22 January 2014

Helpers be Helped – Special Chinese New Year Double Issue 救救外傭 – 春節雙刊


The images are gruesome and the details are chilling. A woman held captive in a residence has been starved and beaten beyond recognition. Her teeth are chipped, cheekbones fractured and her limbs covered with cuts and burn marks. It sounds like the Ariel Castro kidnappings in suburban Cleveland or the Brixton Bookshop abduction in Lambeth, England – except it is not. It all happened in Tseung Kwan O, a densely populated community of high-rise residential blocks and large shopping centers. It was there 23-year-old Indonesian domestic helper Erwiana Sulistyaningsih was allegedly tortured at the hands of her Hong Kong employer for eight months. She was not paid a cent.

Erwiana, before and after her eight-month stay in Hong Kong


By now the story has captured the attention of the entire city – and far beyond. Not since Edward Snowden checked into the Mira Hotel last summer had so much spotlight been thrown on the not-so-Fragrant Harbour. Beneath the media frenzy and tabloid-style coverage, however, is the sad reality that Erwiana is not alone. In the past six months, a spate of similar abuse cases have come to light, all of them involving Indonesian workers who have a reputation for being soft-spoken and easily intimidated. Last September, for instance, a Hong Kong couple was jailed for falsely imprisoning their maid, beating her with a bicycle chain and scalding her with an iron. Just last week, a Chinese University professor was arrested for assaulting her 50-year-old helper. To get a sense of how common these abuse cases are, look no further than Bethune House, a shelter for foreign domestic workers that handles hundreds of assault cases every year. A recent survey by Mission for Migrant Workers found that nearly one in five domestic helpers in Hong Kong had been physically abused.

At first glance, it seems implausible that prolonged cases of domestic violence and false imprisonment can go unreported in a crowded city like Hong Kong. Many wonder why victims like Erwiana put up with the abuse instead of running away the first chance they get. The answer is simple: domestic helpers in Hong Kong are trapped in a system that is stacked against them. Among the many flaws in our migrant worker policy and its execution, none puts the domestic helper in a more vulnerable position than the dual evil of unlawful agency fees and the 14-day deportation rule. 

The alleged abuser, 44-year-old housewife Law Wan-tung, in police custody


Employment Agency Fees

By law, employment agencies in Hong Kong are permitted to charge up to 10% of the migrant worker’s minimum monthly pay, or HK$401 (US$52). Back in their home countries, there are laws regulating recruitment and training fees. What happens in practice, however, is a different matter. Agencies on both ends routinely extort exorbitant amounts from migrant workers who are desperate for a job placement. The going rate in Hong Kong is HK$28,000 (US$3,600), roughly seven times the worker’s monthly salary and 70 times over the legal limit. Erwiana allegedly paid her agency HK$18,000 (US$2,300), an amount considered a bargain by the community’s standard. To avoid getting caught, crafty employment agencies accept only cash and never issue receipts.

Migrant workers pay these hefty fees by borrowing from friends and family, but more often, from moneylenders in Hong Kong. The five-figure principal, plus interest accruing at a double-digit rate (sometimes as high as 60%), forces the helper to turn over nearly all of her salary for months, sometimes even years, to pay off the debt. Illegal agency fees are the leading cause of distress for foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, as well as the main reason why abused women like Erwiana choose not to flee from their House of Horrors. For once they escape, they will be out of a job and their mounting debt will go unpaid. Debt collectors and their harassment tactics will follow. One nightmare will simply give way to another.


Erwiana's employment agency


All that is happening under the nose of our government. Despite repeated pleas from the migrant worker community to crack down on excessive agency fees, law enforcement turns a blind eye. After all, there are billion-dollar drug trades to bust and weekly anti-government protests to rein in. Who would bother with petty consumer disputes between foreign maids and their agencies? In the meantime, bureaucrats go on renewing business licenses held by unscrupulous employment agencies and moneylenders year after year. In fact, if Time magazine and the Associated Press hadn’t picked up Erwiana’s story, would Labour Secretary Matthew Cheung have just let the police handle the incident as a common assault case and not have said a word about punishing employment agencies?

The Labour Secretary finally said he would
do something about bad employment agencies
 


14-day Reemployment Rule

By law, foreign domestic workers must leave Hong Kong within 14 days after their employment contract is terminated, unless a new placement is secured and a new work visa issued. The rule effectively evicts from the city any migrant worker who leaves her job, as the new work visa alone takes six weeks to process. The two-week provision is designed to achieve two objectives. First, the government wishes to deter employer-shopping and job-hopping. Even though it is perfectly normal for everyone else in Hong Kong to look for a better job and jump ship every now and then, it is not so for a migrant worker. Maids who quit and work for another home are looked upon as greedy and irresponsible.

The second objective is as unspoken as it is ignoble: to put arbitrary restrictions on the domestic helper’s stay to distinguish them from other expatriates. The distinction can have far-reaching consequences. In March 2013, the Court of Final Appeal ruled that foreign domestic workers, unlike fellow expatriates who work at big banks and law firms, are not entitled to permanent residency in Hong Kong regardless of the length of their stay. Focusing on the 14-day reemployment rule, the city’s highest court found the residence of a domestic helper “highly restrictive” and therefore not “ordinary” enough to meet the constitutional requirements for permanent residency.

As a result of the 14-day rule, migrant workers who switch jobs must live abroad while their new work visas are being processed. That’s why there are now boarding houses all over Macau and Guangdong where maids-in-waiting take up temporary residence in horrid conditions. For abused helpers like Erwiana, the risk of not finding alternative employment, the threat of deportation and the peril of borrowing more money for another round of agency fees is enough for her to bite the bullet and remain in the torture chamber.

"Please leave the city in 14 days. Thank you."


Other Systemic Failures

The mandatory live-in rule prohibits the domestic helper from living anywhere other than her employer’s home. The rule, based on racist and sexist assumptions about South East Asian women, is designed to prevent prostitution and other illegal activities when they are off duty. The irony is that Hong Kong is just about the least qualified place in the world to impose a cohabitation requirement. In fact, the same survey by Mission for Migrant Workers found that 30% of helpers are told to sleep in kitchens, bathrooms, hallways and closets.

Each time the government is asked to repeal the live-in rule, it will hide behind the same party line: doing so would exacerbate the city’s housing shortage and increase the cost of domestic help. It is a roundabout way of telling migrant workers to suck it up and “take one for the team.” Contrary to the government’s claim, however, killing the live-in rule is unlikely to unleash 300,000 maids into our streets, for the vast majority of helpers will choose to live with their employers to avoid high rent and a lengthy commute even if the rule is abolished. Instead, the policy change will give domestic helpers the option to seek an alternative living arrangement and, in Erwiana’s case, sufficient physical space to mitigate the chance and frequency of violence.

It's not uncommon to put the maid in the toilet


The United Nations defines human trafficking as the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring of persons by the use of force or other forms of coercion… for the purpose of exploitation.” Nearly every developed country has enacted anti-human trafficking (AHT) legislation in an effort to eliminate sex exploitation and forced labor. The latter covers involuntary servitude, debt bondage and restriction of movement, terms that resonate with many domestic helpers in Hong Kong. Incidentally, in August 2013, a Hong Kong man living in Vancouver was sentenced by a Canadian court to 18 months in prison for human trafficking. The accused was caught paying his Filipino maid (whom he had brought from Hong Kong) below the local statutory minimum wage and making her work seven days a week, conditions that were mild compared to what Erwiana had allegedly experienced.

Unfortunately, Hong Kong does not have an AHT statute that imposes stiff fines and heavy prison terms to deter forced labor. There is nothing in the law book that would slap an abusive employer with anything more than a “wounding” or “intimidation” charge or punish non-compliant employment agencies beyond revoking their business licenses. The absence of comprehensive AHT laws is coupled with a police force that thinks the only form of human trafficking is prostitution. In the 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report, the U.S. State Department wrote extensively about the foreign domestic worker issues in Hong Kong and gave the city a “Tier 2” rating for “securing no forced labor convictions… against abusive employers... or employment agencies [that] have charged fees in excess of Hong Kong law.” The report is downloadable from the State Department website and for all the world to see.

Available at www.state.gov

 *                      *                      *


It has been four decades since the first batch of foreign domestic helpers arrived in Hong Kong from the Philippines. Since then, our economy has taken off but their status and working conditions have gone the other direction. Their grievances about domestic violence and unlawful business practices have fallen on seven million pairs of deaf ears. We either brush them off as “isolated incidents” or, as some have shamelessly suggested, turn to even more docile workers from Bangladesh and Myanmar. But enough is enough. The time to take a hard look at our migrant worker policy is now.

Erwiana Sulistyaningsih has been failed by our city in every way: by her employer and employment agency, by our law enforcement and policymakers. Every safeguard in the system has failed, all the way to the end when she fled the city for medical help, when immigration officers at the airport noticed her severe injuries but chose to do nothing. There are no words to describe the depth of her suffering or the breadth of our collective callousness. In the same way many Hong Kongers are demanding Philippine President Benigno Aquino III to apologize for the Manila hostage crisis in 2010, the migrant worker community in Hong Kong will be justified in asking C.Y. Leung for an apology for all the systemic failures that have led to Erwiana’s plight.

The city owes them an apology

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This article appears on SCMP.com under the title "Why Hong Kong's government should apologise for failing abused domestic workers."

As posted on SCMP.com


18 January 2014

Hunger Game 飢餓遊戲


Every Chinese New Year I buy myself a tangerine tree for good luck. Ripe fruits fallen to the ground will mould and turn white and green within 36 hours.

Every Thanksgiving I roast a turkey big enough to feed twelve. Leftovers taste better the next day but will spoil by the week’s end even when kept in the fridge.

Food is supposed to spoil

The unifying theme of these two unrelated household anecdotes is that unprocessed food does not last. Spoilage is part of nature’s metabolism. So how is it possible that the Valencia oranges on my kitchen counter look exactly the same as they did five weeks ago at the store, or that the expiration date stamped on a can of luncheon meat reads “March 2018”? I can’t help but wonder what really is in our food.

Our appetite for things that taste better, look nicer, last longer and cost less, from breakfast cereal to meat products and fresh produce, is insatiable. Consumer demand has spurred the growing use of pesticides, flavorings, colorings and preservatives in the food industry. While globalization requires mass-produced food to withstand long travels and lengthy storage, increased competition from world trade means that the dual goal of taste and shelf life must be achieved at the lowest cost possible. Food safety will have to take a back seat. Every now and then we hear news stories of E. coli or salmonella outbreaks caused by contamination in the food production chain. And every so often a medical journal will warn us of the danger of BPA, BHA and other industrial chemicals found in packaged food.

What's in your food?


America is a pioneer and leader in many things: blockbuster movies, smart phones and, for better or for worse, processed food. The Fast Food Nation has given the world not only McDonalds and Campbell Soup, but also an inventive panoply of genetically modified crops like herbicide-resistant soybeans and insect-killing corn. To feed 300 million supersized stomachs, the American animal farm has been transformed into a Detroit auto plant. In a typical “factory farm,” livestock is confined in overcrowded feedlots that stretch for miles. Poultry and cattle are fed antibiotics and growth hormones to reduce the spread of disease and speed up production.

Moral qualms over animal cruelty aside, the use of undesirable chemicals in intensive animal farming and the rise of medication-resistant bacteria raise serious concerns over the long-term effects on human health, such as early puberty in pre-teen girls as a result of exposure to growth hormones. None of that, however, prevents the practice from being replicated on an even larger scale in emerging markets around the world, including India and Brazil, the world’s largest exporters of beef and chicken, respectively.

That's the way farm animals are raised these days


But all those Frankenstein foods and jam-packed industrial farms in America pale in comparison to the stomach-turning food safety scandals in China. The world’s second largest economy is also a 21st Century dystopia, where unscrupulous businessmen are willing to sell anything to make a quick buck. The long list of unsafe food products in China includes rice contaminated with cadmium, rat meat sold as mutton and pork that glows in the dark because of phosphorescent bacteria.

In the Wild Wild East, the food industry is made up of equal parts ingenuity, audacity and atrocity. The infamous “ditch oil” (地溝油), for instance, used by fine restaurants across the country, is made by carefully distilling discarded oil collected from the sewers. Fake eggs that bounce like ping pong balls are manufactured using gelatin and paraffin, each handcrafted with an artist’s sensibility and a surgeon’s precision. If only they put their talent to better use, China might have come up with its own iPhone and iPad.

Extra virgin ditch oil


The watershed moment in China’s tattered food safety record came in 2008, when tainted baby formula sickened nearly 300,000 infants and killed at least six. Sanlu (三鹿), a state-owned dairy product manufacturer and one of the most trusted names in the food business, was caught using the industrial chemical melamine to boost its milk powder’s protein content to meet government nutritional standards. The company filed for bankruptcy later that year.

Since the Sanlu scandal made international headlines, the Chinese leadership has made repeated promises to crack down on illegal business practices and make food safety a national priority. Six years on, however, tainted milk products continue to resurface at smaller retail chains in fits and starts. In the Chinese food business, catching the bad guys is more than just a cat-and-mouse game – it’s more like playing Whac-A-Mole at the arcade.

One of the 300,000 "stone babies"


An unbridled market economy, lax regulatory oversight and widespread corruption have created a perfect storm for the New China. Whereas air pollution may take years to take its toll and we won’t feel the effect of shoddy building construction until the next earthquake, the impact of unsafe food products is much more immediate and noticeable. And while government authorities are slow to rein in the food industry, responses from ordinary citizens are much swifter. In cities across the nation, citizens avoid eating out whenever they can, for fear of dubious cooking oil and meat products. They only shop at big supermarket chains and prepare their own meals at home. These changes in dining and shopping habits bring about other social ramifications. That only the elite can afford pricy organic or imported food is fuelling a growing sense of social injustice.

Increasingly, people in China – even those in big urban cities – are starting to grow their own food. A Mainland Chinese friend of mine told me that his parents who live in a residential area 20 minutes from Beijing have formed farming communes with their neighbors. They grow tomatoes, pumpkins and melons in makeshift farmland converted from public lawns within the housing complex. The very place where they used to practice tai chi in the morning has been dug up for seed planting. These urban farms do not provide nearly enough food to support an entire neighborhood, but many would rather eat less than get violently sick. And so it appears that China has come full circle in a mere generation. People used to starve before economic reforms lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. Decades later, citizens are suffering from starvation of a different kind, caused not by a lack of resources but an absence of civic morality. 

Urban farms are popping up in big Chinese cities


The ripple effect of China’s food safety crisis is felt far and wide, but none more intensely than here in Hong Kong, where nearly all of our food is imported and 90% of it comes from the Motherland. 70% of our drinking water is purchased from nearby Guangdong province. Gone are the days when the island was a self-sufficient fishing village capable of feeding itself. Today, there are less than 7 square kilometers of arable farmland – roughly 0.5% of the city’s area – occupied by a dwindling base of aging farmers. Each time we hear another food scandal in China, we are reminded of the city’s vulnerability to the decline in business ethics up north.

Until the Chinese bureaucrats get their act together to strengthen food safety oversight, Mainland Chinese and Hong Kongers alike continue to play Russian roulette at every meal. There is very little that an ordinary citizen can do to turn the tide – for as much as we try to check the origin of every food item we buy at the market, each time we eat out we are at the mercy of the restaurant that will always put taste and cost above our health. Just when we think we have more food choices than ever, we are hit with the reality that we have far fewer safe options than we used to. The cornucopia, the horn of plenty that symbolizes abundance in modern society, is just an illusion. 

Read also Part 2 of this article: The Dating Game.

We have fewer choices than ever

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This article previously appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column "The Urban Confessional."

As printed in MANIFESTO