Aleta Miller writes for South China Morning Post on 1 May 2013
Imagine you are faced with an impossible choice. You must survive in Hong Kong on HK$1,200 a month for housing and three bags of food every 10 days, or you can risk working illegally, where you will likely face exploitation by unscrupulous employers who will take advantage of your vulnerability, and where you face possible arrest and prosecution by the authorities, with severe penalties. This is the dilemma that refugees in Hong Kong face every day, condemned to a life of deprivation and uncertainty. Unfortunately, misconceptions are rife about who refugees are and why they are here, feeding a fear that allowing the right to work would open the floodgates to economic migrants. Whereas an economic migrant chooses to come to Hong Kong to better their prospects, a refugee is forced to flee and cannot return because they are persecuted – sometimes by their own states. Currently, the refugee-status determination and resettlement process for applicants takes years to complete. Meanwhile, refugees must grapple with making ends meet in an unfamiliar city with no legal right to work or volunteer and relying on minimal welfare assistance that is inadequate for the cost of living.
Refugees are essentially forced into the very dependence for which they are often criticised, although they would prefer to be self-sufficient, if given the choice. The right to work is not the right to a guaranteed job; it is the right to have access to the labour market. It is a fundamental human right, without which other rights become meaningless. It is about more than being able to make a living; work is crucial for dignity, self-esteem and a sense of purpose. And poverty goes beyond unmet material needs – it also denies participation in society and personal autonomy over decisions that affect one’s life. The status quo is inefficient and creates perverse incentives. The right to work would make refugees more self-reliant and allow them to contribute to the economy; their valuable skills are untapped potential. By being granted the right to work, refugees would also contribute to the tax base, as well as be better prepared for resettlement. Access to livelihood opportunities would deter people from having to turn to the unregulated, informal economy or other means just to survive – reducing crime and labour abuses.
Social harmony would be improved by allowing those who are largely cut off from society to interact more with local people, playing a vital role in changing public perceptions. Exhausted arguments that the right to work would create a “magnet effect” are employed to justify the government’s tough stance on refugee protection. Based on the experience of other jurisdictions, there is a lack of empirical evidence to support this claim, and the level of apprehension is disproportionate given the actual numbers: there are fewer than 100 recognised refugees in a population of more than seven million. The potential gains of granting refugees a legal right to work – for productivity, social cohesion, refugees’ mental and physical health and for our reputation as a world-class city where rights are respected – far outweigh the costs of doing nothing. On Labour Day, when we show solidarity with workers and honour their contributions, let’s not forget to extend our support to those who are still denied access to this basic right.
Protesters march during a demonstration by asylum seekers in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP