“I don’t want to tell you this, but these conditions are unbearable, my legs are tired. My last meal was my employer’s leftovers from a few days ago.” This is a quote from Garcia, a Filipino Foreign Domestic Worker.
In 1974, The Labour Code was proposed and planned to send low skilled labourers of the Philippines to Hong Kong. This was drafted by President Ferdinand Marcos to reduce the rate of poverty in the Philippines.
The labour code claims to have reduced unemployment throughout the Philippines. However, what has instead happened is it decreased the poverty for a while, however it remained at the same rate since the early 2000s. Because of the perceived benefits, the code was soon mimicked by other countries in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, India, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The labour export soon became a major economic policy for many countries in the global south and a major outsourcing strategy for the global north. There has since been an increasing migrant labour phenomenon under the neo-liberal globalization.
Governments in the south and north of Asia encouraged this code, as it seemingly benefitted people living in these regions. Hong Kong has implied that the migrant workers are the influencers of labour supply of women and consequently create an economic growth for Hong Kong.
However, self-organized trade unions like the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union (IMWU), the Filipino Migrant Worker Union (FMWU) and many more would criticize this code. They say it’s because of the code’s lack of consideration of human and worker rights with the regards of underpayment of salaries, premature terminations of contracts, refusal of mandatory days off, long working hours and occasional physical, psychological or sexual abuse. Despite these conditions, many are still willing to work overseas to escape poverty and in hopes of providing financially for their families.
It’s apparent that this code has made some incremental improvements in terms of poverty, but have the incremental changes in people’s lives been considered?
In the late 1970s, over 300,000 helpers — or “Foreign Domestic Workers” as activists prefer to call them — were willingly exported to Hong Kong, with the majority being female and from Indonesia. They maintain two-year visas which are connected to their employment contracts.
The exploitation of the workers begins in Indonesia. The workers first receive pre-departure “training” in Indonesian agencies, which teach them subservience, meanwhile disregarding any reference to their rights as workers in Hong Kong. Hong Kong law provides some basic rights to the migrant workforce. Article 24 of the Hong Kong basic law states that: “Residents of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall include permanent residents and non-permanent residents.” Yet the minimum allowable wage for the domestic workers (non-permanent) is HK$4,310 (US$552.50) per month and HK$5.95 (US$0.76) per hour, meanwhile the permanent residence have a minimum wage of HK$34.1 (US$4.37) per hour. However, a recent survey conducted by Amnesty International confirmed that over a third of the women surveyed receive less than the minimum allowable monthly wage. On top of this, should the workers be deported back to Indonesia, they are required to pay exorbitant fees which level to HK$21,000 (US$2,700); roughly 7 months of their salary, making them indebted to their agencies. If the code was set in place for minimizing poverty, the debt from exorbitant fees, certainly won’t assist in that.
According to the South China Morning Post, many foreign domestic workers are denied their mandatory days off, sleep in unimaginable locations and are occasionally asked to perform tasks that are outside their contracts. Furthermore research done by Amnesty International shows that over a third of the women currently employed receive less than the already low minimum allowable wage. However many workers are too afraid to make complaints due to this being their family’s main source of income.
Perhaps the Labour Code shouldn’t be fully abolished, as it has been responsible for offering an income to low skilled labourers and bettering poverty in the Philippines and many other Southeast Asian countries alike. However, there should be an alternation towards how these labourers are supposed to be treated. Starting with a revision of these laws that claim to care for these workers, yet they’re still taught not to “fight back” or stand up for themselves within the agencies. How can there be no protection with the employees and the employers? It may be that the issue is with employers, rather than the system. But is it the system that needs to be bettered to motivate a change in the employer?
Featured Photo: International perspective: Hong Kong’s labor code has forsaken those depend on its existence. (MK817/Pixabay)