South China Morning Post
25 April 2008
Opinion surveys can be misused for self-serving ends, so care should be used in reporting them. The DAB’s telephone poll reflects the views and interest of the employers, and should not be misrepresented as the position of “more than half of Hongkongers.” Of course, the employers want to scrap the levy; they have been advocating for it since 2003! Ms. Selina Chow, one of the leading proponents of the FDW wage cuts and scrapping of the levy, advocated at the 11 July 2007 session of the LegCo that the retraining levy be scrapped “so as to ease the burden on employers.”
But it is not the employers who need relief and support; it is the 248,000 foreign domestic workers (FDWs), who are among the lowest paid and most marginalised workers in HK. If HK has to exercise its governmental muscle, it should be to protect and uplift the poor, underprivileged, and marginalised sectors of HK society.
The HK Employers Association said that employers hired FDWs “to look after their kids just to ensure their safety.” Yes. And the question is: should the work of domestic workers looking after kids and doing household duties be paid dirt cheap? Is this because they are women and foreigners? If employers are willing to pay properly for services offered by telephone companies, beauty parlors, gyms, etc. why shouldn’t they pay properly for domestic work services? In 2000, when the Employers Association supported the proposal to remove maternity protection for domestic workers, it also said that this was because employers hired FDWs to work, not to have babies; therefore, FDWs should be made to work even on the last month of pregnancy. Why should FDWs be treated and paid like slaves?
Fact 1: Most of the FDW employers belong to the top 20% of the HK population (median income of HK$25,000/month). Almost 80% earn more than HK$25,000 monthly; indeed, almost 40% earn at least HK$60,000 per month. More than 76% of FDW employers are managers, administrators and professionals. It is not true that most employers are “sandwich class”, lower middle-income families. Scrapping the levy would mostly give ‘relief’ to the big-income employers – but are they the ones who urgently and legitimately need financial relief from the government?
Fact 2: Scrapping the levy does not mean this same amount will be given to FDWs as wage increase. The Levy Ordinance and the Minimum Wage law are two different laws. In terms of giving wage increases to FDWs, the government record over the past 20 years has been extremely tight-fisted – an average of 1% increase per year. Indeed, 10 years after it took away HK$590 from the minimum wage of FDWs (1999 and 2003), the 3 rounds of wage adjustments since 2003 have not even restored the FDW wages back to the 1998 level of HK$3,860. The minimum wage is currently HK$3,480 – even below the wage level in 1993! What kind of society is HK which wants to keep its vulnerable and exploited women workers in 1993-level wage, while it spends billions for showcase projects and immediate price relief for smokers and alcohol drinkers?
Worse, while the employers are calling for the scrapping of the levy, they are also saying that the 2008 wage adjustment for FDWs should be only 1% (HK$34!), since anyway, the FDWs “do not have much expenses”. The injustice of scrapping the levy is that the FDWs will not get this amount, but the employers will enjoy both the ridiculously low FDW wage, and not having to pay the levy.
Fact 3: At least 65,000 FDWs are underpaid every month; this problem has persisted for at least a decade now. More than 42% of Indonesians, more than 61% of Nepalese, and more than 15% of all FDWs receive less than the minimum wage. Most receive only between HK$1,500-2,500 per month. Most are not paid for more than 5 months during their first contract – a situation of de facto debt bondage and slavery-like condition for women migrants. In addition to the rampant underpayment problem, thousands of FDWs are also denied each year their basic entitlements guaranteed under the employment contract and HK Employment Ordinance (rest days, annual leaves, statutory holidays, long service payment, etc.). Worse, even if the FDW files a complaint and wins her case at the tribunal, she is normally forced to settle and accept a fraction of her legitimate claims. This institutionalises the violation of the contract and exploitation of FDWs. FDWs have little choice but to accept because they are not allowed to work while waiting for months or years for the case to be settled, or they are forced to go back home.
The government has reported that the retraining levy now stands at HK$4.2 billion. The most obvious, principled and just way to use this is to designate (at least part of, if not the whole) levy fund as a “compensation fund for FDWs”, rather than as a retraining fund. FDWs who have won their cases should be immediately and fully compensated from the levy fund. They should not be made to suffer further indignity and injustice of having to negotiate (virtually beg) to get their full compensation. Reclassifying the levy fund as a compensation fund is also in line with the principle that employers pay for levies (e.g. health insurance, accident insurance, workmen compensation) to protect and compensate the workers for such work-related problems.
Justice need to be served – and it is the FDWs and women migrants who deserve the immediate, full and decisive support of the government to achieve this. FDWs in HK account for 1% of the GDP of HK. They are as much a contributor and productive force in HK society as all other workers. In the face of the HK$14.8 billion budget surplus, and the fact that FDWs were among the first to be forced to sacrifice in 1999 when the economy was bad, HK owes it to the FDWs to immediately restore their wages to HK$3,860 (1998 level), and to use the levy fund to immediately compensate FDWs for abuses and violations committed against them.
Asian Migrant Centre