|Soon in Hong Kong: Invasion of the Amahs|
By Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - This city's once-proud film industry has been floundering for years, but now members of its largest political party have written what they hope is a blockbuster screenplay pandering to the darkest fears and prejudices of the people.
The script for this science-fiction thriller does not yet have an official title, but let's call it Invasion of the Amahs. As the hair-raising plot unfolds, hundreds of thousands of evil amahs (maids) from the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and other equally frightening, darker-skinned places descend on Hong Kong with their large, unclean, under-educated families in tow and proceed to explode the city's budget and tear to pieces its social fabric and character.
The fatal onslaught can only be stopped through the heroic action of the Hong Kong government, led by the biggest party in its Legislative Council, the cumbersomely named but courageously inclined Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), whose leaders authored the script.
If this sounds to you more like outrageous comedy than scary sci-fi, that's probably because you do not think, speak and act like a race-baiting DAB politician. As it turns out, however, there is good reason to be scared: Too many of this city's 7.1 million people are taking the bait.
The nightmare DAB scenario, released to the media last week, was prompted by three separate law suits filed by maids from the Philippines who are challenging the government's refusal to grant them permanent residency status even though each of them has lived and worked in Hong Kong for at least 20 years.
Foreign domestic workers are denied right of abode in Hong Kong while other foreign workers are granted permanent residency - and the voting rights, unemployment insurance, access to public housing and other entitlements that go along with it - after seven years in the city.
The first case will begin in the High Court on August 22, and already DAB scaremongering has inspired some nasty rhetoric as well as a Facebook campaign opposing permanent residency for foreign domestics. The title of one Facebook page translates as: "Against foreign helpers obtaining right of abode: Protect the welfare of Hong Kong people from being seized." Fans of the page have used it to launch a signature drive and also to organize protests outside the court once the case begins.
What has these misguided folks so worried about the future of Hong Kong under amah rule are the crazy prophecies - poorly disguised as objective, rational analysis - made by government officials and DAB oracles. According to these projections, 500,000 domestic workers and their families could settle in Hong Kong if the maids win their case.
This, the party claims, would push the city's unemployment rate, now 3.5%, to as high as 10% and lead to additional spending of HK$25 billion (US$3.2 billion) a year on ballooning costs for public housing, health care, schools and welfare.
From what dark depths of paranoia did creative DAB number crunchers conjure these dire figures? Actually, to hear the party tell it, these projections of doom are simply a matter of common sense and elementary arithmetic.
Just take the 125,000 foreign domestic workers who, according to government estimates, have been living in Hong Kong for at least seven years and would therefore qualify for permanent residency; now multiply that figure by the spouse and two children whom dubious government statisticians presume each has left back in his or her home country; finally, throw in the inescapable conclusion that all of those presumed spouses and children would leap at the chance to abandon their homeland to live in a city where they are not wanted.
You don't need a calculator to do the mad math: it all adds up to 500,000-person social and economic albatross around Hong Kong's neck.
Alarmist? Irresponsible? Racist?
Absolutely not, the party insists.
"We are only putting forward an estimation of the possible consequences," DAB lawmaker Starry Lee Wai-king calmly explained, "and reminding the government to be prepared for all possible outcomes".
Other politicians have joined the DAB chorus of fear and prejudice. Hong Kong's former security chief, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, now a legislator and head of the New People's Party, was worried enough to urge local authorities to pre-empt Hong Kong's court system by asking the central government in Beijing to intervene with a ruling on the issue - and clearly she anticipates that Beijing's judgment would go against permanent residency for Hong Kong's underclass.
The city's mini-constitution, called the Basic Law, grants Hong Kong judicial independence from the mainland, but it also allows the standing committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) to "interpret" any contested provision of the Basic Law - something that has happened four times since the handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
"It is certainly better to seek the interpretation from the NPC before the government loses the case," Ip told a local radio station.
She should know. In 1999, the last time Hong Kong witnessed hysterical warnings of economic and social collapse related to the right-of-abode issue, she was its minister for security, following a stint as director of immigration.
After Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal issued a ruling, clearly supported by the Basic Law, giving right of abode to the mainland offspring of Hong Kong residents, the government, with DAB backing, produced wild estimates purporting to show the inevitable, 1.7-million-strong wave of impoverished, unskilled mainlanders who would dash across the border to lay claim to the city's schools, hospitals and welfare rolls.
In the end, brandishing these suspect estimates, the government appealed to the NPC standing committee, which overturned the court ruling, and Hong Kong's reputation for judicial independence was forever damaged. Indeed, why is the city's highest court called the Court of Final Appeal when its judgments are not final?
Lost in all the fanciful math and political demagoguery this time around is the sad irony that a ruling in favor of the maids could very well prove harmful - but not for the reasons cooked up by the DAB and government statisticians. If the well-intentioned amahs win, it may prove costly to many of their fellow domestic workers, who could wind up getting sacked and sent home by middle-class employers who can no longer afford their services.
Presently, Hong Kong's legal minimum wage for foreign domestics - HK$3,740 for a six-day week - is considerably lower than its minimum wage for everyone else: HK$28 an hour, or HK$5,376 for a six-day week. Many foreign domestics also receive room and board from their employers, who have come to depend on them to do the cooking, cleaning and child rearing while they put in long hours at the office.
If the maids win their case for permanent residency, surely they would also be entitled to the higher minimum salary currently enjoyed by other employees in Hong Kong. That would make their services too expensive for a lot of Hong Kong families, who might then start terminating the contracts of their domestic workers prior to the seven-year mark.
Thus, if the maids win, tens of thousands of foreign domestics could wind up losers. Not that the DAB or its allies would care a whit about that.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1