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.

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