21 Nov 2006

Hong Kong's migrant workforce exposes wealth gap

HONG KONG, China (Reuters) -- Take a stroll through Hong Kong's downtown Victoria Park on any given Sunday and one can witness a unique social ritual as the city's one million domestic helpers revel in their weekly day off.

Sitting around in garrulous groups; Indonesian and Filipino maids can be seen chatting loudly, picnicking on home-cooked dishes, singing and dancing -- often to the accompaniment of musical instruments.

It's a boisterous, jubilant scene, beyond the dreams of maids around Asia including those in Singapore, who get just one rest day off a month -- if they're lucky.

But life for Hong Kong's migrant workforce is anything but easy. Working hours can be extremely long, and many lack any privacy in the city's cramped flats. Sometimes space is so scarce, maids have to sleep on makeshift beds on kitchen floors.

There also exists in places like Bethune House -- a shelter for migrant helpers -- a seamier world of maids suffering financial exploitation, underpayment, physical abuse and worse.

Tanuj Rai, a gentle, soft-spoken 24-year-old Nepali woman who's been living in Bethune House for the past nine months was abused and blackmailed by her employer.

"I was raped many times. I had no friends," she said.

Tanuj and others in the shelter, have been seeking redress for crimes committed against them, but the slow legal proceedings have left them jobless, poor and in a kind of legal limbo.

"The women are discouraged to lodge complaints because that would mean several months of no wages, so many just go back," said Edwina Antonio-Santoyo, who runs the shelter.

"Only these women are courageous enough to file complaints against their employers," she added.

By Asian standards, maids in Hong Kong are relatively well paid and are protected by labor laws.

But a notable number face widespread financial exploitation by employers and employment agencies, who flout minimum-wage laws with sophisticated under-the-table deals.

Social Workers say many maids work in situations of near "debt-bondage", forced to pay crippling placement fees of up to eight times their monthly salaries. But the Hong Kong government has shirked responsibility for the problem, saying the maids first incurred these debts in their home countries.

"The problem with the Indonesian workers is that they're very innocent, they never have knowledge of law in Hong Kong so they accept what the agency will offer," said Eni Lestari of the Asian Migrant Workers Co-ordinating body.

Wealth and abuse
The migration of workers from poor countries to more affluent ones is illustrative of Asia's gaping wealth gap, with affluent Singapore, like Hong Kong, able to employ maids en masse.

But Singapore, which has around 150,000 helpers, has gained a notoriety for headline-grabbing abuses against its migrant workforce, exacerbated in part, by government inaction.

Dewi Ratih for instance, a 24-year-old Indonesian from Central Java, was beaten repeatedly with a bamboo pole by her employer, who also burned her arms with a clothes iron.

"I was there for only a few weeks... If I had stayed there longer, I might have died," said Dewi, displaying unhealed welts on her arms.

Groups like Human Rights Watch say abuses against maids like Dewi are widespread in Singapore, a situation at odds with the city state's reputation as a wealthy, racially diverse and progressive society.

"They do have the power to enforce many laws and become a model for other countries, but they've remained one of the worst case scenarios," said Nisha Varia, a researcher with Human Rights Watch and author of a detailed report on the issue.

While Singapore's laws offer better protections than do neighboring countries like Malaysia, maids still face long working hours, pitiful wages and conditions amounting to "forced labor," as well as sexual and verbal harassment, she said.

So far, Singapore's government has been reluctant to grant maids full legal rights. Earlier this year, it made headlines by rejecting calls to give maids a statutory day off every month, arguing this would "inconvenience households."

"I think it's a surprise that the Singapore government isn't taking the necessary steps to change the situation... The changes they've made have been so superficial and none have addressed the root causes of the problem," said Varia.

Gradual empowerment
Back in Hong Kong, there is perhaps an important lesson to be learned -- that progress, while difficult, is possible.

When the first Filipino maids arrived in the late 1970s, they had scant rights. It was only through sustained activism that they become more empowered, winning landmark protections like a minimum wage.

Nowadays, Church groups and increasingly sophisticated support networks are confident enough to fight the government in court and organize mass street protests.

"Nothing was given to us. We had to fight for everything," said Antonio-Santoyo of Bethune house, "It's the painstaking organizing work of the Filipinos who started forming organizations in the mid-'80s."

Copyright 2006 Reuters. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


1 comment:

lee hsien tau said...

Forgive me for posting this!

First you have: so you think you can sing?

Then you have: so you think you can dance?

After that you have: so you think you can trade?

So could you be having: so you think you can screw?

March 30, 2006
BY Tamar Lerer

I’ve had my hand in more asses than anyone else in this room combined, Tristan Taormino said, establishing credibility in her Anal 101 workshop last Friday. The event kicked off the Sager Symposium with energy, class and lots of ass.

Taormino, author of Down and Dirty: The New and Naughty Guide to Being Great in Bed, The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women (Volumes 1 and 2), sex columnist for The Village Voice and producer of the House of Ass porn series, led the crowd through a talk that ranged from misconceptions and fears about anal sex to basic technique.

No matter where we grew up, we all heard bad things about our asses, Taormino said. She tried to dispel the bad rap anal sex has by addressing stereotypes that audience members brought up such as It’s not pleasurable, Exit Only and It only happens in prison. Taormino discussed anal pleasure as both an erotic and a loving act. Anal sex really requires a lot of trust between partners, and that can heighten the experience, she said.

In response to concerns that anal sex involves an unequal power balance and is degrading, Taormino countered that anal sex is the ultimate equalizer, because the person who is being penetrated is in complete control. This might seem odd to some (as she put it, Wait a minute, I’m getting nailed in the ass and I’m in the driver’s seat?), but Taormino explained that the only way to engage in anal sex is to really pay attention to the person receiving. You can’t tell how someone wants to be fucked in the ass just by looking at them, she said. Even I can’t do it, and I’m a professional.

Beyond addressing social issues, Taormino gave plenty of tips. You can have relatively clean anal sex by doing two things, she said. One: Showering. Hygiene can never be overrated. Two: Have a bowel movement before anal sex. Taormino went through the mechanics of an enema (for those who want to have sparkly clean anal sex), the importance of a short, well-filed nail (a torn cuticle or unfiled nail can really be felt in the ass, she said) and the necessity of lube.

You absolutely need lube all the time, she said. She then made the filled-to-capacity-and-then-some Intercultural Center repeat after her: Spit is not a lubricant. Neither are any household items you have lying around, since they are oil-based and will lead to an unhappy pussy. Though her favorite lube is Astroglide Gel, it’s really about personal preference. It should feel like liquid gold, she said.

Taormino also emphasized safe sex and dispelled the myth that anal sex is any dirtier than vaginal intercourse. Someone’s gotta have an STD, she said. The anal sex does not produce the STD. Over all, Taormino worked to put anal sex in a positive light. I would argue that people who have regular anal sex, have it safely and responsibly, have healthier asses than those who don’t, she said. That’s another reason to play with our asses.

Taormino’s talk was well-attended and well-received. It was awesome, Javier Camacho ’09 said. The ass is a wonderful and mysterious place, Andrew Scott-Taylor ’09 said. Matthew Armstead ’08, part of the Sager Committee this year, was very pleased with the event. I think it went really well. I’m really happy with the turnout, and it makes me really excited for the rest of the symposium, he said. Some students viewed the dialogue this event generates as an exciting and healthy step for Swarthmore. I’m so happy to see this kind of sex-positive, anal-positive event here at Swarthmore, Megan Nelson ’07 said. It was so fun, and I was so excited to see Tristan.

Taormino herself was very happy with the crowd. Considering the size of the school, I was really impressed by the turnout, she said. I felt that people asked really smart questions and were really attentive. There are people who stood for two hours.

Though the talk was funny and informative, Taormino and the rest of the Sager committee believe there is a strong message behind this talk and other events like it during this year’s symposium. Taormino summed it up very well: Sex is whatever we make it and whatever we want it to be. It can be dominating, but it can also be beautiful and loving and spiritual. And it’s not in any way degrading.