Understanding the domestic work-refugee nexus

Post Date: Jul 4th, 2014 | Categories: Advocacy | COMMENT

The number of foreign domestic helpers (FDH) applying for asylum in Hong Kong has apparently grown in the past years. Some commentators argue it is indicative of asylum abuse, as the 14-day rule to find a new employer weights too heavily on domestic workers who are fired or decide to change their employer. In many cases, workers unable to return to their homeland become visa overstayers.

It is easy to dismiss domestic workers as not meeting the acceptable criteria of protection claimants fleeing persecution to seek sanctuary in our city. Given their number they are consequently refused services to an acceptable level causing great immiseration. Since Hong Kong Immigration failed to identify a single Pakistani/Indian/Bangladeshi refugee 22 years of CAT screening, presumably the bias against maids from Indonesia is even stronger.

Nonetheless, hundreds of domestic workers genuinely fear returning home where they might face cruel and inhuman treatment or persecution. They frequently make this agonizing decision despite, and at times precisely because of, families left behind, including children they might not see for a very long time and often abusive husbands they might not have chosen as spouses, who push them to remit money.

Refugee Union members, whom Vision First has learnt to listen to in recent months, clearly note that maids’ entry into asylum is neither entirely an economic decision – they are aware they could be jailed for up to three years for working – nor obviously a welfare choice, as clearly the assistance provided is inferior to the help they would get in home villages, or even retaining legal status in Hong Kong. Further, many former domestic workers avoid surrendering to authorities for years, for fear of being hastily deported, and thus enjoy no benefits at all.

Maids are often drawn into the asylum sphere for several reasons. One most commentators and employers are concerned about is that they are hardly just workers, but are also women, endeavoring to foster human relations in a setting that clearly aims to dehumanize their femininity. Dating between foreign domestic workers and refugees is natural as both groups are shunned by local residents.

Most importantly, when pregnancies occur, couples are oddly caught by surprise and the mothers, often abandoned by partners, realize the gravity of the unexpected situation. Even if the mothers were not married in Indonesia and don’t have children, they know that cultural, religious and social norms prohibit liaisons. Thus returning home with babies born out of wedlock and particularly with a darker completion, is taboo and an unforgivable sin.

Further, although the consequences might not be as radical as honour killings in other South Asian countries, persecution by some family members, including disgraced parents, present and former husbands and religious and social leaders is likely a guarantee.

Where love does not condemn domestic workers to the hell of asylum, it is money that blocks their options of returning home honorably. In order to secure a job overseas, foreign domestic workers frequently incur considerable debt amounting to several tens of thousands of dollars. This is money that is loaned, often by loan sharks, at time mortgaging ancestral homes, and necessarily needs to be repaid quickly to avoid incurring skyrocketing interest fees. After a few years personal loans transform into savage extortion unserviceable by a maid’s salary.

Debt-bondage is a reality many readily accept as a necessary step to keep maids in check and easily exploit their compliant labour. However, when they lose their job, death threats are frequently uttered by frustrated husbands who remain at home and are easily targeted by loan sharks and assorted debt collectors. Face is also compromised, whereby families send daughters overseas to earn good wages and failure becomes a family embarrassment. Some daughters run from fixed marriage prospects and Skype their families only when in Hong Kong to learn they will be welcome only as long as they contribute to the finances of the family they abandoned in the first place.

Refugee Union members explained that most foreign domestic workers would rather get another job than return empty handed to face insurmountable loans and humiliation. Additionally, the rule is that after three termination Immigration will not allow a fourth, leaving them with few viable options.

In light of cumbersome and unrealistically narrow visa regulations for domestic workers and limited asylum welfare, could it be that their entry into asylum is not unanticipated asylum abuse, but rather an intended consequence to avail employers of informal labour while also claiming that Hong Kong should stand firm in denying asylum because the system is being abused?

What appears clear thus far is that former domestic workers have serious and valid reason to seek protection with Hong Kong authorities, at the very least because this city plays an active role in inviting over 300,000 maids to assist local families. Is it reasonable to presume that not a single maid would face persecution when removed and thus should not be granted asylum in Hong Kong?

Dozens of ex-FDH married or had children with refugees and would be persecuted and shunned in their village if they returned with mixed-raced children.