Plus, of course, we’re lazy

For a maid who hasn’t been attacked by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Evangeline Banao Vallejos is quite a star, with coverage in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, the Telegraph and all the rest. The world is, for some reason, watching to see whether Hong Kong grants overseas domestic helpers permanent residency.

The angle is that maids get an unfair deal, but the underlying theme is that Hong Kong must be a rather good place to live in. It is hard to imagine Filipino migrant workers begging for right of abode in Saudi Arabia, and it is unlikely that a claim of this sort could or would get a serious hearing in the courts of most other jurisdictions in Asia.

One question the international coverage doesn’t address is why Southeast Asian women do so much of the middle class’s cleaning, picking up and child-rearing that they account for 7% of the city’s workforce. In America and Europe, third-world domestic help is for the genuinely rich; here, leaving single-person households aside, around one in five families has a live-in maid (more than have cars).

As everyone points out, the amahs ‘free up’ Hong Kong women to go out to work and thus enable a bigger, better, more prosperous, booming economy. But what happens to the net extra wealth created? Many of the families point out that they must have a double income because life is so expensive. If we were in a nasty mood and wanted to pick on our favourite titans of commerce again, we could make a case that foreign domestic helpers, and the liberal regime that allows any family that can afford it to hire one, form just another component of the Hong Kong Mega-Scam. Without working women augmenting household incomes, the property tycoons would be forced to cut the profit margins on their apartments. (Not a new debate: are rising house prices a cause or effect of a higher female labour participation rate?)

The Wall Street Journal story we’d like to see: Hongkongers hire Southeast Asians to wash their dishes and kids so they have a fighting chance of repaying the 20-year mortgage on their Li Ka-shing shoebox.

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12 Responses to Plus, of course, we’re lazy

  1. Sir Crispin says:

    Interesting take, I never really thought of it that way. Well done.

  2. Revolution says:

    Having now actually bothered to look at the Legislation, it strikes me that Ms Vallejos has an uphill battle and the Government is likely to prevail.

    And much as it sticks in my craw to say it, it seems to me that the Government’s position here is entirely defensible. It is up to them to decide (within the confines of the Basic Law) who is and who is not entitled to work here, live here and settle here. Ronny Tong was quoted in the paper as saying something to the effect that the right to live in HK is a civil right, not a human right, and I think that is an important distinction.

    There are strong arguments in favour of considering whether the right people are being allowed to come here permanently – I am unconvinced that sticking 100 or so people a day in places like Tin Shiu Wai is a good idea, for example – but like it or not, that is a matter for Government Policy, not the Courts.

  3. Maugrim says:

    I agree, an interesting point that is exemplified by the fact that HK’ers had Chinese amahs during the growth in factory based manufacturing in the 1950’s. Amahs enabled women to take up employment and thus improve the family’s standard of living. Many would argue correctly exactly how much people have benefitted by having cleaner but not much bigger rabbit hutches in which to live in.

    However, in regards to domestic helpers, its also true that Singapore offers, if they are lucky, one day off per month. For many helpers from the Phils, while there are those here with university degrees etc, a few are greatful for electricity and a flushing toilet. Many have drunken, indolent husbands or male relatives who are lazy sponges, or are dealing with a demon like mother in law and a bunch of teen age children discovering drugs. The point I want to make is despite us hand wringing about how much we can do for maids, the truth is for many, HK is a great deal better than other ports of call, especially their country of origin. Hence the desire to live here. I can’t blame them I spose.

  4. Stephen says:

    Just a thought but perhaps the reason for the high proportion of HK’ers employing maids is due to Hong Kong’s ludicrously long working hours (including Saturdays), lamentable maternity leave and lack of day crèches / care. In addition, as you have mentioned, the unaffordable price of one of Mr Li Ka Shing’s shoeboxes, priced in gross area.

    However I do enjoy it when the International Press latches on to a local story as we now know this will cause our Government to go into panic mode – especially if horror – Evangeline wins her case !

  5. The Regulator says:

    The HK Government is already in Pannick mode – that being the name of the Government barrister on the case

  6. Joe Blow says:

    “And much as it sticks in my craw to say it, it seems to me that the Government’s position here is entirely defensible.”

    “…despite us hand wringing about how much we can do for maids…”

    It seems that some of our correspondents are blessed with a bias the size of Mindanao.

  7. chopped onions says:

    Et tu JB?

  8. Revolution says:

    On the contrary, Joe, I’m struggling to remember the last time I actually agreed with the Government’s stance on anything…

  9. Real Tax Payer says:

    OH help !

    See my commnents ( very last ones) on the day b4 blog

  10. Probably says:

    How does one define an immigrant as opposed to a resident? Is it migrants from China into HK since 1949, Europeans to the USA since 1776 or Normans into England after 1066? Suffice to say it is all one world and economic migration will occur whenever or wherever it is possible and there is sufficeint willingness on the part of the emigree. Hence sensible governments impose “controlled immigration” measures in order to allow the most meritocratous applicants the better opportunity based on their abilities that they will bring to their new abode – not their skin colour.

  11. truthier says:

    nice post! I could not possibly agree more.

    Here is my question: why cant the SCMP ever print an argument or story to this effect?

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