The Chungweiming Knitting Factory in the Hang Cheong Factory Building in Shamshuipo sounds like something out of the 1950s or 60s. The sort of place where new immigrants living in shacks worked seven-day weeks, cops in shorts beat up communist agitators during strikes, and the Shanghainese owners got rich off textiles quotas. Yet this apparent relic lives on.
Its director is the Hon Felix Chung Kwok-pan. If the name rings a faint bell, it could be because he was one of the Legislative Council members on the infamous Cathay Pacific ‘aircraft delivery’ chateau-visiting tour in France two months ago. He is a member of the tycoon-oriented Liberal Party and represents the close-knit (ha ha) Textiles and Garment Functional Constituency, a small circle with a couple of thousand corporate votes, probably wielded by a significantly smaller number of actual humans.
Although he looks a vaguely youthful 50 and studied in the UK, he seems to have a rather traditional Confucian approach to manpower and employment matters. He is proposing that Hong Kong scrap the hiring of Filipinos as domestic helpers and turn instead to Myanmar. On the face of it, the idea is to punish the Philippines for being so uppity over the Manila bus hostage shootings tragedy. But what really seems to get his juices flowing is the prospect of sourcing workers from a place that is even poorer, and – I am just guessing – who are less educated, more servile and generally better suited to be Hong Kong families’ maids. What could be more mouth-watering than staff accustomed to US$25 a week? That’s not even 30 Hong Kong dollars a day!
He knows of what he speaks, as he is involved in some grubby-sounding garment sweatshop/industrial park down in Burma. Sadly, the Myanmar government seems reluctant to play along and says it allows its people to do only relatively skilled rather than menial work abroad. This might be out of national pride, or it could be for fear of exposing the country’s young women to abuse or other dangers.
The trend seems to be for source countries to clamp down on exporting nationals as maids. Indonesia and the Philippines both claim they will stop letting their nationals do such work overseas from 2017. The Philippines now requires Hong Kong employers, rather than the helpers, to pay placement fees, which we are told has contributed to a disturbing pattern of Filipino maids feeling entitled to quit their jobs if they’re not happy. This has led to the search for new poor brown people to wash dishes. Some Bangladeshi ladies arrived earlier this year, but many were fired owing to ‘communication problems’. The cheap house-servants lobby has always been keen on letting Vietnamese and, indeed, Mainlanders into Hong Kong, but the government is reluctant, apparently for fear that they will abscond and overstay (not brown enough – but Macau has loads of Vietnamese maids).
So we’re kind of running out of places. Laos, perhaps? Haiti?
It is easy to sneer at Hong Kong’s reliance on cheap domestic servants. We might also wonder at the affects on people’s racial attitudes and moral fibre, or – with school children (and Singapore’s soldiers) unable to carry their own bags – fitness (and let’s not get into who does the kid’s English homework). Defenders of the system point out that maids are essential because they free up middle-class wives to work outside the home, and thus enable families to make ends meet.
Which leads us to another explanation of who’s exploiting whom. Only by earning double incomes can Hong Kong families afford the city’s overpriced housing; the maids free up the housewives to work for the property tycoons. Or maybe that’s just a cynical, wild conspiracy theory, and those dots all neatly join up by coincidence. Like it’s just a coincidence that most of Hong Kong’s traditional textiles and garment companies have more exposure to real estate than the rag trade these days.
I declare the three-day wash-your-own-dishes period open.