same?

Walking along the fashionable stretches of Central on Sundays, it’s hard to avoid noticing the neighborhood’s original occupiers: migrant domestic workers on their day off, dressed up and made up, sitting in circles over newspapers, plastic sheets, straw mats, or strategically arranged cardboard boxes in groups of various sizes. Home to Chanel, Cartier, and Louis Vuitton, parts of Central are closed to traffic on Sundays so that shoppers can browse at ease. This has made the area a popular gathering and picnic spot for migrant women who have few other places to congregate. Chatting, listening to music, and playing cards on the sidewalk, the women may be invisible throughout the week as they labor away in the city’s most private quarters, but on their day of respite from their employers, they take over Central in a vibrant display. Will Occupy Central dislodge them—or welcome them into its ranks?

Elaine Yu is a writer originally from Hong Kong. She now lives in New York.