Hong Kong is about to start admitting mainlanders under its overseas-sourced domestic helper system. This news (to most people) springs from a China Daily article datelined Shenzhen. An agency supplying staff (under a separate labour import scheme) to Hong Kong elderly care homes found that in the case of one Xu Qingling the visa formalities were faster than usual. Therefore, the excitable company gushed, the middle class south of the border will soon be able to dismiss their awkward and unpredictable Filipino and Indonesian maids and hire poor compatriots from the north. For some reason, the obscure UK Independent newspaper took an interest and announced that Hong Kong seeks to end the ban on mainland maids.
The HK Central Policy Unit said over a year ago that it would look into the possibility of letting local families hire mainland amahs. It was a subject that fits well with the politically correct cross-border integration/partnership/blah-blah that the CPU pushes in the guise of research, but no report seems to have surfaced so far.
The big lobby in favour of opening up this new supply of house servants is the recruitment agencies on both sides of the border; they have been jointly discussing ways to push the idea for a while (the CPU would be proud). Hong Kong’s Chinese-speaking families would also welcome the chance to hire culturally familiar maids rather than Filipinos (uppity, organized, disdainful of Sir’s bad English) or Indonesians (as cheap and easy to kick around as Sichuanese, but anti-pork and prone to witchcraft).
However, to immigration policymakers the ethnic closeness is the problem. Given half a chance, more than a few Hongkongers would hire a relative or two as housekeepers and put them to work as cut-price and loyal workers in the family business. It would also offer a loophole to people trying to get mainland spouses or offspring into the city. Finally, it would increase competition for local labour: officials are already encouraging us to hire mainland helpers – provided they’re from Tin Shui Wai (‘dishes suited to your taste’). Insecure local wives also have doubts: a pale, slinky mainland woman around the home might, they fear, be more likely to lead their husband astray than a squat, dusky foreign girl.
There are ways to prevent such abuses of the system. Employers would not be allowed to pick a maid, but would be allocated a small group of trained prospects to choose from. Contracts would be renewable for only four or six years. And a minimum age of, say, 45 would help ensure the incoming helpers were dumpy and perm-haired enough to keep the Big Lychee’s lecherous husbands on the straight and narrow.
Officially, the Hong Kong immigration authorities require employers to pay foreign domestic helpers a set minimum wage. In practice, demand rises as costs (as in wages accepted by impoverished Indonesians) fall, so the recruitment agencies have a vested interest in sourcing labour from the scummiest economies possible. They would like to hire from Vietnam, but our government has vague ‘security’ reservations about this (though Vietnamese are, along with Indonesians, the default source for maids in Macau). And they would especially like to hire up north. This news story seems to have been started by, and for, them.
One deciding factor could be the Chinese government. The post-1997 patterns of cross-border family reunion immigration and mass-tourism from the mainland suggest that Beijing is not averse to seeing Hong Kong absorb or otherwise host more and more compatriots untainted by British rule – there’s another 1.299 billion available. (Christine Loh in her book on the Communist Party in Hong Kong claims that at least 80,000 cadres infiltrated the Big Lychee from 1983 through the one-way permit system, so maybe mainland maids would form a similar fifth column right in our homes. And people thought having their kids speaking English with a Manila accent was bad.)
Given the way things are going, however, fewer mainlanders are going to want to wash Hong Kong’s dishes in the first place. China’s growing prosperity will make the whole issue irrelevant. The Philippines, on the other hand, never changes. And what better way to whip your One-Child Policy brat-prince into shape? “She will be special. If she throws tantrums, she is immediately silenced. I have seen spoilt Chinese kids throw shoes or beat their Chinese maids and they are allowed to do it. I also make sure she changes her clothes every day.” What’s Tagalog for ‘Mission civilisatrice’?