BLOG – Canadian Tribunal Hears From Expert on Prejudice in Hong Kong

Dr anna

Dr. Anna Guevarra is the Director, Asian American Studies, at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She spoke at the Human Rights Tribunal related to the abuse of a Filipino domestic worker who joined a Hong Kong family in Canada. She is an expert in immigrant labour; global carework (specifically domestic work, with a focus on Hong Kong); gender and migration; Filipino and Philippine studies; race and ethnicity. Her report was submitted as evidence and is reproduced – in full – from court records below.

[72] Dr. Guevarra’s report says that the stereotypes or prejudices that apply to Filipino domestic workers revolve around characteristics that mark them as “docile” workers. That is, Filipino domestic workers are often marketed as obedient, hardworking, Godfearing, loyal, honest, cooperative, and compliant. At the same time, she says that they are also promoted as highly educated, skilled, and exhibiting a high tolerance for stressful conditions.

[73] Dr. Guevarra says that, in general, Hong Kong employers typically stereotype foreign domestic workers, and especially Filipino women, as carrying a particular kind of “modernized” sensibility that makes them morally suspect. Hong Kong employers are said to perceive Filipino domestic workers’ sense of independence and readiness to leave 7 their families in the Philippines not as a sign of filial piety, but instead, as a sign of financial desperation that could lead to acts of transgression. She notes that these perceived transgressions are often of sexual nature, such as seducing a male member of the household or engaging in sideline sex work for the purposes of permanent residence and financial security. Thus, the Filipino workers are often seen as a threat to the female employer of the household. As a result, Filipino domestic workers’ physical appearance or attractiveness, such as their clothing, hairstyle, and physical adornments have all become routinely subject to scrutiny and discipline.

[74] The stereotypes or prejudices relate to factors like sex, race, place of origin, and age especially when it comes to domestic work. In terms of their gender, or sex, the stereotypes and prejudices that govern how Filipino domestic workers are perceived often relate to them being women. As Filipino women, they are perceived to be “naturally inclined” to perform this kind of domestic care work, even as they are “naturally” or “culturally” inclined to exhibit morally suspect behaviours.

[75] These views of Hong Kong employers, makes Filipino domestic workers “ideal,” highly sought-after, or employable workers, even as they are simultaneously perceived as a threat to the Hong Kong moral order and social hierarchy.

[76] Race and place of origin also have bearing on how these stereotypes play out in the lives of domestic workers. Filipino women are perceived to come from a poor nation that is unable to provide any viable employment and has created a class of workers who are desperately trying to leave their country. Relatedly, the preference for Filipinos as care workers/domestic workers is often guided by the perception that workers from the Philippines possess a work ethic and values related to family, loyalty, and authority that translate to their docility in the workplace. These characteristics are pitched as cultural (if not biological), and therefore, unique to the racial make-up of Filipinos. This is in addition to the racialization of Filipino workers as coming from a country with the linguistic advantage of English language proficiency.

[77] Age also impacts the racialization and gendering of the stereotypes that construct Filipino women as ideal domestic workers. Foreign employers often correlate age to be a reflection of strength, health, docility, and efficiency and therefore prefer to hire domestic 8 workers under the age of 35, with a preference for workers in their 20s. Live-in domestic workers typically work anywhere from 14-18 hour work days and get one day off. The daily work schedule is fairly regimented with specific tasks and deadlines that require a certain kind of efficiency. Domestic workers’ résumés, in the form of so-called “biodata” that is collected at the time of their recruitment, includes questions about age, height, and weight and is accompanied by a full body photograph. PN’s application form contained much of this information.

[78] Dr. Guevarra says that it is widely documented, in the literature, that the stereotypes and prejudices contribute to or exacerbate the exploitation or abuse of Filipino domestic workers. For example, labour brokers who essentially manage the recruitment and employment process for domestic workers, act upon these stereotypes by specifically outlining the job requirements and by asking workers to agree to a range of behaviours that demonstrate their explicit submission to their employer’s authority.

via &

via &

[79] These include those pertaining to time management, curfew hours on their days off, household regulations about phone usage or visitors, food consumption, physical appearance with respect to clothing, hair, and make-up, personal hygiene, and willingness to move with their employers – all of which operate to structure a relationship based on rendering workers vulnerable to abusive employers as it creates a perception that they serve at the whim of their employers, and do not have any recourse against them. That is, these regulations are fundamentally aimed not only at meeting employers’ expectations of their maids, but more importantly, protecting them from any potential complaints and challenges from workers. The employment agency sought similar answers from PN.

[80] Dr. Guevarra says that these stereotypes and prejudices also empower employers to exercise their authority over their workers in ways that contribute to the workers’ exploitation. Her report states:  First, employers do not expect Filipino domestic workers to complain or protest about any aspect of their job. Instead, employers expect them to submit to their authority unquestioningly, as gratitude for their employment.  Second, employers often contain or isolate their employees in their household, largely because of their own fears that commingling with other workers will promote an awareness or consciousness about domestic labor 9 rules and rights, and allow workers to organize to improve their wages and living conditions. [81] As a result, she says that employers create conditions that seek to assert their authority and the subordinate position of the domestic workers by developing and enforcing regimented work schedules and enacting household rules that aim to control their employees’ behaviours, bodies, and lives.

[82] In answering why Filipino domestic workers are likely to endure poor working conditions, Dr. Guevarra says that the first likely reason is that they are in debt after paying for the exorbitant placement fees recruitment agencies in the Philippines charge, in addition to the cost of training and travel. Also, most domestic workers take out multiple loans, often from lending agencies that charge inflated interest rates. Therefore, workers end up accruing a huge financial debt, which often takes years to repay. Therefore, most workers cannot afford to lose their job and be rendered unable to repay their debt.

[83] Second, she says that most Filipino domestic workers pursue overseas employment in order to support their families’ livelihood, including education for their siblings and/or children. A large proportion (often half) of the monthly earnings of domestic workers are remitted to their families every month, directly supporting their families; often sustaining the daily living requirements of a multi-generational household, enabling the purchase of homes and cars, subsidizing college or private school education of their siblings and children, or providing the capital for starting a new business.

[84] From 1985 onward, these remittances have contributed a greater share of the Philippines’ Gross Domestic Product. Today, she says, these remittances represent at least 10% of the country’s GDP. Thus, some workers more aptly refer to themselves as “heroes” to their families. And as such, these families depend heavily, and sometimes solely, on the income derived from the overseas work of Filipino domestic workers who must often endure poor working conditions in order to fulfill this familial obligation.

[85] Additionally, she says that a domestic worker’s familial status such as that of being a mother plays an important role in exacerbating the workers’ dependence on her income due to the cost attached to raising a child – basic living requirements such as food, 0 clothing, and housing are quite high. Many of them desire to put their children through private schools, which they believe will provide a better education and therefore a greater likelihood of a good job.

[86] Finally, she says that most domestic workers pursue overseas employment and endure their poor working conditions because there are simply no viable jobs in the Philippines that would provide the kind of earnings that are remotely comparable to what they would earn as domestic workers abroad. A typical monthly wage of a domestic worker in the Philippines ranges anywhere between 2,000-5,000 Philippine pesos a month ($45-$113 US Dollars) in a country with a steady unemployment rate of 6% and an underemployment of 18.7% according to the 2014 census figures