Work to force most Filipinos to miss Hong Kong meeting with Duterte

Hong Kong (dpa) - Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has a meeting scheduled with 2,500 overseas Filipinos in Hong Kong on Thursday, but most others will be unable to attend due to their restrictive and often abusive employment conditions.

One Filipino domestic worker in her fifties told dpa she admires Duterte and the many “improvements” she feels he has made to the Philippines since taking office two years ago.

"We would ask to lessen the hours that we are working here, because most of the [overseas foreign workers] here [spend] almost 24 hours a day working," Emma, who did not wish to be fully identified for fear of professional repercussions, said.

With the average Hong Konger working 50 hours a week, the most in the world according to a 2015 UBS survey, the city employs 350,000 domestic staff like Emma to raise children, take care of the home and increasingly to look after elderly family members.

Around half of Hong Kong’s domestic helpers are from the Philippines and almost all are women. The rest come from other Asian countries including Indonesia and Nepal and are required by law to live with their employer, which means the workday can go long past dinner time.

Long hours are exacerbated by prolific physical and verbal abuse, as well as racism against south-east and south Asians. Some workers are thousands of dollars in debt to employment agencies or may fall prey to human traffickers in an attempt to find work overseas.

“We see an average of 1,000 new clients a year, 80 per cent of whom are from the Philippines,” Hong Kong's HELP for Domestic Workers director Holly Allan said.

“A number of them complain of ill treatment and poor working conditions such as excessive working hours and inadequate rest, insufficient food provision, verbal abuse and unsuitable accommodation. There are also cases of physical and sexual assault,” she added

In one of Hong Kong's most high-profile cases, Indonesian Erwiana Sulistyaningsih was beaten and burned by her employer for eight months in 2014. The employers were sentenced to six years in prison, yet cases of abuse continue to appear regularly in local media.

President Duterte, who arrived in Hong Kong on Tuesday, has used his foreign trips to rail against the mistreatment of overseas Filipinos.

Hong Kong has so far avoided Duterte’s ire – despite chronic stories of abuse, its situation remains less dramatic than working conditions faced by Filipinos elsewhere in the world. Duterte recently threatened to ban Filipinos from working in Kuwait after the body of a missing domestic worker was found in the freezer of her employer’s old apartment in March.

Thousands of Filipinos continue to be motivated by foreign wages, making it unlikely Duterte can ban workers from every country with cases of abuse while he presides over an economy deeply dependent on its overseas labour force. 

In Hong Kong, workers like Emma are paid 4,310 Hong Kong dollars (549 dollars) a month; a small sum by international standards but five times more than in Manila where she would make 5,000 pesos (96 dollars) for the same work. 

With married children, Emma saves most of her salary but workers can send up to three-quarters home if they have school-age children.

Hong Kong Filipinos sent home a combined 735 million dollars in cash based remittances in 2017, according to the Philippines central bank. It marked a small but significant share of the 28 billion dollars sent back by Filipinos worldwide last year.

Emma's savings will be a small comfort Thursday as she joins those unable to see her president because she must work six days a week. She said she wishes he had spoken on a Sunday, her only day off. 

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