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Ignoring the weak at own peril

The manner in which the government treats the most vulnerable in the workforce should be a matter of concern for the whole of society, as it is a strong indication of how it is prepared to treat everyone.
A society that does not take independent steps to protect the weakest sections of its workforce can destroy its ability to protect itself.
In this context the results of a study on the accommodation standards of migrant domestic workers in the city released on May 10 by the Asian Mission for Migrant Workers should be a matter of general concern.
The study found that the contract guideline on suitable accommodation for a migrant domestic worker is not defined, leaving employers with the leeway to interpret sofas in the living room, floor space under clothes hung to dry, cupboards and toilet or shower alcoves as acceptable.
A report issued in the previous month shows no improvement in the areas of unpaid wages, provision of adequate food or extortion of illegal fees by recruitment agencies.
Although there are prescribed conditions of work, mechanisms for enforcing them are weak, allowing exploitation of the worker from the moment they sign up to the moment they leave the home of their employer.
They also have little recourse, as any slip up, or even misfortune, can see them not only out of a job, but out of town.
Nevertheless, they are a valuable asset. Hong Kong has never developed the types of infrastructure for child and aged care common to most developed economies, and looks to the cheaper option of throwaway migrant labour as a substitute.
The migrant contribution is evidenced by the frantic efforts the government is making to find new supply, as one of the main sourcing countries, Indonesia, is no longer sending its people out at the same rate as previously.
It unsuccessfully scurried around the Union of Myanmar and Bangladesh in vain attempts to open up the flow and now is turning its attention to Cambodia.
In addition, it has put precious little resource into developing infrastructure for the support of these vulnerable workers, turning a blind eye to exploitative practices, while at the same time relying heavily on their service.
Although migrants have contracts and are employees in the common sense of the word, officially they are referred to as helpers, which prevents the place where they labour being defined as a workplace and precludes inspection of the conditions they work and live in.
While it is tempting to believe that employers as a group are not a bad lot, it defies the facts, and rather than being the problem of a few bad apples in the barrel it may be more a problem of too few good ones.
Hong Kong also runs conflicting policy practices. The number of domestic workers keeps rising, which indicates high demand, and while contract guidelines may demand suitable accommodation, other policies are putting families in smaller and smaller flats, where it is simply not available.
A city that refuses to set a minimum living wage and baulks at legislating on maximum working hours, keeps its poorest in caged homes, under bridges and subdivided flats, is a city that risks engineering the destruction of its own social fibre. JiM