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An ambivalence that affects everyone

HONG KONG HAS achieved worldwide notoriety over the abused Indonesian migrant worker, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, as the injuries inflicted by her employer are so horrific she has attracted international interest.

However, while widespread publicity is usually welcome, this time Hong Kong is not being portrayed as a desirable tourist destination, shopping or investment paradise, or safe place to visit, leaving the government embarrassed and scrambling to be seen to be doing something to address the issue.

But while the few trite suggestions put forward by the secretary for Labour and Welfare, Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, may look good to far off prospective tourists, more discerning eyes see them as little more than window dressing.

The former Philippine consul general to Hong Kong said that although the Legislative Council did grant a hearing on the conduct of agencies, it only did so when employers joined migrant workers in asking for one.

Cheung is suggesting information half-days for new workers to acquaint them with their rights and spot checks on recruitment agencies to monitor their responsibilities, two suggestions that migrant advocacy groups find risible.

Law Pui-shan, from the Diocesan Labour Commission, shrugged off Cheung’s response saying that such things have been suggested by workers’ representatives for years, but had met a brick wall.

In addition, agencies already provide a one-hour information session, but workers say they only teach them how to remit money and say, “Yes sir!” or “Yes ma’am!” There is no reason to believe that agencies are interested in anything else.

Cheung did, however, look at the debt workers incur in coming to Hong Kong and while not suggesting anything particularly helpful, at least named one of the major problems.

But debt is just the beginning, as abused workers are afraid to complain, because it usually means termination and constricting laws make getting a new job unlikely.

Although migrants themselves admit that Hong Kong probably has the best protective legislation, they also know that enforcement is another matter. Legal aid makes it possible for them to go to court, but the prospect of long weeks or months of unemployment with no income and nowhere to stay puts a different perspective on it.

On top of that, it means compounding the debt problem and no money to send to their families—for most an insoluble conundrum. In this sense, the system can truly be called debt-indentured labour.

The government has for too long boasted about its legislation, but failed to look at its enforcement, even throwing its hands up in despair over Indonesian workers having to give up their passports, which is illegal in the territory, but allowed by Indonesia.

Many of these problems should not be difficult to address, but the continual refusal of government to listen to the stakeholders, the migrant workers themselves, allows them to spiral out of hand.

The argument that it is only a minority of workers who are abused is specious, like maintaining that as only a minority commits murder, society should not worry about it.

Migrant workers have detailed their requests. Recognising them as workers (not helpers) would be a good beginning and declaring their place of employment a workplace would allow inspections.


Migrants workers are one of the weakest groups in society, which makes them important, because ambivalence of government towards the weakest, is an indication of how it would like to treat everyone. JiM