Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Hong Kong shames itself again by its treatment of domestic workers

South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion

Yonden Lhatoo takes a look at the latest revelations about the plight of foreign domestic workers in the city to remind Hongkongers how it reflects on them

In his classic science fiction novel, The Time Machine, H. G. Wells presents an anti-utopian vision of a future in which humanity has evolved into two species, the Eloi and the Morlocks.

The beautiful but spoiled Eloi, descended from the idle rich, enjoy a life free of work on the pastoral surface. The downtrodden, beast-like Morlocks, evolved from the working poor, toil underground in the dark to keep the surface dwellers fed and clothed.

Let’s hope we’re not heading in that kind of direction, the way people in this part of the world treat their domestic helpers from less-fortunate nations. And what a shame that Hong Kong is yet again making headlines in this regard.

How about this for starters: 500 domestic helpers will be sleeping tonight, and every night, in toilets in their employers’ homes. That’s according to a concern group that has just released a survey of the living conditions of 3,000 Filipino and Indonesian domestic helpers in the city.

At the same time, 14 per cent of them can’t access toilets when they need them for something other than to sleep in. And about 70 per cent share bedrooms with children, elderly people or co-workers, while 21 per cent sleep in the living room.

In one case, a helper’s bed was fitted into a kitchen cupboard above the fridge and microwave oven. A tiny rooftop room, only 1.2 metres from floor to ceiling, was accommodation for another helper. It makes me ashamed of complaining that I don’t have enough room for myself in my flat.

Yes, many Hong Kong families live in appallingly cramped conditions themselves, but we’re talking here about those who are affluent enough to afford hired help in the first place.

It doesn’t help that the government is an immovable object in the face of calls to ease the live-in requirement imposed on foreign domestic workers, and the opposite of an unstoppable force in making sure they are not treated like something to be folded and stored away for the night.

Now it’s taken a bunch of university students to show us, after their seven-month investigation, that more than 70 per cent of employment agencies here charge excessive fees to domestic helpers, withhold their passports as leverage to squeeze the money out of them, or stiff them in some other illegal way.

“If it’s that tough for them here, they’re welcome to go back home,” the unsympathetic often say. Why such disregard for people who prop this city up on more than one level?

We have about 350,000 domestic helpers serving 280,000 households in a city where families rely heavily on them to look after babies and grandparents while both husbands and wives go to work. They wouldn’t like their incomes halved now, would they?

That’s just the money part. Their other, often unappreciated contribution is the substitute for parenting they provide, and the companionship and care for elderly people who would otherwise be neglected. Like it or not, they are a glue holding the fabric of society together.

Going back to the future with the Eloi and Morlocks, the analogies are not limited to just helpers and employers. It’s about the age-old class divide, the class struggle, and what that could eventually mutate into in the centuries to come.

Oh, and I forgot to mention the best part of the story. The trade-off for the Morlocks’ life of drudgery is that they get to nip up to the surface at night to grab hapless little Eloi and drag them down into the depths to feast on their flesh.

To the Morlocks, the Eloi are actually livestock to be tended and fattened for food. Karma comes in many ways, I suppose.

Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post

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Asia’s migrants deserve to be welcomed fully into society

CommentInsight & Opinion
Nenette Motus says everywhere in Asia, migrants’ work is so integral to our prosperity that it’s unconscionable to deny them their rights

We are almost at the end of the year, by the Western business calendar. For many, it’s the start of a journey – home to see the family, to be with friends.

Our journeys may be short, but they are long enough for us to reflect on the millions who have set out on less happy journeys. In Asia, where disparities between rich and poor are wide, millions are on the move every year, seeking work and comfort for their families.

December 18 is International Migrants Day, celebrated this year under the UN theme of togetherness. Our welcome for migrants must extend further than simply benefiting from their contributions. We must also accept them into our society and assure them of the rights that we take for granted.

The Asia-Pacific region hosts the largest migrant population in the world. According to UN data, between 2000 and 2015, Asia added more international migrants than any other area of the world – 26 million in total, or 1.7 million additional migrants per year.

Asia’s prosperity and growth is built on the contributions of migrants. Asia can lead the world in celebrating this narrative, in realising that extending the hand of welcome to migrants brings economic and social benefits.

Host societies do not benefit from neglecting the welfare of migrants. Poor health, ghettoisation and poverty among migrants affect all in society. Conversely, ensuring migrants have access to good health care, housing, nutrition and working conditions will increase their value and contribution.

Very often, we send our talented young people to other places to study, work and live. We expect their right to health care and education to be ensured under the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. We need to demand that these rights be protected for all migrants, not just the ones we are connected to.

Migrants’ lives are interwoven with our own. Our shopping is often totted up and bagged by migrants. Our meals at restaurants are served by migrants. We wear clothes that were made by migrants. Our office buildings are built by migrants. The elderly in our ageing societies are supported by migrants.

Why do we stigmatise a group we benefit from so much? Migrants are too often blamed for taking our jobs, raising the crime rate and bringing diseases to our communities. This prejudice cannot be reconciled with the valuable role they play.

Migration is a quest for sanctuary, work, a second chance, a new dawn. We can walk that path together.

Dr Nenette Motus is director of the International Organisation for Migration’s Regional Officer for Asia and the Pacific, in Bangkok, Thailand

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Don’t force Cathay Pacific cabin crew to retire at 55

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Philip Yeung

Philip Yeung says imposing the limit on its mostly female crew of flight attendants is not just discriminatory, but also defies common sense at a time of longer lifespans

There are some things in Hong Kong I will never understand. Corporate behaviour is one of them. Another is government indifference or connivance at unsavoury business practices that impinge on our livelihood.

Consider the case of Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s proud flag carrier. It requires its cabin crew to retire at the youngish age of 55. Conveniently, in this city, age discrimination is not an offence in law. Since most cabin crew members are female, Cathay’s practice is teetering close to sex discrimination, for the mandatory retirement rule applies only to flight attendants, not to pilots, who are predominantly male. Cathay is at least guilty of unfair inconsistency.

When you remember that the average lifespan for women here is over 87 years, has anyone stopped to think what you are supposed to do with the 32 years after you have to retire? This practice simply defies common sense.

Cathay may have taken its cue from the government, which offers civil servants the option to retire early at 55, a practice intended to make room for up-and-coming employees. But, for a city that is demographically on the critical list, with a fast-ageing population, this policy has outlived its usefulness, except where declining physical powers affect job performance, as in the case of firefighters, for example.

The Cathay Pacific Airways Flight Attendants Union is now fighting back, splashing ads across local papers to plead for an end to this outdated practice. Though it lacks jurisdiction, the Equal Opportunities Commission should take a moral stand on this dispute, lest it send the wrong signal to private industry.

Elsewhere, the reality is quite different. I remember when I flew with United Airlines years ago, its first-class cabin was staffed wholly by grey-haired stewardesses, whom I called “the Grandmother Brigade”. They earned their place in the preferred cabin by virtue of their seniority. By contrast, Cathay Pacific sends its young flight attendants to serve its premium passengers.

If All-Nippon Airways can keep its flight attendants on until 65, and if Singapore Airlines, Cathay’s rival, can let them work until 62, then Cathay’s argument, whatever it is, doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

Cathay leads the world in customer service but lags in enlightened employment practices. If it wishes to make early retirement an option, its employees would doubtless welcome that. Sadly, in this self-proclaimed world city, you have to fight for what is taken for granted in other places.

Philip Yeung is a former speech-writer to the president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.