Hong Kong slashes pay for poorest

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IT IS USUALLY hard to quantify meanness, but not in Hong Kong where, thanks to government edict, it amounts to the sum of pounds 15.

This is the outcome of the 5 per cent cut in the minimum monthly wages of foreign maids recently ordered by the government. They are among the lowest-paid members of the community - and the first to have their pay cut by government order.

It is customary for governments to protect the interests of the lowest- paid in times of economic hardship. That is not happening in the former British colony, where, as the Hong Kong Daily News put it, the government is responsible only for the people of Hong Kong, and has no moral obligations to assist foreign domestic helpers.

There are some 180,00 domestic helpers in Hong Kong. This means even middle class families of fairly modest means often employ them. As from now all those signing new contracts of employment will be paid just under pounds 290 a month. This is less than a third of the average monthly wage.

As for the pay cut, that represents less than the amount most middle class women pay for a weekly visit to the hairdressers. For Simplicie Canlas, a Filipina domestic worker with 10 children in the Philippines, the pounds 15 represents a vital contribution to her children's college education.

She is just praying her employers will not make the cut when the time comes for her contract to be renewed. They are quite entitled to do so, even though she has worked in Hong Kong for 10 years

Perlita Tino, in her twenties, says she is lucky she has no children to support. But she will still miss the extra money, which is roughly equal to the amount she spends on the one day each week she is allowed to leave the house and enjoy some free time.

Like many Filipinas in Hong Kong she is absurdly overqualified to be a domestic servant. A graduate in journalism, she failed to find work in the media at home and ended up working as a waitress for very little money. Her wages in Hong Kong are far higher but she now thinks she won't be staying long. "I need the money but I don't like the way they are bargaining with our salary," she says.

The government insists it has acted responsibly. "The economy in Hong Kong is going through a difficult period of adjustment with a high rate of unemployment," a spokesman said. "That is why it was justifiable to introduce a wage cut."

Ironically, one vocal campaigner for an even bigger wage cut is the prominent pro-communist politician Jennifer Chow. She demanded a 20 per cent reduction. "We are quite disappointed," said Mrs Chow, an employer of two maids, who often stands on platforms with Communist Party officials.

Bien Molina, of the Asian Migrant Centre, says he understands the problems created by Asia's economic recession but says the pay cut will do nothing to address the problem. "This is more of a political statement," he says. "Why do they target the most vulnerable part of the community first?"

Some unions representing local workers have expressed support for the foreign domestic workers, out of fears that the government is sending a signal to other workers by imposing this pay cut.

Those worst off are the new wave of domestic workers from Indonesia and the Indian sub-continent. Loretta Brunio of the Filipino Migrant Workers Union, says some 90 per cent of Indonesians receive less than the minimum wage, and some 60 per cent of Indians and Sri Lankans are also paid significantly less than the minimum. Many of these workers earn less than pounds 160 pounds per month.

Mrs Brunio is herself a victim of the economic recession. Her employer's business went bust and they disappeared - leaving her without a job. She scoffs at the idea that if they were able to save pounds 15 a month from her wages they would somehow have managed to keep afloat.

The presence of so many foreign domestics in Hong Kong has freed a huge number of women from confinement to the home, enabling them to have children without taking a break in their careers.

It is such an accepted fact of life in Hong Kong that few people ever bother to dwell on the price paid by the women who look after their children. They have all had to leave their own children at home, usually with their grandparents.

Mrs Brunio says most Filipina domestics send home about 60 per cent of their wages, keeping about pounds 120 pounds per month for their own expenses. Traditionally they would set aside about one sixth of this amount as savings, which is usually enough to start a small business back home - and the amount of money most of them were setting aside matches almost exactly the sum which is being cut from their wages.