Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Law and policy for all

In many ways, migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong tend to enjoy better protection than those in other countries. They are entitled to one day of paid leave per week, which sounds like a radical proposition in Singapore. They enjoy some sort of maternity protection, i.e. employers cannot fire you for being pregnant, which is unthinkable in most Middle Eastern countries. They can form labor unions that are totally legally recognized, in contrast to many developed countries where unions of migrant workers are often oppressed. In fact, it is often said that Hong Kong's policies on foreign domestic workers influenced many advocates around the world, and especially directly affected the recent notable event that took place in NY; the passage of Bill of Rights for domestic workers in NY.

However, as any policies, Hong Kong's policy toward migrant domestic workers is not perfect. From my analysis of the current policy framework, interviews with workers, and conversations with activists, I learned that there are many loopholes in Hong Kong's policy that undermine the wellbeing and empowerment of these women, numbering more than 23,0000.

The most striking area is the issue of payment. I have posted some pictures of protests against the exclusion of foreign domestic workers under the newly proposed - and passed last July - Statutory Minimum Wage (SMW) Law. Hong Kong government's position is that domestic workers already have enough protection under the Minimum Allowable Wage (MAW) scheme.
At a first glance, MAW seems to favor Hong Kong's domestic workers. It sets the ceiling for minimum payment workers are entitled to, which is about HKD 3580, and serves as a platform for a worker to file a complaint against employer or employment agency if she receives under-payment. However it is not a law but a "stand-alone" policy, not grounded in protecting labor rights but intention to regulate a broader immigration flow.

SMW law will be different, because it is applied to all workers across sectors and occupations, for the first time. I do understand, and sometimes can sympathize a little with the government or employer side, on concerns about economic and social repercussions of expanding the coverage of the minimum wage bill.
However, to leave out a certain group of workers, just because they are not "us", seems nothing more than a discrimination and a gross violation of human rights.
Especially when these workers are mostly women, of lower class, from developing countries, doing informal care work.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Power of togetherness (part2)

I realized that my previous post unintentionally mocked the style of Christopher Nolan's acclaimed film 'Inception', in a way, that it ended with an open-ended question.

So I decided to ponder further on that big question, something that I did not expect in the beginning that I will be thinking about.
How to assess the effects of social capital on women migrants' empowerment?

Intuitively speaking, stronger social capital is most likely to have positive correlation (not causation, yet!) with women's empowerment, but I think the question and expected conclusion should be more sophisticately constructed, if it is to be meaningful in theory and practice.

I have seen how Hong Kong's migrant domestic workers participating in unions or different organizations speak positively of their experiences, especially in dealing with various work-related problems such as conflicts with employers or employment agencies. Some migrant workers who suffered months and years of underpayment or employers' abuses have sought redress through unions' help. Being part of unions or organizations also give some kind of psychological support and strength to vulnerable migrants in a strangeland.

Of course there are many non-profit organizations that give direct assistance to abused migrant workers, i.e. providing food, shelter, rescue or legal advices.
But while migrants workers who knock on the doors of these organizations are more close to 'recipients' of social services, workers who engage in union activities are much more like 'agents' representing themselves. In this sense, being a union member itself may imply that the individual is "empowered", considering unfavorable external environment surrounding her. Not withstanding the fact that she has to dedicate their only day-off to union activities, many employers discourage, if not prohibit, their workers from participating in unions, although unions are legally allowed in Hong Kong.

I assume there would be some literature, at least on the topic of organizations and empowerment, although how you may define the concept of empowerment will be the key point of difference here.
For my research subjects, migrant domestic workers, I think you can break down their level of (economic) empowerment into several variables; actual wages received, actual entitlement of rights/benefits such as restday and health insurance, savings/remittances, preparation for return, etc. I could then do a comparative study between women in unions/organizations and those who are not in any of them.

On a weekday, (mostly) Filipina shop and hang out at the World Wide House, a focal point of Filipina small businesses, located in Central. 

FADWU and CMR members protest against the exclusion of foreign domestic workers under the Statutory Minimum Wage Law on July 14, 2010.

Yet, measuring such intangible thing as the power of organization seems challenging.
That is why I decided to first focus on a case study method, or in other words, collecting narratives. Luckily, in addition to the host organization AMC, I have encountered many other organizations in Hong Kong.
Two to three of them grab my attention. One is obviously domestic workers union. It (or they, since several unions exist) is leading the struggle against the exclusion of migrant domestic workers under the statutory minimum wage bill just passed last month. Second is an entrepreneur initiative called Yogya, run by Indonesian migrant women. Looking forward to discuss them in detail in the following post.