Hong Kong’s rule of law is a long-established and much-lauded factor, making this city stand out when compared with many other parts of the world. There are many ways of evaluating the effectiveness of the rule of law; this article raises concerns about some of them.One measure is — are the residents safe as they go about their lawful business? We can compare Hong Kong’s enviable situation here with London, where I was brought up. Sad to note, in London these days there is widespread fear of attack, by knife, gun or acid, for those who walk that city’s streets. Home invasions and the maiming or murder of the inhabitants are also fairly widespread there. Whereas Hong Kong’s authorities, chiefly our police officers, generally keep our residents very safe from such attacks.
Another measure is providing protection to all residents, and especially to our most vulnerable people, so that they are treated fairly. Here the record is less straightforward.
Our scores of thousands of foreign domestic helpers are mostly recruited through overseas agencies, many of which rip them off by charging the new worker illegally exorbitant recruitment fees. As a result of initially paying off these fees, many new helpers spend their first year or so in Hong Kong without receiving the financial benefits which brought them here to work in the first place. There are laws here against charging over-high recruitment fees; laws which are admittedly difficult to apply as these agencies are located outside Hong Kong. Nevertheless, more needs to be done — much more — to find ways to better protect these new residents. The present widespread abuse of the relevant recruitment regulations by unscrupulous agencies provides a blot on Hong Kong’s record as a place with fair employment conditions for all.
Another factor affecting these new residents is that, despite having a contract of employment, some employing families here refuse to pay them at the legally-mandated minimum rate. If she complains about this, the unfortunate domestic helper will likely be sent packing — while her high recruitment fee is still owing. Stronger legal protection should be provided in such cases, such as by the family so dismissing the maid being obliged to pay her two years of salary as a lump sum, before she departs.
Strengthening our legal protections to enhance the fairness of their (foreign domestic helpers) treatment here would be great to Hong Kong’s credit as a city where the rule of law extends to support every resident — especially our most vulnerable ones
Then we come to the actual working hours of the family maid. These are often not set out in the contract, resulting in the poor woman being called on to work every waking hour. The authorities should do more to set a maximum number of working hours per week, and to ensure that these are not exceeded. Daily and weekly time limits need to be set, and kept to.
Then there is the all-too-common but lamentable situation of having the live-in family maid sleep on the sofa or on the kitchen floor, because her employing family has no room of her own to offer. Unpalatable as that is, it is also connected with the over-long working hours mentioned above, plus in some truly dreadful cases to the striking or even sexual assault upon the unfortunate family maid, as they have nowhere to escape to. Clearly, families employing a live-in foreign domestic helper should be restricted only to those able to offer her a room of her own.
The rule prohibiting foreign maids from living in their own accommodation, away from the employing family (perhaps sharing a modest flat with her peers), represents another regulation that should be changed.
For most foreign professionals in Hong Kong, they can obtain permanent residency after working here for seven years. But this general rule does not apply to foreign domestic helpers: They are not qualified for a permanent residency status, no matter how long they work in Hong Kong. That regulation also is ripe for repeal.
It strongly behooves the Hong Kong authorities to take ever-more strident measures to better protect these foreign domestic helpers from experiencing an unenviable period of work in this wealthy city. Strengthening our legal protections to enhance the fairness of their treatment here would be great to Hong Kong’s credit as a city where the rule of law extends to support every resident — especially our most vulnerable ones.
The author is a university lecturer and veteran commentator on Hong Kong social issues, who has lived in many other parts of the world.
HONG KONG NEWS