There’s the Rub

The help

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It’s the sort of thing that puts you in a quandary. That’s the unanimous decision of Hong Kong’s top court to deny two Filipino domestic workers permanent residency there. The two are Evangeline Vallejos and Daniel Domingo. Vallejos has worked in Hong Kong since 1986 and Domingo since 1985, or pretty much the whole of the post-martial-law period. That’s one whole lifetime, in more ways than one.

The ruling was loudly protested by a Filipino migrant group, the United Filipinos in Hong Kong. “We are workers, not slaves,” the group’s members chanted outside the courthouse after the decision was announced. “Today is a very sad day for migrant workers in Hong Kong,” said Eman Villanueva, the group’s secretary general. “The court’s ruling just gave a judicial seal to unfair treatment and the social exclusion of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong.”

The court basically agreed with the Hong Kong authorities in its decision. Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma justified it by saying that foreign domestic workers are given to understand from the start that they will not have the same status as other foreign residents. “[They] are told from the outset that admission is not for the purposes of settlement and that dependents cannot be brought to reside in Hong Kong.”

On one hand, Hong Kong residents themselves have expressed fears that allowing foreign domestic workers to acquire residency would deluge their place with the latter’s relatives, straining their city’s social, health and education services. A presumption that’s not entirely presumptuous, given the propensity of Filipinos to seek greener pastures abroad and/or get themselves petitioned by relatives living in America. It’s a matter, therefore, that can be argued on grounds of self-preservation.

On the other hand, there’s also something deeply inhumane about it. At the very least, close to three decades is one hell of a long time, enough to have raised a generation or so of Chinese kids, maids often enough being yayas on the side. There’s an emotional investment there too, quite apart from an investment in time. In any case, it’s a different world people like Vallejos and Domingo would be coming home to in their old age, after they cease to be employable as domestic workers. Like some of the Filipinos in Sabah who have been driven away after living there for most of their lives.

Just as well, the ruling justifies treating maids like prostitutes, or an inferior caste, a thing driven home by the marked contrast between them and the other foreign residents who may become permanent residents after seven years. It institutionalizes judgments about respectability and nonrespectability, acceptability and nonacceptability. Or it brands you for life: Once a maid, always a maid. You cannot improve your mind, you cannot improve your standing, you cannot improve yourself. You will always remain a maid. You will always remain, though eminently useful, fundamentally unacceptable. The maids have a point chanting, “We are workers, not slaves.” It kind of reminds you of Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help,” about black women in early-1960s Mississippi. The help are just there to help, not to obtrude. Hell, not even to be seen.

At the very most, the question is what right a country has to make these kinds of judgment about human worth. Even if you could not improve your mind, even if you could not improve your standing, why should you naturally be discriminated upon? What’s wrong with being a maid? Why should that naturally bar you from permanent acceptance by, and entrance into, the society you serve? True enough there is no duplicity in that foreign domestic workers are given to understand the terms from the start: They can never be permanent residents. But the question is whether those terms may be made from the start. The question is whether they are legal, quite apart from moral, from the start.

From a legal viewpoint, some Hong Kong lawyers themselves are challenging the constitutionality of the provision. From a moral viewpoint, well, Mark Daly, the lawyer of the two Filipinos, puts it this way: The top court’s ruling is “not a good reflection of the values we should be teaching youngsters and people in our society.”

But here’s the part that puts you in a quandary: What to do about it?

Vallejos and Domingo themselves can always appeal, but their options, quite apart from their resources, are limited. We ourselves can always protest it and rail against it, but our options, quite apart from our resources, are even more limited. You cannot be confrontational without producing unsavory consequences for domestic workers. Not least exposing them to more discrimination in the very hiring process. Hong Kong can always opt for “less troublesome” help from Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

You know how willing Filipinos are to work abroad under even the worst circumstances, from their remonstrations with government during the Arab Spring and the tumultuous events in Libya, government having temporarily banned overseas work in the affected countries. The OFWs might as well have been saying, “Please don’t protect us, we’re perfectly capable of taking care of ourselves.”

In the end, it gives us a reality check again on our lot in life. We’re still in the heart of the Cuaresma, we’ve a long way to go before Easter. We continue to live like Blanche Dubois in “A Streetcar Named Desire”—a people who get by on the kindness of strangers. We may not be slaves, as the domestic workers in Hong Kong say, but we are beggars in many respects, and beggars cannot be choosers—in many respects. So long as we remain dependent on overseas work, and the levels of that dependence aren’t tapering off, so long will we suffer the vicissitudes of, well, The Help.

Something to think about over the next few days.

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