Cecilia Ho: Macau overlooks migrant workers’ hardships, contribution

Monday, April 12, 2010
Issue 984, Page 4 & 6
Word count: 2510
Published in: Macau Daily Times

By Poyi (Natalie) Leung

The Imported Labour Law is going to take effect just two weeks away on April 26. Yet, the controversial “six-month waiting period” is still worrying some, if not a lot, of the non-local workers particularly the domestic helpers from Indonesia or the Philippines.

According to the latest figures from the Labour Affairs Bureau, at the end of January 2010 there were 74,429 blue card holders in Macau. Of them, Filipino people formed the second largest community accounting for 10,817, following the mainland Chinese.

In addition, 14,367 worked as domestic helpers, representing the second most common occupation among the imported labour in Macau.

The “six-month waiting period” aroused intense debate during the final reading of the bill at the Legislative Assembly in October last year.

The article, in brief, will prevent non-local workers from changing jobs immediately. If a worker quits the job to accept a better job offer or for other reasons, he or she is required to leave Macau for six months, and only after that he or she will be granted a new work permit (blue card) to work for another employer.

In contrast, if it is the employer who sacks the worker, he or she will be free to find a new job at once basically without any legal constraints.

Cecilia Ho Wing Yin, a lecturer of the social work program at the Macao Polytechnic Institute, directed a documentary “HERstory – Jeritan” in 2009 that tells the story of a female migrant worker, Jus, who left Indonesia to work as a domestic helper in Macau.

The 72-minute film was the winner of the Jury’s Award and Audience Award of “Macao Indies 2009” organised by the Macao Cultural Centre.

In an interview with the Macau Daily Times, Cecilia Ho, who was once a blue card holder from Hong Kong, talks about the hardships she knows domestic helpers are experiencing in the territory, how she thinks about the Imported Labour Law and what Macau people’s general impression is on non-local workers.

Reporter: How will you comment on the Macau government’s overall imported labour policy?

Cecilia Ho Wing Yin: The Imported Labour Law wasn’t tailor-made for certain types of imported workers. Here I will focus on the situation of domestic helpers. Domestic helpers’ employers are of individual families and thus the conditions they face are very different from working in a company or casino where you can communicate with other people. Because of the specificity of this job, domestic helpers need special attention to their concerns.

The Law is written very nicely, but there are many loopholes in the actual implementation, which refer to the lack of coordination between government departments and also language problems. The Law is not written in English and it’s hard for the domestic helpers to understand the content.

For Indonesian workers or workers from Southeast Asia, I think there exists a lot of exploitation by recruitment agencies. It is especially true for Indonesian domestic helpers that they could be charged an agency fee amounting to six to eight months of their salaries. If an employer fires the worker before she can actually put the salaries into her own pocket, it means she has made no money at all in the past months. But if she finds another job she will need to pay the agency fee again – it’s like a never ending cycle. There is no standard rate and it totally depends on the agencies. We can even call it a kind of modern slave and these people have no labour protection at all. But I don’t see many regulations on recruitment agencies in the Law.

In Hong Kong, a recruitment agency isn’t allowed to charge a foreign worker over one month of the salary.

In some cases, workers also have to pay the recruitment agencies in their home country. In order to make sure that they will pay after arriving in Macau, they’re required to sign a debit note for having received training provided by the agencies before departure.

The chain of exploitation may have started in Indonesia, but in Macau there is no supervision on recruitment agencies. As long as you have a computer and some business networks, you can be an intermediary. In this aspect I think the government should have done more.

On the other hand, being hired on a trial basis is another problem. It’s illegal to work before you are issued a blue card. But Macau is a place with free access and people can enter on a travel visa which lasts for one month. And one month is enough to find a job.

Some of the domestic helpers in Macau actually came from Hong Kong. When they finish a contract in Hong Kong, the employer will give them a plane ticket to return home and they need to depart Hong Kong within 14 days unless they can find another job. However, what these workers will usually do is to go to Macau where they will wait for news of a job offer in Hong Kong. If someone hires them they can go back immediately at a much lower cost than waiting in their home country. But while staying in Macau on a travel visa, they may also find some part-time jobs or engage in a job for trial through recruitment agencies because they still need money to support themselves, which is of course illegal.

For the workers, they sort of don’t have choices because we will never get hired if they don’t go to work for a trial period for example one or two weeks.

However, I heard from the domestic helpers that employers in Macau are usually more lenient than those in Hong Kong. The overall problem here is concerning low salaries or the collection of passports.

The recruitment agencies will usually tell the employers to keep the domestic helpers’ passports. So when labour dispute occurs, the workers will be in a disadvantaged position.

R: What’re the other problems facing migrant workers in Macau today?

Ms Ho: In Hong Kong a domestic helper can get an average of nearly $4,000 a month. But in Macau it’s just around 2,000 to 2,500 patacas. Under this situation they’re already in a very disadvantaged position. It will even be even worse when the Imported Labour Law comes into effect as they are most worried about the six-month ‘cooling-off’ period.

I always question why the so-called professionals can have special privileges to get job changed on their own will, but not the domestic or manual workers.

In addition, once the Law is in place, they will need to leave Macau in a week after a contract is terminated. Sometimes these workers may travel to Hong Kong or Zhuhai but they may be banned from entering Macau on a travel visa afterwards, unless they can show a return fly ticket and around 2,000 dollars in their wallet. I think it’s kind of discrimination no matter they’re coming here to look for a job or not, because they’re holding a valid travel visa and in that case the government is actually prohibiting a tourist from entering Macau.

These workers don’t have much bargaining power. Employers can fire them all in a sudden just because they don’t like them. The workers can’t voice out but have to tolerate as they don’t want to go back to Indonesia for six months and then come back.

Director of the Labour Affairs Bureau Shuen Ka Hung has promised earlier that imported workers who are being treated unfairly can be exempted from the six-month ban. But the problem is how much capability the bureau has to handle this kind of complaint cases? How many staff do they have who can talk to these workers in English or Indonesian? For the migrant workers associations, this six-month ban is discrimination.

In a free market like Macau, they come here to work but actually don’t benefit from the free market. Many of the migrant workers don’t want to go back home before they can earn enough money.

The government doesn’t give any education or promotion to employers. Focus is mainly on casinos or large-scale companies, but it’s also important to educate employers of domestic helpers. It also depends on how much effort the Indonesian Consulate is putting in to liaison with the Macau government about solving the problems its citizens encounter outside of Indonesia.

In addition to the six-month ban, the migrant workers association are also concerned about having a refuge shelter for their people. At present there is no organisation that provides such service. While their problems can yet be solved and they have no tickets to fly home, very soon their visas will expire which make them overstay in Macau. So these people will be held in a detention centre. But how about those migrant workers whose visas haven’t yet expired but are waiting for the verdict of their court case in Macau? What can they live on during that period? So the associations hope that there is a shelter to accommodate migrant workers in that situation. As a developed city, Macau is seriously lagging behind when it comes to protecting imported workers’ rights and interests.

Also there aren’t many local associations that will take the initiative to help migrant workers.

R: How true are the claims that imported workers are taking jobs away from local people and pushing down the salary levels of their local counterparts?

Ms Ho: I don’t think what these claims suggest are facts, you need to see which type of imported workers you’re talking about. As for domestic helpers, there are talks about importing them from mainland China, but there is still a long way to go.

There are more than 10,000 migrant domestic helpers in Macau and their rights and interests at work need us to pay attention to. Discrimination towards these workers also exists in government departments. For instance the officers aren’t able to communicate with them or think bad about their different skin colour. These are things that can’t be controlled by legislation. For me it’s a matter of education. In Macau we don’t have a racial discrimination ordinance. The laws can’t keep up with the pace of economic development in order to cope with the problems arisen behind.

There is a need of more concern and care between people. I hope the local social services organisations can see this issue and don’t help only local people. There is a service gap. Migrant workers also live here and are a part of Macau.

R: Based on your work experience, do you think local people’s general impression on imported labour is negative and usually overlook their contribution to Macau?

Ms Ho: I think yes. When an economy develops and there isn’t enough time to train up local people, you need the professionals and even manual labour from outside. But for domestic helpers, Macau really needs them because local people won’t engage in this kind of job. If they have a Macau identity card in most cases they will prefer working in casinos.

The negative impression on imported labour may have attributed to the way of how the mass media report on related news. It’s not the workers’ problem. In a globalised world, people will go where they can find jobs with more attractive salaries or more job opportunities. Macau society doesn’t yet have this kind of world vision that workers have the right to move to different places to work. Identically local people also have the right to move to another place and make money.

Employers are also largely responsible for having created such negative impression on migrant workers. Are they really pushing down the salaries and hiring non-locals because theye cheaper? The government must have to shoulder the responsibility and combat illegal workers. The Imported Labour Law exactly has to regulate how companies sell their imported labour quotas to other companies.

I understand the six-month ban is aimed at tacking illegal workers, but eventually it also affects domestic helpers. The Imported Labour Law isn’t detailed enough and all the different types of migrant workers are regulated by the same law.

The conflict shouldn’t be between local and non-local workers, but whether or not the law has provided enough protection to all imported labour. I heard some cases that employers would bring the domestic helpers to clean their houses in the mainland. She was supposed to work at only one house in Macau but altogether she had to clean three houses. The workers will compare their employers among themselves and therefore they may want to change jobs. The situation is very complicated so you can’t just have one law for all imported labour.

R: Some lawmakers when discussing the Imported Labour Law argued that migrant workers shouldn’t be as free as local people to change jobs and should under certain restrictions.

Ms Ho: I think it depends on which type of jobs we’re talking about and what the reasons are that a worker wants to change jobs. I agree to have certain restrictions on imported labour but these restrictions have to be reasonable. And now the workers can only come back to Macau after half a year. From the perspective of human rights, I think imported labour should enjoy the freedom to choose a job that they like, as long as they follow the legal procedures.

The Labour Affairs Bureau needs to inspect each company and make sure that they’re really using their own imported labour quotas. It should have done better in terms of legislation and government supervision.

R: So overall is the Imported Labour Law a good or bad thing for migrant workers?

Ms Ho: It was a progress because the law hadn’t been revised for a long time. But the government should have gathered more opinion from migrant workers organisations. Overall speaking the Law can give further protection to imported labour, but there are some detailed parts that are creating pressure for them. The intention was positive but a lot of problems may arise when it is actually put in practice. The Labour Affairs Bureau needs to reinforce supervision and education for society and employers.

As a civilised government, Macau should initiate active dialogues with other governments such as in Thailand or Indonesia about how to assist their citizens in Macau.

Going back to what we were saying, we need to appreciate migrant workers’ contribution to Macau. Since 2002 the employment rate of local women has increased by more than 10 percent to about 60 or 70 percent nowadays. Domestic helpers are here to fulfil the traditional women’s role in a family and therefore allow local women to go out and develop their careers. The SAR government also has to recognise this group of female migrant workers’ contribution to Macau’s economy as without them, not so many local women would be able to go to work. Domestic helpers are also mothers themselves. They scarify their role at home and come here to work, and all they want is to be paid reasonable salaries, not big money.

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