Monday, August 1, 2011

Hong Kong and Anti-Filipino Sentiment

Right of abode for your domestic helper isn’t likely

The Philippines can always be relied upon to be a butt of derision in Hong Kong, a feature which was dramatically boosted lasted year by the slaying of Hong Kong tourists on a tourist bus thanks in part to the incompetence of the Manila police in dealing with a the bus hijacker. But the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB), an arm of the Communist Party and the territory’s largest party, has taken anti-Filipino sentiment to new levels.

In an attempt to present itself as the party of the common man and to divert attention from other grassroots issues, the DAB has launched a scare campaign suggesting that Hong Kong is in danger of being flooded with Philippine migrants, creating a huge rise in local unemployment and costing billions in welfare payments.

The issue has come up because seven Filipinos working in Hong Kong for more than seven years have taken the government to court asking for a judicial review of the refusal of its Commissioner for Registration and the Registration of Persons Tribunal to grant them permanent residence. Normally permanent residence status is granted to anyone who has been living in Hong Kong continuously for more than seven years but the government argues that this does not apply to foreign domestic helpers as they are not “ordinarily resident”.

Under the Basic Law the situation is not clear cut. In addition to seven years’ residence, people must show that they “have taken Hong Kong as their permanent place of residence”. The latter phrase has never been tested in any detail by the courts. The court may well decide that there is a high threshold of proof required which few helpers would be able to show. However it is well known that the barriers to others are very low and that hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese actually living permanently in Canada, Australia etc can get their status renewed just with a brief visit.

In practice it is doubtful whether large numbers would apply for permanent residence giving that they come to Hong Kong to make money to support their families back home rather than with any desire or intent to settle permanently. But the DAB goes even further in its scaremongering by claiming that Hong Kong would also be flooded by their children and spouses. In fact there is no such right under the Basic Law, with entry of dependents being entirely at the discretion of the government. It is also remarkable that the DAB claims that overworked, underpaid helpers would suddenly become a burden on the state meanwhile Hong Kong accepts some 60,000 migrants from the mainland per year, a high proportion of whom have few qualifications and often end up unemployed.

It is not clear how many of the Filipino helpers have been in Hong Kong for more than seven years but total numbers have been on a slow decline as many employers opt for Indonesians, often on the grounds that they are less educated, less aware of their rights and more willing to accept wages less than the official minimum. Hong Kong’s government has a very poor record of enforcing laws about helpers.

The government also sees Filipino helpers as a source of cheap and dependent labor regardless of their qualifications. The territory has a severe shortage of nurses, which is likely to get worse as its population ages and more professional caregivers are needed. But unlike many rich countries, the self-proclaimed “Asia’s World City” Hong Kong declines to recruit from its near neighbor.

Disdain for the browner-skinned people of Southeast and South Asia is nothing new but it has also been shown up by the government’s persistence in warning against travel to the Philippines as though events similar to the Manila bus tragedy have not occurred in Canada or China. Hong Kong’s bureaucratic elite sometimes seem to assume that non-Hans are inferior in the same way as whites regarded blacks in South Africa.

As for the role of the DAB, this is a party led partly by people who supported the cultural revolution and partly by plutocrats who switched allegiance from the British to Beijing to protect often seedy business interests. The party is also using this issue partly for domestic reasons and partly to undermine Hong Kong’s legal autonomy by demanding that the issue at stake be decided by Beijing’s rubber stamp National People’s Congress rather than by Hong Kong’s courts.

The DAB did the same back in 1999. Then it backed the government going to the NPC to overturn a Court of Final Appeal ruling that gave rights of abode to the mainland-born children of local residents. To justify itself the government produced some fictitious figures on the numbers who would have been eligible. The episode showed that an arrogant and unaccountable bureaucracy would go to almost any lengths to get its own way at the expense of the one official institution most trusted by the people – the judiciary.

Clearly the judiciary is again under threat from the DAB and government. Either it decides against all the Filipino applicants. Or it decides in favor of at least one, in which case one can expect the government to demand the NPC reverse such a decision. So much for Hong Kong’s autonomy, carried away on a raft of barely concealed racism. Asia Sentinel

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