Accueil > 08- Livre Huit : ACTUALITE DE LA LUTTE DES CLASSES > Hong Kong : Asian migrant workers fight for their rights

Hong Kong : Asian migrant workers fight for their rights

dimanche 18 octobre 2009

Hong Kong : Asian migrant workers fight for their rights

Sunday, 18 October 2009.

Ninety nine percent of Indonesian migrants in Hong Kong work more than eight hours a day

Vincent Kolo,

“We are workers, not slaves !” Victoria Park in Hong Kong was in the grip of ‘girl power’ of the trade union kind on Sunday 18 October. Indonesian migrant domestic workers were celebrating ten years of trade union organisation in Hong Kong with a large and colourful mobilisation to press their demands for inclusion in an impending minimum wage law and for an end to the notorious discrimination they suffer. An open air festival with speeches, music, and then a march to the Indonesian Consulate drew more than 2,000 women workers.

“We are going to the Consulate to protest that many Indonesian workers don’t even get the minimum monthly wage [for migrants] of HK$3,580,” said Iin from Indonesia who has worked in Hong Kong for six years. She and her friends held a banner calling for a blacklist over employers and recruitment agencies that violate migrants’ rights. This was a central demand of the demonstration. Violations are very common and take a variety of forms, from illegal confiscation of migrants’ passports, to underpayment of the paltry migrant minimum wage. The Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Union (IMWU), one of the organisers of the festival and march, have listed 40 agents of migrant workers’ assignments that they say should be blacklisted because they have committed such violations.

[End discrimination of migrant workers !]

The ‘no welfare’ trap

The overwhelmingly female migrant workforce in Hong Kong constitutes the most exploited section of the city’s labour force. But they are also becoming one of the best organised – loud, clear, and radicalised. They deserve the full support of all other groups of workers. There are over 250,000 migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong, with most coming from the Philippines, closely followed by Indonesia. Other migrants come from Thailand, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

These women fill the void that exists in childcare, elderly care and other services, due to frailty of Hong Kong’s public service sector under a government with a notoriously anti-welfare “small government, big market” doctrine. Rather than pooling resources under a strong, democratically supervised, and state-funded (via a progressive taxation policy) system of childcare for example, each family must find their own ‘private solution’. This means that the migrant workforce are often severely exploited, whereas under a state-organised welfare system they would all work for one employer – the government – and be organised in powerful workplace trade unions. The Hong Kong government, which represents the interests of the tycoon class of capitalists, opposes any idea of a “welfare state”, which would strengthen the working class as a whole, not just migrant workers, and facilitate collective organisation.

The following facts illustrate the super-exploitation of migrant workers :

• One quarter of Hong Kong domestic workers receive less than the statutory minimum wage of HK$3,580 (US$462) per month.*
• Half work more than 15 hours per day**. Among Indonesian migrants, only 1% enjoy an 8 hour working day.
• 64% of Indonesian domestic workers are not given statutory holiday by their employer.
• 54% of Indonesian domestic workers are not given the legally mandated 1 day of rest per week.

[Sources : KOTKIHO, IMWU and AMC research in 2006. * and ** South China Morning Post, 5 October 2009]

‘I am a worker’

Mirabel comes from Iloilo in the Philippines and has lived in Hong Kong for seven years. She gets to go home to the Philippines to visit her family once every two years. She joined the trade union FDWU (Filipino Domestic Workers’ Union) four months ago because she wants “the government to give me my rights”. Previously Mirabel had only been organised through her church. “We encourage all migrant workers to join the union, but many are afraid their employers will sack them,” she told

“We don’t call ourselves ‘domestic helpers’, we say ‘domestic workers’ – I am a worker, not a helper,” she says defiantly. “I work for 16 hours a day taking care of a grandmother. We want to work only 8 hours, anything over that should be overtime and I should be paid accordingly,” she said. Mirabel is adamant that the Hong Kong government’s new minimum wage law must apply to migrant workers. “If they don’t include us in the minimum wage law, then they are exploiting me too much. My hourly rate nowadays is just HK$19, she explained.”

Blacklist over bad practise

Muthi Hidayati, the Secretary-General of KOTKIHO (Coalition of Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Groups in Hong Kong) told, “Today we are trying to push the Indonesian government and the Hong Kong government to blacklist agencies and employers who violate our rights.”

There are many types of violation, she explained. Many employers pay below the minimum wage for migrants, with some paying as little as around HK$2,000 a month. Some employers and agencies keep workers’ ID cards, passports, personal documents or contract letters, which is illegal. Employers also refuse to give workers their statutory holiday entitlement, with some allowing only one day off per month, Muthi said. Cases of sexual harassment or mistreatment and physical attacks also occur, with migrants in an extremely vulnerable position economically and legally. The government’s infamous ‘2-year rule’ means that migrant workers whose contract is terminated have just 14 days to find alternative work before they must leave Hong Kong. “It’s not enough time,” argued Muthi. “The law is discriminatory.”

She explained that many Indonesian women come to Hong Kong with university degrees or, like herself, a secondary high school education, but are unable to find jobs in their own country that are compatible with their level of qualifications. Often they are cleaning and cooking for people with fewer educational qualifications, but economically, the life of a low-paid migrant in Hong Kong is the only way out. “Our government is very bad,” she said. “Indonesia’s people are getting poorer and poorer now.”

New minimum wage law

“We want the Hong Kong government to include us in the minimum wage legislation. They want to exempt us, this is discrimination,” explained Muthi.

Donald Tsang’s government will soon announce its long promised proposals for a statutory minimum wage for Hong Kong workers. But the government is already maneuvering to exclude migrants, the lowest paid section, using such arguments as that migrants’ working hours are too hard to calculate(!), and that food and accommodation is included in many job contracts. In fact, the government’s attempt to exempt migrants is in breach of its international commitments. Hong Kong has signed the ILO Convention No. 97 Migration for Employment Convention (Revised), 1949 which states that “Each Member for which this Convention is in force undertakes to apply, without discrimination in respect of nationality, race, religion or sex, to immigrants lawfully within its territory, treatment no less favourable than that which it applies to its own nationals ....”

This issue of migrant worker inclusion is a central one to the wider struggle for a minimum wage, set at a level that workers can live upon. Nearly one quarter of Hong Kong’s indigenous workforce earn less than HK$5,000 per month, and many young workers especially at the ubiquitous fast-food chains and convenience stores get paid less than HK$20 (US644$2.58) an hour.

Without a big campaign of pressure and a mass recruitment drive by trade unions and left organisations among low paid workers, the risk is very real that the new minimum wage will be set at a derisory level. The right-wing pro-Beijing Liberal Party for example, a party close to the Tsang administration, calls for the new minimum to be set “not higher” than HK$24 an hour, which based on an eight-hour day means a monthly wage of just HK$4,992 (US$644). As one newspaper joked, that’s not a minimum wage, it’s a minimal wage ! The fighting example of migrant women can inspire other workers and youth in Hong Kong to get organised and fight for their rights.

The editors of wish to pass on 10th birthday greetings to the Indonesian Migrants Workers’ Union and other migrant organisations in Hong Kong on behalf of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) – Unity is strength ! [Photos : Jack Muir/]

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