Selena Liang/Tiffany Hui: On International Alliance: Filipino MDWs Living in the Gap

On International Alliance: Filipino MDWs Living in the Gap
Co-translated by Karen Leung and Tiffany Hui, edited by Chen-t'ang, written by Selena Liang and Tiffany Hui
Originally in March 2020 edition, CUHK SU Post
Original: http://cusp.hk/?p=8813 

Perhaps you all still remember when the anti-extradition protests were in full swing in October 2019, CY Leung offered “bounties” to migrant domestic workers (MDWs) in Hong Kong to snitch on their employers for possessing any “illegal items” related to the anti-government demonstrations, and called on them to help spread the word that cash rewards will be offered for anyone who does so. For that, the Hong Kong Employers of Domestic Helpers Association has its say: MDWs come to Hong Kong for work, but not participate in politics. They would not sacrifice their jobs for “the so-called justice”. While the matter concerns MDWs directly, none of their voices is heard due to the community’s overwhelming exploitation. Worse, what’s left of them is a dreadful image of money-driven ignorance that entirely precludes the values of justice. But that is far from the whole truth: MDWs in Hong Kong do take part in civic activities.

Shiela Tebia is one of the many MDWs in Hong Kong. As the chairperson of GABRIELA Hong Kong (The General Assembly Binding Women for Reforms, Integrity, Equality, Leadership, and Action), one of the overseas chapters of the Philippine-based alliance of women, Shiela has been serving its fellow workers on her days of statutory rest, Sundays, for 5 years. (For your information, this interview conducted during her break had to be cut short because of work.) The organisation has been taking active measures to raise MDWs’ awareness towards workers’ labour rights and the political situation in the Philippines, such as running workshops, holding forums, providing legal aids of the sort, organising rallies (i.e. Migrant Pride March), with the vision to unite the MDWs against capitalist exploitation, misogyny, homophobia, etc.

The misconception that MDWs would sell their souls for gain, in fact, reveals their economically underprivileged status and Hong Kong’s role as one of the predators. While We call for international support in our own movement, has it ever occurred to us that it’s equally important to fulfil our moral responsibility to the international community? Has it come to our attention that we should also keep an eye on the political situations of other countries? Sadly, most of us have no knowledge of the purposes of MDWs’ civic activities and are not aware of the suppression they have been suffering both in the Philippines and in Hong Kong.

Philippines’ Economic Issues

Amongst Southeast Asian nations, the Philippines has an extreme disparity of income and is reported to have the largest homeless population and the highest unemployment rate. In 2019, there are still 22 million people in the Philippines living below the poverty line. 10 years in with the neoliberalism policies, the government tirelessly narrows the range of public services. The supply of basic commodities is being dominated by the market, resulting in great expenditures on education, electricity and accommodation for individuals. Currently, there are 42.3% of urban populations living in slum areas. Regular folks cannot afford to buy or rent private properties, whereas thousands of empty public housing lie idle with the government’s laissez-faire approach.

In the interview, Shiela criticised the incumbent President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, for following the former president Benigno Aquino’s footsteps on the pro-consortia neoliberal policies which continues to advance the interests of domestic oligarchs and multinational corporations. Duterte’s 8-point economic agenda centred on injecting investment on infrastructure projects and spurring the GDP growth of the country, at the expense of opening up the whole of the Philippines to acute outsourcing of social services. The ongoing saga of the people’s torment -- structural unemployment, low-wage work and lack of labour protection -- has yet to be reversed. What is more, the trade unions and civic organizations are persecuted by the Duterte administration. In the name of his professed “war against drugs/terror”, the dissidents and the social workers (who advocate the protection of human rights on the indigenous tribes and the women’s rights) are tagged as terrorists in the government’s list. Such notorious malfeasance has also extended to launch litigation against the registration of Gabriela Women's Party, and to commit extrajudicial killings towards the poor and the activists.

The Blunt Nature of Fabricated Democratic System

In the Philippines, results of presidential elections under the “constitutional democracy” have been interfered by the long-standing profit-oriented collaboration between the local elites and the American capital. A study showed that in the 2016 general election 81% of the governors and the vice governors, added with 78% of the seats to the House of Representatives, went to the members from the political dynasties. These notable families have never been absent in elections, monopolising almost effortlessly by sheer transfer of benefits.

Duterte, whose father was Governor of the then-unified province of Davao, is from one of those political families rooted in the South. In the 2016 presidential election, with the big campaign promise of ending contractualisation, he succeeded in drumming up support from the poor. Underneath, support from certain factions of the bourgeoisie (Filipino-Chinese General Chamber of Commerce for instance) was granted, and his hypocritical stance has been validated by the series of pro-consortia business neoliberal policies since inauguration.

The state of the Philippines had been shaped through colonisations ever since the 16th century, during which the elites had clung on to the settlers for greater political and economic influence, and helped facilitate the rule.

In 1946, the United States (the US) gave the Philippines independence on the condition that the establishment of a free trade agreement and a fixed exchange rate (Philippine Peso/PHP to USD) were put in place, so that the interests of American companies could remain unaffected. Three years after, as the American investment reduced, the then Philippines government adopted drastic foreign exchange control measures to prevent unstable capital outflow. Unfortunately, such a decision was voided by the conservative party which won the plurality of the vote in 1959. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the American government welcomed the result, and together proposed to provide USD300-million loans to the Philippines instantaneously, which embodies the start of another wave of manipulation towards the Philippines’ economy. Between 1962 and 1969, the external debt of the Philippines had sharply increased 7 times to USD1.88-billion and the situation only got worse over time.

With the assistance of the US, the IMF and the conservative party, Ferdinand Marcos, the tenth President of the Philippines, established his dictatorship in 1972, and consolidated his neoliberal policies by violence and oppression. The World Bank and the IMF endorsed Marcos’ tyrannical rule publicly, and went to great lengths to exert considerable pressure on the succeeding presidents, which also explains the Philippines government’s lopsided approach on neoliberal policies even to this day.

From then on, the political sphere of the Philippines has been played right into the hands of the US government, the IMF and the local elites, and it consequently initiated the business model for the political dynasties’ – elections. Today, four privileged families, partnered with American countries, are at the helm of most power plants in the Philippines. Notwithstanding indigenous people’s objections, they took their land by bloodshed for agricultural development and mining.

“Filipinos have the right to vote for the president, but we don’t have a say. Reform relies on... if presidents do the public services they promised. It seems that they are supported by the people. In fact, they are supported by businessmen’s cash.” Shiela summed up the helplessness in Filipinos upon the democratic deficit and plutocracy in power. 

The Reason Behind MDWs' Influx

Though it may not seem so at first glance, the MDWs issue in Hong Kong is closely related to the Philippines' political landscape. For decades, the implementation of neoliberalism has cost the Philippines its sustainable development. Unemployment and underemployment have driven thousands of Filipinos to work abroad, including Hong Kong.

Despite the great amount of American investment and the agreement to increase local productivity, no real changes are made, as enterprises merely take advantage of the natural resources for their own development. Oftentimes, foreign companies gravitate to the tens of export processing zones in the Philippines, locate their factories there, and cooperate with multiple workforce agencies. By concluding 6-month short-term contracts with workers repeatedly, they are able to prevent any regular employee benefits that formal employees are entitled to. Because of it, nearly half of the workers there have to find a new job every 6 months.

Aggrievedly, Shiela explained, “Masses are asserting sovereignty against big countries investing into the Philippines. We believe that resources should be used by local people and locals should earn more than their business. The Philippines have rich natural resources. We don’t need the US and large countries to ‘so-called’ help us and really they just want to profit over people.”

Based on Shiela’s observation, the intra-country job opportunities are mostly delivered to men, but the fact that the economic backbones of the family can only work as contract workers makes it difficult to keep the family’s heads above water. Among the workforce with salary, over two-fifths (44%) belong to the sector of informal employment, and almost half of them are paid below the current minimum wage. The lamentable circumstance leaves women with no choice but to work out of the country and become MDWs.

Altogether, the amount of MDWs’ remittances reaches up to 30 million US dollars yearly, taking up 12% of the country’s GDP. As one of the main sources of foreign currency, they have been overlooked by the administration rather deliberately.

“The government has long neglected migrant workers. They don’t provide any plan of protection for MDWs. Even nowadays, there are many cases of sexual abuse in Middle East. If the government doesn’t give its promise to create local jobs for us, we cannot go home because our families need our support.” Shiela continued to unfold the gravity of the situation: Duterte first signed into law in 2017 and 2018 to launch the compulsory Social Security System, a state-run insurance program to workers in all sectors. In 2019, the contributions of the PhilHealth insurance are made mandatory, not excluding the MDWs, whereas Hong Kong is not within its coverage area. Given that it is their Hong Kong employers’ liability to provide them with free medical treatment throughout their employment contract, what the Philippines government imposed only ends up adding heavy financial burden on MDWs.

The Continuing Predicament of MDWs in Hong Kong

The high outflow of Filipino workers seeking employment in foreign labour markets meets the great demand for domestic workers in Hong Kong, which soon proceeds to fill up more than half of the jobs created. Instead of expanding its subsidised child care services to enable more full-time family carers to rejoin the labour market, the Hong Kong government, on the contrary, steps up its outsourcing efforts. Owing to the shortage of subsidy provided (1 out of 220 children on average), local families turn to the market to hire domestic workers as an alternative. Compared with local domestic workers (from HK$7,000 to more than HK$10,000 per month), MDWs (minimum allowable wage of HK$4,630 per month) are a more popular choice.

Securing a job in Hong Kong, however, does not always translate to fair and reasonable treatment. Hong Kong too pursues neoliberalism with the long-held fiscal policies of ‘big market, small government’ and ‘positive non-interventionism’. For decades, the city has maintained its low tax regime in favour of enterprises, while withholding the labour rights regulations, precisely the standard working hours, the collective agreement and the universal retirement protection scheme. For the MDWs’ part, a common occurrence is that the overcharging agency fees get them into debt, and their passports are confiscated illegally before it is fully paid off.

In addition to the reprehensible practice, the MDWs are obliged to live with their employers, meaning that there are no definite working hours, and in a worst-case scenario, the nature of work becomes a 24/7 one. This setting has put them in a vulnerable position in the event of exploitation and abuse. Knowing that they can either find a new job, plus apply for a renewed work visa, within only 2 weeks after the termination of contract, or be sent back to their home country, most of the MDWs hesitate and dare not stand up for themselves. Not only do they suffer from the lack of labour protection but also the oppression when fighting for their rights. In 2018, during Duterte’s three-day visit to Hong Kong, disproportionate security measures were arranged by the police and the Philippine Consulate General in Hong Kong, hindering the peaceful protests of 50 or so MDWs. Under double oppression at home and at work – being treated unfairly in Hong Kong and suffering the appalling poverty in the Philippines -- MDWs do not have a way-out. 

Hong Kong’s Global Responsibility and Connection

Being responsible for high value-added industries in the production chain (financial industry for instance), Hong Kong is in the upstream position of neoliberalism and has an advantage in the operation of the global market, while the Philippines does not share Hong Kong’s status. With more than half of the foreign investment poured into the manufacturing sector in the Philippines, the United States and other major countries (Hong Kong included) exploit its manpower and resources, regarding MDWs as a faceless whole of imported labour. Whether from the perspective of Hong Kong's privileged position or that of the underprivileged migrant workers, Hongkongers are duty-bound to fight for the rights of Filipino MDWs. We Hongkongers seek international assistance and speak over and over about international responsibilities in the anti-extradition movement, but have we reflected on how to make good use of our own international position to fight for the rights and interests of MDWs?

During Hong Kong’s movement, protesters actively connected with the globe. From time to time, American and British flags are seen in parades and rallies, and the Hong Kong Higher Institutions International Affairs Delegation formed by 12 students’ unions of higher institutions has lobbied hard in different countries for international support. The high-profile US legislation of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act shows the extraordinary power of Hong Kong demonstrators after connecting with the "foreign forces". International ties are undoubtedly important, and our instant move was to link to the governments of major European countries and the US. It is generally accepted that as the world's largest economy, the US, with its irreplaceable influence, can take the hot-button issues in Hong Kong to the world stage. Ideally, by joining forces with the US, Hong Kong can stand a chance against China.

However, the US support can hardly lead to substantial outcomes in Hong Kong. What the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act does is to impose property and visa-blocking sanctions to those on-the-list individuals. Strictly speaking, it is far from practical in terms of facilitating the progress of the democratic movement on the territories of Hong Kong. Now look at the facts: China and the US rely on each other economically. The US would not break off the diplomatic relations and trades with China, and that with Hong Kong. But still, it will ultimately choose to stand on the most economically beneficial side when the time comes.

It is worth noting that the enemy of our enemy is not necessarily a friend. Hong Kong’s connection with the US is purely a strategic consideration, and it does not mean for Hong Kong to be in sync with the US ideology. The US has long established itself as the country that upholds sacred democracy and freedom, and yet by both economic and military means, it crushes countries in Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia. Its capitalism expansion invades — exploiting the locals and plundering natural resources — so as its armed forces. What was mentioned here about its all-pervasive control and exploitation towards the Philippines is only a tip of the iceberg; the US has gone so far as to quell the protests on ‘the land of the free’ and suppress the indigenous people from the Philippines. It should be self-explanatory that the pattern of the US government’s actions is diametrically opposed to its motto that sings the praises of ‘respect for democracy and individual freedom’. Before holding up the Stars and Stripes, Hongkongers should understand the long history of the US’ imperialist oppression and the far-reaching implication of us agreeing to those egregious values beneath.

All of these make us rethink: What exact groups should we freedom fighters be connecting? It is understandable that we, with resignation, had to garner support for the influence of certain countries for the time being, but considering the future for this long-term mass movement, shouldn’t we build linkage with the oppressed mass who genuinely share the same value to resist all erosion of human rights and freedom?

Shiela: We Must Mobilise Mass Forces

"Although Filipino workers are suppressed in every aspect of their lives, many local groups and trade unions stand up and resist the companies’ unreasonable policies by holding large-scale actions outside the companies. Once, the capital was forced to have conversations and compromised on salary conflicts. This was crucial to employees who have been exploited for a long time.” Shiela, who understands the power of the mass, shared with us her firsthand experience of a successful campaign at home, “In the Philippines, local officials are given public funds for community improvement programs but they put it in their pockets. This proves that the system is problematic. People protested and demanded abolishment of the policy and direct investment of public funds into the public system. They spent one year protesting on the street and in front of government officials every week, and were even supported by members of Congress. Eventually, it was abolished. Once the people are united, change will happen."

Although there is merely one victory for now, Shiela believes that the people are able to improve their tactics to duplicate the success. Transformation never comes at once; as long as we endeavour, little by little, we shall win.

It is in Shiela’s firm belief that people can support each other and unite the masses regardless of nationality or ethnicity. GABRIELA Hong Kong, as well, had connected with several local human rights organisations (i.e. Autonomous 8A and the League of Social Democrats), and co-organised the Women’s Day with the Hong Kong Federation of Women’s Centres. Through these actions, they call for an end to discrimination against LGBTQ migrant workers and they hope to raise public awareness of the issue. By joining hands with Filipinos to support their rights, and protesting  side by side with them, we can actively participate in this dialogue initiative, and set out to create a greater impact on the world.

On a final note, as Shiela pointed out time and time again during the interview: “We must mobilise mass forces. This is our only hope.”

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