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Thursday, May 31, 2018, 11:22
Domestic workers need to feel welcomed in HK
By Stuart Gietel-Basten
Thursday, May 31, 2018, 11:22 By Stuart Gietel-Basten

Comments on helper facilities — and the heat they generated — underline the city’s dependence on domestic workers, Stuart Gietel-Basten notes

Sometimes you can say the right thing but in the wrong way. This might be because you mangle your words or because your message is misinterpreted or, just sometimes, because you say the right thing without realizing it.

Spare a thought, then, for Eunice Yung Hoi-yan, the New People’s Party legislator who managed to outrage migrant concern groups this week and precipitate a protest march over the weekend.

Her message was actually a very laudable one — the government should provide better facilities for domestic workers to use during their time off. So why the protests and indignation?

The reason can be found in the preamble: Domestic workers, according to Yung, “sit, eat and sleep on the ground, thus affecting the daily lives of the public, the operation of shops and the environmental hygiene in public places”.

To caricature the justification for this investment in services to improve the lot of domestic workers: It is just about making it easier to walk around Central and to tidy up the parks and public spaces. It is little wonder that after citing “environmental hygiene”, the response to her comments has been robust.

The sight of many thousands of women eating, chatting, and relaxing in Hong Kong’s public spaces is a curiosity to many visitors. Indeed, it could be argued that it is part of our intangible recent cultural heritage. Despite this, Hong Kong’s weather and urban landscape mean it is not always a kind place to rest and relax. There is no doubt that more could be done to provide better facilities and services. The irony of domestic workers gathering outside buildings which are almost completely empty at the weekend might be a good place to start in our land-strapped city.

A holistic set of policies to improve the economic, social, and civic well-being of domestic workers is not just the right thing to do morally... it is the only viable economic and political solution to future regional changes in demography and society

Maybe Yung did, indeed, have the best interests of domestic workers at heart; but her expression was such that the response we have seen was entirely predictable. But, standing in the Legislative Council and saying that we should provide better facilities for domestic workers because it is the right thing to do; to allow for simply the comfort and dignity that we would ourselves want to enjoy? What would have been the response? Yung would likely have been castigated as an idealist, maybe even worse a socialist.

So much for these two justifications for improving the lot of the domestic worker — removing an eyesore and because it is the “right thing to do”.

Hong Kong works on money. Moral arguments don’t work here. Numbers and economics are the only way to justify social change. Moving on from the moral argument, then, let us consider the role of domestic workers in our society.

Demand for socialized childcare far outstrips supply. At the other end of the life cycle, facilities and services for supporting patients with chronic care requirements are in short supply. All the time, the desire of both parents to work is increasing and the willingness (or ability) of children to support their parents in older age is decreasing. The government has made it clear that domestic workers are the primary means to plug this gap in care. And this demand is only going to grow.

It is hard to over-emphasize the vulnerability of Hong Kong’s care system. With the sweep of a pen in Beijing, one of the world’s largest middle-class populations — and one which has the same care needs as Hong Kong — could become open to precisely the same labor market which Hong Kong’s care system is largely built upon. Regardless of decisions made in Beijing — or, indeed, other major Chinese mainland cities — there is no doubt that growth of the middle class across Asia, coupled with the changing demographic conditions of Southeast Asia, will only make it harder for Hong Kong to rely on domestic workers from the region.

Unless other things change.

The problem with the economic argument is that it assumes money is the sole motivating factor. Raising the minimum wage would not only have positive economic impacts upon domestic workers and their families but would also convey a clear message that their work is valued and respected. The same could be said for improved leisure facilities sending a message of inclusion and respect.

A more radical approach, still, would be embrace the idea that domestic workers are an integral part of our fabric of care here in Hong Kong. Working on the assumption that we want the best for our families, the government could coordinate enhanced vocational training programs and accreditation to provide professional development for domestic workers both here in Hong Kong, and upon their return.

But time is running out. A holistic set of policies to improve the economic, social, and civic well-being of domestic workers is not just the right thing to do morally. Unless the Hong Kong government adopts a radical new approach to plugging the care gap, it is the only viable economic and political solution to future regional changes in demography and society. Hong Kong — and legislators — simply cannot afford to convey the message that domestic workers are not welcome, valued and respected.

The author is an associate professor of social science and public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

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