Simon has done a fairly effective job of demolishing Hong Kong Phooey’s latest rant, on the subject of foreign domestic helpers (FDHs). As Simon says, Mr Phooey makes some good points, but the problem is the way that he presents them in his posts. If he had written a short ‘rant’ of 2–3 paragraphs about the way that some Hong Kong people treat their helpers (something like this), I would probably have been nodding in agreement, but instead he tries to present it as if it were an academic paper (though a fairly poor one, scattered with gratuitous insults) and left me shaking my head with frustration.
Mr Phooey seems to feel compelled to cite references to support his arguments. Unfortunately the references he cites are neither relevant nor helpful.
He mentions Hong Kong’s status as the “world’s freest economy” (a dubious accolade awarded by a right-wing think tank), takes this at face value and then complains about Hong Kong people having the “freedom to enslave and exploit domestic helpers”. I fail to see the connection here, given that the government does set a minimum wage and even prosecutes a few people each year for breaking this law.
He also cites an article from the Christmas 2001 edition of The Economist. I read this article at the time it was first published and have subsequently recommended it to anyone who wants to gain some insight into the life of a Filipina domestic helper in Hong Kong. To place it in context you need to understand that in the Christmas double issue, The Economist runs a large number of feature articles that are not about current affairs, economics or politics. The theme of this piece is the contrast between the “virtual slavery” of the Filipina helpers and the fact that they appear (at least on their day off) to be the happiest people in the city. However, Mr Phooey is much more interested in writing about the appalling behaviour of Hong Kong people. The Economist alludes to this and mentions a couple of court cases brought against Hong Kong employers for physical abuse of their helpers (something that Mr Phooey oddly fails to mention) but the article is really about how Filipina helpers can be so happy, not how Hong Kong people can be so beastly. So the article doesn’t really assist Mr Phooey in his line of argument.
However, The Economist does highlight the irony of the current situation:
Two generations ago, the Philippines was the second-richest country in East Asia, after Japan, while Hong Kong was teeming with destitute refugees from mainland China. Among upper-class families in the Philippines, it was common in those days to employ maids from Hong Kong. But over the past two decades Hong Kong has grown rich as one of Asia's “tigers”, while the Philippines has stayed poor.
Mr Phooey is not interested in any of this either, and merely uses The Economist as a reference for some (out-of-date) statistics on the number of Filipino helpers in Hong Kong, though I suppose he regards the “virtual slavery” line as justification for his use of the term “enslavement”. It’s not clear what The Economist means by “virtual slavery”, but the reality is that Filipinas and other foreign nationals willingly come to Hong Kong knowing what to expect, and are free to leave at any time. They certainly work long hours for a low wage, but that’s not the same thing as slavery.
What else is wrong?
Well, the minimum monthly wage is HK$3,270 rather than the figure of HK$3,670 taken from the old Economist article. The latter figure applied up till about two years ago, when the government introduced a HK$400 levy, which (not unreasonably) is regarded by many people as a tax on helpers. That seems unfair given that a local worker paid the same amount would pay no tax at all, but Mr Phooey has overlooked this altogether.
However, the minimum wage for FDHs here is significantly higher than it is in Singapore, and (like it or not) it is more than most helpers could earn back home. As Simon notes, the minimum wage runs counter to Hong Kong’s status as “the world’s freest economy”, and if the minimum wage was abolished (and the process of applying to hire a helper made less bureaucratic) it is highly likely that more jobs would be created, to the benefit of all concerned.
Anything else? Well, Mr Phooey compares the cost of car ownership with the cost of hiring a helper, arguing that Hong Kong people happily pay top dollar for a top-of-the-range car, but try to pay as little as possible for a helper. It’s not a very useful comparison because most people in Hong Kong don’t own a car, and it is therefore not “a ‘must have’ for many middle class HK Chinese” as he claims.
Rather mysteriously, Mr Phooey thinks that the way employers economise is to hire their helpers direct from the country concerned, rather than using an agency. Actually, these are separate issues. You can break the law and pay a helper (probably from Indonesia) less than the minimum wage, and you can hire a helper without using an agency. You can do one, or the other, or both.
If you really want to save money, you choose the first option, but I seriously doubt that many people go to the Philippines to find a maid for themselves – most people who hire direct are either employing a helper who is in Hong Kong after their contract expired, or from overseas based on personal recommendation. You certainly don’t have to personally go to the Philippines or Indonesia to find a helper who will work for less than the minimum wage. Moreover, many agencies provide precious little in the way of training for the helpers who they bring to Hong Kong, so there really is no guarantee that you will get a better helper this way. If you add to that the fact that the agencies charge fees to the helpers, it becomes quite rational to avoid using an agency if you can, and it does not mean that you are settling for a less capable helper or paying less than the minimum wage.
Of course, Mr Phooey can’t resist the temptation to insult as many people as possible. He talks disparagingly about “The Phillipines – or some other Third World SE Asian backwater” and “naive country peasants” and then says that the majority of Filipina helpers are “well-educated polyglots”. Yet he also seems to think that a “qualified au pair” from Sweden or Switzerland will provide better care for children than a helper from Indonesia or Sri Lanka. This is arrant nonsense – there are countless horror stories about European au pairs, whereas many Asian domestic helpers have long experience of looking after children (both their own and their various employers) and quite often stay with a family for 5–10 years. Does he really think that a childless 21 year-old from Sweden will be better qualified to look after children than a 30 year-old mother of three from the Philippines?
There is a delicious irony here – Mr Phooey makes fun of Hong Kong people for buying expensive Mercedes, but it seems that were he to go to the amah showroom, he would always opt for the expensive Swedish or Swiss model rather than the cheaper but more reliable Asian model. He would also apparently buy from the main dealer rather than going for a cheaper personal import. More money than sense, that man.
I feel sure that a little more research (even ten minutes with Google) would have left Mr Phooey rather better informed. For example, this piece by an Indonesian helper who says that “Hong Kong has better regulations and policies for the protection of migrant workers" [than other countries where Indonesians are employed]. Or this example of the cruel way some Hong Kong people treat their helpers. Or the endless correspondence in the SCMP about helpers.
Sadly, the truth is that in almost every country where Filipinas work as FDHs, there are cases of abuse and ill-treatment. In reality, Hong Kong is no better or worse than anywhere else, but the minimum wage is higher and legal protection is better here, and so it is probably the destination of choice. That doesn’t excuse the way some employers behave, but it does put it into context. However, Mr Phooey isn’t really interested in understanding the issues involved – all he wants to do is moan about the way Hong Kong people behave.
On which subject, every since I mentioned that blog I have had a steady stream of comments submitted to the two posts. The main feature has been someone steadfastly defending Mr Hong Kong Phooey and his blog.
Who can this be? The obvious answer would be Mr Phooey himself, but he denies that. Apparently he is just someone who had read the blog and “emailed Hong Kong Phooey as [he] was interested about some of his remarks”. There seems to be some mystery about how anyone could have emailed Mr Phooey when there is no email link on his site, but maybe there was one there and then it was removed because people were sending him abusive comments (obviously the very last thing you would expect when you publish a highly provocative blog).
Anyway, apparently Mr Phooey emailed this person with (1) copies of the abusive emails, (2) details of his qualifications, and (3) a full cv and life history. This allowed our excitable friend to inform us that Mr Phooey “is doing a PhD in linguistics and already has one in evolutionary biology!”, and that he “often presents papers in both Mandarin and Cantonese at conferences around the Mainland” and “has lived in some 15 different states and is WIDELY travelled”. Wow, I am impressed.
Nothing odd about that, of course. I have a similar cv available for when complete strangers email me and tell me how much they love this blog and wish to defend me against any criticism. Admittedly it would slightly compromise my anonymity, but there you go.
Anyway, this kind soul has been very happy to defend Mr Phooey against all and sundry, which has led to a lively debate. Er, no, hang on - it has led to a lot of silly name-calling, mainly by Mr Phooey’s new-found friend, who thinks that insulting everyone will win the day. I can’t speak for anyone else, but personally I have not been won over by this charm offensive (calling critics of Mr Phooey losers, cretins, childish and worse).
And that, I promise, is all I have to say on the subject of Mr Phooey.