The city state finds itself in a politically active period: people demand a more democratic voting system, and foreign domestic workers have already achieved a significant court victory.
Around 3,000 people marched to the new government headquarters in Hong Kong on Sunday 9th October to call for the resignation of newly-promoted Stephen Lam Sui-lung as chief secretary. According to a Hong Kong University poll, Lam is the most unpopular chief secretary to take office since Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of China in 1997.
Much of the reason for his unpopularity stems from his earlier attempt to impose – without public consultation – a rule that if a member of the Legislative Council (LegCo) resigns (or dies), there should not be a by-election but instead the candidate who got the next highest number of votes in the previous election would ‘replace’ the former member. The background to this manoeuvre is that the Hong Kong government has been reneging on promises to make the next elections in 2012 more democratic. At present, only half the seats on the Council are directly elected by voters, the others are in so-called ‘functional constituencies’ where votes can be wielded by corporate and legal entities. In one case, the property company Sino Group is estimated to control 3-4% of the votes in the ‘real estate constituency’.
In response to the backsliding on political reform, several LegCo members resigned en masse at the beginning of last year to run again on the issue of abolishing functional constituencies and for direct elections for the Chief Executive. As they co-ordinated the resignations from each of the 5 geographical constituencies, in effect the by-election allowed all Hong King citizens to vote in a kind of referendum. Even though the turnout in the subsequent by-election was low, this potential to trigger a territory-wide vote on a hot political issue obviously alarmed Beijing and its loyalists in Hong Kong. However, the ham-fisted ‘replacement mechanism’ idea has threatened to backfire by actually strengthening the opposition.
The march comes during an active period in Hong Kong politics, with protests occurring for and against a court judgement which allows long-serving ‘foreign domestic helpers’ – mainly women from the Phillippines, Indonesia and other poor countries, who are employed in private households in Hong Kong – to be eligible for permanent residence and therefore have the opportunity to leave their employers and seek other work. There are more than 270,000 of these workers in Hong Kong. Up to now, any other foreign worker, such as a banker or teacher, has gained residence after seven years, but domestic helpers were specifically excluded. A Filipina domestic helper who has been in Hong Kong since 1986 took the government to court arguing that the exclusion was unconstitutional and the court has ruled in her favour.
The ruling (which the Hong Kong government is appealing against) is a very welcome development. Although the women have slightly more rights on paper than in other countries – for instance, a minimum wage and a day off each week - the fact that at present they are tied to their employer for their right to remain, opens them up to abuses by the employer and by employment agencies. Helpers only have the right to stay for two weeks after leaving a job, nowhere near enough time to have violations of their rights properly investigated. According to the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, which has carried out interviews among domestic helpers, over a quarter reported that employers have not paid them the minimum wage or have refused to give them a day off or respect their right to statutory holidays. More than 25% reported physical or verbal abuse by employers, including a significant incidence of sexual abuse.
Inevitably, some groups oppose the extension of their rights on the grounds that it will strain Hong Kong’s resources, but it is these workers who enable the Hong Kong economy to function by taking over domestic labour and childcare. Most will in any case not want to take up residence, as their aim is to return to their own countries having provided for their families and for their children’s education, at the cost of long separations.