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Dateline Hongkong (January 20, 2002) Radio RTHK
VIEWPOINT

Hong Kong Servitude

During the New Year holidays, I was invited by friends for lunch at an expensive restaurant.  I expected to have a good time and a fine meal, instead I ended up with a bitter taste in my mouth. 

As the meal progressed, with the two couples feeding themselves copiously, it was obvious that the nanny was not going to be given any food.

The reason for this lay in the table next to us which was occupied by a well-dressed couple.  They had a small child who was being tended by their maid, who may have been Filipino or Thai.  When we arrived at our table, another elegant couple joined the people at the next table and they chatted gaily during the meal while the maid spoonfed the child and kept him quiet. Once or twice, the mother looked at her child and snapped at the maid who was obviously trying hard to keep the kid happy. As the meal progressed, with the two couples feeding themselves copiously, it was obvious that the nanny was not going to be given any food.  Throughout the meal she was hunched over, keeping her face turned to the child, feeding him, wiping his face, keeping him quiet in his seat.

Obviously,  that couple's nanny was just a cipher to them-someone they paid to do a job, not deserving of any courtesy, attention or food.   Perhaps she'd been given some congee before they had left home.

I was appalled by the scene, not just because she may have been a compatriot of mine, but because of the callousness of her employers.  It was a Sunday, when she should have been having her rest or spending time with her friends.  Instead she was taken to a fancy restaurant to see some rich folks gorging themselves, those heedless denizens of a world of which she could only dream.  

The human tide of migrant workers from poor countries that have washed up in Hong Kong and other parts of the globe is a sad fact of life.  But there's one fact I find hard to take  and that is how a number of Hong Kong people seem to have forgotten that their forebears themselves fled miserable conditions in China to come here, often to work at menial jobs.   Sadly, too many Hongkongers today look on the foreign workers in their midst as unworthy of the most basic respect and kindness.

I recall that wealthy families in Manila before World War Two  sometimes hired Chinese amahs. I myself, the child of a large middle-class Filipino family, had a Filipina nanny, but I had some cousins who had a Chinese amah. I remember being intrigued by that foreign woman who always dressed in black pajamas, spoke pidgin Spanish and Tagalog, and who returned to Hong Kong or China each year for her holidays. Today of course it's rare to find Chinese women working abroad as servants.  Instead, it's mainly Filipino women who have been toiling in many parts of the world, ever since the 1970s when the Philippine economy began to sink.

The Philippine Government, while shamelessly trying to gloss over the fact that one of the country's main export consists of human beings, nevertheless calls their overseas workers "heroes" because of the funds which they remit home.  One administration after another vows to manage the economy properly so that there will be enough jobs to keep Filipinos at home.  But then someone like former President Fidel Ramos, who recently visited Hong Kong, cautions the domestic workers to defer any dreams of returning home just yet-in other words, Filipinos cannot hope to prosper in their own country.

...there are, as usual, those Hongkongers who say that if the mainly Filipina protesters don't like it, they can lump it and go home, back to the poverty they fled—

Now that domestics in the territory may have their wages slashed further, there are, as usual, those Hongkongers who say that if the mainly Filipina protesters don't like it, they can lump it and go home, back to the poverty they fled—because women from the equally poor countries of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Nepal are perfectly willing to work for less money and with no complaints.   In fact, it's known that Indonesian women have recently been pouring into Hong Kong, desperate enough to work for less than the minimum wage. 

And so the cycle of callousness continues, with many Hong Kong employers enjoying not just domestic service from their maids but virtual servitude as well.  It makes this coming new Year of the Horse a sad one for all those who toil at making the lives of many Hong Kong folks so much easier.

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* On February 1st, the Hong Kong Government ruled against the proposal to cut wages for foreign domestic workers, with the proviso that this may be considered in the future if the economy does not improve.

© Isabel Escoda

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