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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Trump’s America has given racism a new lease of life by making a mockery of its diversity

CommentInsight & Opinion
Amy Wu finds she had been living in a bubble of a multicultural America, as she learns a few home truths on discrimination and the newly blurred divide between conservative and liberal states

I am a big city girl, having lived in New York, San Francisco, Washington and Hong Kong, all of them cosmopolitan, international, if not progressive cities when it comes to the arts, culture, gender and politics. Diversity, exposure and acceptance – whether racial, sexual, gender or socioeconomic – was, in retrospect, taken for granted.

Diversity was a given – my Caucasian, ­Indian and Latino friends celebrated the Lunar New Year and Autumn Moon festivals alongside me, while I celebrated Diwali, St Patrick’s Day and their children’s quinceañeras.

In Hong Kong, my colleagues ­included Britons, Australians, Filipinos, Indians, Singaporeans, South Africans, and people from many other countries. In coexisting, we learned about each others’ ­cultures and backgrounds. There were certainly cultural and linguistics barriers, but I was privileged enough to be exposed to such a ­diversity of cultures and thought.

Under this new administration, discrimination, and at times racism, seems to have reared its ugly head in everyday life

I use the word “privilege” on purpose; it wasn’t until the aftermath of last year’s US presidential election that it hit me that, in living in these big metropolises, I had lost sight of the rest of the country, and the reality that I was not part of the majority but rather the minority.

Under this new administration, discrimination, and at times racism, seems to have reared its ugly head in everyday life. I noticed the shift in the election year, when Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns started to be ramped up.

Maybe I had been a bit slow in noticing, since I had always lived on one US coast or the other. I hesitate to say I had been living in a bubble, but the bottom line is that it was a bubble. My friends in big cities called the states in-between “flyover states,” a way of saying these states were second-tier.

Many of us had never visited states such as Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri and Mississippi, and if pushed would admit that we had little desire to. And yet, the results of the election clearly showed that the majority of people in the “flyover states” were Trump supporters, and in many cases conservative in thinking.

So imagine my surprise when I moved to Fresno in 2015. As the fourth largest city in California, sandwiched between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Fresno is working-class and known for its three-digit summers and, as I fast discovered, conservative outlooks.

Imagine my shock when, over drinks, a friend turned to me and asked me to vote for Trump. “Why?” I asked. “It’s obvious and just look at what Obama did or didn’t do, let’s start with the health care fiasco,” she said.

I was taken aback. Until that point, my friends had been mostly Democrats, supporters of Barack Obama and Clinton, and several were advocates for women’s rights, same-sex marriage and a comprehensive immigration policy.

Well, maybe we could have a lively discussion, or even debate. But no such luck. “You are going to vote for him, right?” my friend ­repeatedly asked.

When I moved to Salinas last year, about two hours south of San Francisco, the conversations often had a similar ring.

Why should I have been shocked when a winery owner rolled his eyes at me and said, “Of course”, when I asked if he agreed with Trump’s plan to build a US-Mexico border wall. “Best idea ever,” he said. And then the unimaginable happened. “The Chinese know a lot about walls too,” he said, nodding at me.

None of this should have surprised me since it was all happening in the aftermath of the new Trump administration. There were shifts, however slight, in the kinds of ­stories I was writing about, in the tone of the conversations, and it seemed to trickle down to everyday life as well. Maybe there was a segment of the public who felt they now had the licence to expose their raw feelings and viewpoints, whereas they were hemmed in before.

This new chapter brought changes. I was driven out by my landlady and her husband for no reason, even though I paid my rent on time and rarely came home and used the kitchen or bathroom. They started leaving notes accusing me of leaving a drop of water by the sink, and for a week turned on the jacuzzi right outside my room even though it disturbed my sleep. By contrast, they were sweet to the other two tenants, who were white.

“I think they are racist,” one of my colleagues commented. My father concurred: “These days there are some segments of the population who don’t treat Chinese very nicely.”

It’s hard to attribute how much of the shift is due to President Trump, or what the true impact is of his executive orders on immigration, the impending border wall, and the finger pointing and accusatory tone that he uses when talking about Chinese workers stealing jobs from Americans.

It isn’t just the Chinese. I live in a city that is predominantly Latino-Hispanic, many of them migrant workers who work in the fields.

On a similar line, I was infuriated when a 40-something white man, jobless and able-bodied, said he ­refused to work in the fields. “It would be too taxing on my body,” he said. Does he think the Mexicans enjoy the back-breaking labour of picking lettuce in the fields, with ­often 10 hours under the sun?

And then there was the viral story of David Dao, the physician who was dragged out of a United Airlines plane by security officers after he refused to give up his seat on an overbooked flight. It matters that he was Asian. Would the same have occurred if the passenger were a tall and strapping white man? Somehow it seems unimaginable.

These snippets and stories tend to create an aura that is disturbing and at times dizzying. Ultimately there is nothing surprising about racism and discrimination, but it is sad when we’ve taken three steps forward but could potentially be moving backwards.

Amy Wu is a journalist based in Salinas, California

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20 years on, and the fight against prejudice and bias continues in Hong Kong

CommentInsight & Opinion
Alfred C.M. Chan urges the government to address reforms to anti-discrimination laws, as suggested by the Equal Opportunities Commission, because equality also makes good business sense

In seemingly the blink of an eye, the Equal Opportunities Commission has completed 20 years of serving the Hong Kong community. On December 20, 1996, the Sex Discrimination Ordinance, under which the commission was established, came into full force when its employment-related provisions became effective. Since then, the EOC has been implementing the four related ordinances to give voice to those facing discrimination on the grounds of their sex, marital status, family status, pregnancy, disability and race.

In the 20 years to August this year, the EOC had handled more than 13,300 complaints and innumerable inquiries, and secured over HK$100 million in compensation for the complainants, as well as other forms of redress through conciliation and legal action.

While these figures represent the commission’s achievements through the years, a more important part of the work – perhaps less quantifiable and tangible – is to encourage social change. This is because prejudice, bigotry and often traditions are the biggest enemies of equality. For discrimination to be defeated, mindsets have to be reformed, and it is best done through education – one of our key areas of work.

However, since some of its work clashes with deep-rooted social values and the vested interests of different groups, the EOC faces controversies and opposition from time to time. For example, the judicial review initiated against the Education Department  on the Secondary School Places Allocation System in 2000 and, more recently, the advocacy for better protection for the rights of LGBTI  (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) people, have stirred vigorous, and at times acrimonious, social debates.

Despite the sometimes controversial nature of its work, the commission has gained increasing recognition from society at large. Two decades ago, few were aware of its existence. Today, many understand the values it stands for and defends.

The latest Equal Opportunities Awareness Survey, results of which were released in July, showed 98 per cent of respondents were able, upon prompting, to identify the EOC as the organisation tasked with promoting equal opportunities and eliminating discrimination in Hong Kong. This can be compared to 95 per cent in 2007 and 87 per cent in 1998.

Contrary to popular belief that equality is merely “decorative” for a money-driven city like Hong Kong, equality actually makes good business sense.

In recent years, there has been a conscious movement for diversity and inclusion policies to be made explicit among high-flying businesses  across a number of sectors, including finance and banking, law, information technology, and design and fashion.

The rationale is simple: people should be valued for what they are capable of, rather than who they are, because talented people find better incentives to contribute to a society where they feel welcome and at home.

The big corporations in ”Asia’s world city” know very well that an anti-discrimination policy championed by the government is crucial for Hong Kong businesses to go global and stay competitive. It also implies that the EOC plays a significant role in shaping Hong Kong’s future. To maintain Hong Kong’s competitiveness, the commission finds it necessary to update anti-discrimination laws in tune with the times.

Migrant workers in Hong Kong march against being subjected to racial and sexist slurs, in April 2015. Photo: Franke Tsang

Between July and October 2014, the EOC consulted the public on their views on reforms to the existing anti-discrimination legislation, and submitted 73 recommendations, 27 of which were deemed of higher priority, to the government in March this year.

Apart from better safeguarding those vulnerable to discrimination, the reforms aim to make the scope of protection more comprehensive, and equal opportunity values a vital element of public policies.

We once again urge the government to seriously consider these recommendations, which Hong Kong gravely needs to live up to its reputation as a world-class, civilised and developed society, and revise the legislation to offer all those living and doing business in Hong Kong the protection they deserve.

For my part, I feel fortunate to have arrived at the door of Hong Kong’s gatekeeper on the equality front as it reaches its 20-year milestone this year.

Alfred CM Chan is chairperson of the Equal Opportunities Commission