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Meanwhile in HK, a (paltry) raise in pay

/ 12:06 AM October 13, 2014

HONG KONG—Amid the demonstrations in Hong Kong by citizens enraged by China’s policy on universal suffrage, the local authorities had the time to announce a raise of HK$100 in the wage for foreign domestic workers. The move was welcomed by some of the workers, but heads of Filipino and Indonesian groups denounced the amount as paltry.

There have been incremental raises of the domestic workers’ salaries over the years—niggardly, considering the territory’s wealth. But migrants still come, and this year Filipinos alone (mainly women, with a small number of men also toiling as houseboys and drivers) have sent home remittances of US$2.3 billion. So with the increased monthly wage totaling HK$4,110, workers now earn more than they can in Malaysia and Singapore.

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In Hong Kong the numbers of Filipino and Indonesian domestic workers have fluctuated, with the Indonesians once overtaking theFilipinos. Many Nepali, Thai, Pakistani andSri Lankan workers welcomed the additional HK$100.

Bemused by the mass protests in this prosperous city, Filipinos found it easy to recall the original “People Power” movement in Manila in 1986 when hated dictator Ferdinand Marcos was dislodged. The protesters during the Edsa revolt appropriated the American song“Tie a Yellow Ribbon” as their theme. In Hong Kong this time, they saw that yellow was the dominant color, too.

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Hong Kongers, ordinarily not musically inclined, had no Freddie Aguilar to inspire them with a Chinese version of “Bayan Ko,” which had galvanized the demonstrators in Manila. Many of the Hong Kong protesters are students who did occasionally break out in song, mostly old “Cantopop” (Cantonese) tunes and new taunting chants. Driven by rage over Beijing’s new diktat on appointing a nomination committee to vet candidates for the 2017 election of the new chief executive (the term used for the territory’s leader), the protesters besieged the main administrative and business areas of the city, using umbrellas as their emblem (ironically, cheap made-in-China ones that collapse in high winds). They used the umbrellas to protect themselves not just from the sun and rain but mainly from police attacks of tear gas and pepper spray. Their angry placards included the picture of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying sporting a Hitler-like mustache.

The protests did not really catch people by surprise, because the organizers did not follow the Taiwanese playbook—when Taipei students stormed their parliament earlier this year to stop the passage of a bill which would have brought Beijing closer to Taipei. Oddly, the Hong Kong protesters began publicizing their threat to “Occupy Central” (the main business district) months ago, thus preempting the element of surprise and allowing the authorities to prepare.

Denouncing the local authorities and the Beijing government, one group declared, “We are Hong Kongers, not Chinese.” Others engaged in nostalgia for the old British rule, which had lasted 156 years, when the locals were content to pursue their economic activities and to allow the colonial power to administer the territory.

The Hong Kong Police, known in the region as “Asia’s Finest,” displayed their British colonial training during the demonstrations, initially showing restraint while maintaining order. But when the protesters threatened to storm the government quarters, tear gas and pepper spray were used to disperse the crowds. Businesses and schools were disrupted for over a week, producing angry reactions from businessmen and dismay from parents. Some sectors (many from the academe) encouraged the protesters’ jeremiads about the Hong Kong government kowtowing to Beijing more than serving the people of the territory. Analysts predicted that despite a planned dialogue (since called off) between the government and the disaffected crowds, no major reforms would result, and both sides would remain at loggerheads with the Chinese dragon glaring on the border of this enclave which writer Han Suyin once described as “a pimple on China’s bottom.”

Predictions that Hong Kong may lose its luster as a dynamic hub for international trade and finance, degenerating into just another Chinese city, is hard to fathom. But strange things can happen, and this frenetic freewheeling place could turn into a communist entity (“a democracy with Chinese characteristics”).

The capitalist tycoons of Hong Kong and Southern China would surely need more migrant workers to maintain the status quo in this wealthy enclave. That could mean the continued hiring of Filipinos, Indonesians and other Southeast Asians who may not mind continuing to toil in the “Asian World City”(as it likes to style itself), as they do at present on the fringes of this society.

 

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Isabel T. Escoda is a freelance journalist based in Hong Kong.

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TAGS: foreign domestic workers, Global Nation, Hong Kong, news, wages
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