INTERVIEW – ‘No One is Just a Worker’: Exclusive Interview with Author Nicole Constable on Hong Kong’s Domestic Workers

Dr. Nicole Constable, the author of ‘Born out of Place’ and ‘Maid to Order in Hong Kong’, shares her research on Hong Kong’s domestic workers. She discusses their struggles to maintain a balance between family life and work, the decision some domestic workers make to work illegally in Hong Kong, and the social exclusion and discrimination they often face.  

Dr. Nicole Constable

Dr. Nicole Constable

HK Helpers: A premise of your book is how difficult it is for domestic workers to be both a good worker and a good wife/mother/daughter. How does the requirement that domestic workers ‘live-in’ affect the family life of domestic workers even when they are already far from home?

Nicole Constable: It depends a lot on the conditions of the live in situation. If the situation is good and the worker has time off and privacy and enough hours to sleep and the ability to keep in touch with a family back home, it sometimes isn’t too bad – especially if she is being paid her legal salary. If she has, in the worst situation, no privacy and is not allowed to use a phone or contact her children or spouse during the week, it can be a serious problem for them. It means they don’t have the same support network and they are not as happy as they would be as workers if they were able to live out or have more privacy and time to themselves.

If they were able to live out, it wouldn’t be as much of a problem because they can keep in touch with family members regularly on their own, without someone overhearing what they’re saying or misinterpreting their tone of voice. The contact with people back home is such an important source of support and pleasure and the well-being of workers that if they were able to have live out or have better conditions as live-in, they would better balance the life of being a worker and still being a family member at home.

The problem is, often they are expected to be workers 24-7 or be on call as workers 24-7 and the live in situation perpetuates that kind of set-up. If they were allowed to live out, I think potentially they would be much better and much happier workers that have more balanced lives.

HKH: Did the women you interviewed complain about their living conditions in Hong Kong?

NC: My earlier book, Maid to Order in Hong Kong, was based partly on interviews with them and speaking with women at the Mission for Migrant workers and I heard many, many, many complaints about work conditions and housing conditions and I saw many pictures of very unpleasant places where people were forced to sleep. I kept in touch with many different organizations and people in the wider domestic worker community that had a lot of access to what I would consider very inappropriate housing.

HKH: You mentioned one of the worst cases of disrespect directed at domestic workers you witnessed occurred at the Indonesian consulate. From your research, does the Indonesian consulate fill its mandate to protect and aide Indonesians in Hong Kong?

NC: I didn’t have many experiences with the Indonesian consulate – my first-hand experiences were very limited. I tried many times to get an interview and was given the run-around for about two years and never did get the promised interview. I did accompany one woman there one day and it was very condescending the way she was treated. I talked to a lot of people about their experiences there and most women were either afraid to go or hated going because they felt they were put down or treated disrespectfully. Some women were sent away because they didn’t have their passport when the whole reason they went there was because they didn’t have their passport. They felt intimidated rather than supported, it seemed, when they went to the consulate with their problems.

It seems there is clearly room for improvement in terms of customer service but my impression is that there is a class difference between the people who work there and the people who come in there. There’s a sense of almost treating them as though they are lower class, as though the people working there look down on them instead of treating them as though they are respected people who come in for assistance.

HKH: Many of the former domestic workers and mothers you interviewed say that the two-week rule is the reason they overstayed their work visas. Is it true that in many cases, these women overstay their work visas because of the lack of time to prepare to leave Hong Kong and absence of other solutions- exactly what the two week rule was designed to prevent?

NC: As I understand, the point of the two week rule is to make the domestic workers leave Hong Kong once their contract is terminated. In fact because their contract is terminated and they are not allowed to work and they are not being paid, they overstay and then they try to work as overstayers. Several of them mentioned the two week rule and they often said it was a big problem because they don’t have time to find new jobs when their contract was terminated. This was linked to the agency fees because they felt they owed too much money to go back home without having earned enough to pay back what they already owed.

The message that I got was that people overstayed because of the two week rule and because they didn’t have enough time to sort out their lives. Some were already pregnant and some didn’t get pregnant until later. Some overstayed because they were pregnant and they didn’t know what to do – they were fired from their employers, and in some case illegally because the employer found out or didn’t like that they were pregnant. Two weeks just isn’t enough time to decide if you are going to file a case, am I going to have an abortion, am I going to give birth, what am I going to do?

A decision to overstay is a decision to not leave and there is not another way for them to figure out or resolve the problem.

HKH: When women come from Indonesia as domestic workers, they often owe very high agency fees – was overstaying their work visas a way for them to avoid paying these high fees again?

NC: Absolutely – when they overstay, they did disappear from the radar. I tell one story in the book about a woman who knew she could make several thousand dollars more a month working in a restaurant than she could as a domestic worker and she had figured it all out based on how much she would need to stay in a boarding house with other migrant workers and how much she could earn. It made no sense to her to go back home and pay another agency to come back and owe that amount of money again. So for some of them, it wasn’t so much that they owed money as much as they anticipated later having to owe more and there were ways that made more financial sense than leaving.

HKH: To support themselves and their child(ren), many of these women also had to work illegally after filing torture claims. But at the same time, if they file asylum/torture claims, they can live in Hong Kong without a sponsor. Is there a way to balance the system to allow torture claimants to support themselves without giving incentives for people to abuse the system?

NC: For the sake of argument, you could say by not allowing them to work and providing them support in-kind for rent and food that could be encouraging people to come as well, but it doesn’t seem to have that effect. One way to handle this without allowing people to work is to increase the benefits and support they get because as many critics have pointed out, it’s barely enough to survive.

The other answer, in a very broad, idealistic way is if people want to work and there are jobs for them to do, what’s the harm in letting them work? If no one wants to hire them, they’re not going to be encouraged to come and they’re not going to want to stay. But by having people work illegally, that’s where they are undercutting locals who could also be working. If you make it legal and there’s a market for them to work, the conditions are going to be better and they are going to be real competition with locals. If people really want to hire locals they will do so. Hong Kong seems so committed to the market so let the market control it. What it does to people to not allow them to work is really inhumane.

HKH: Hong Kong puts laws in place to make sure that domestic workers don’t take up other work while in Hong Kong, yet it’s clear that Hong Kong benefits from the illegal labor of immigrants. Is it possible that a change in policy could have positive economic impacts on both parties?

NC: The two week rule seems to be a problem and seems to be fairly arbitrary. If you’ve been abruptly terminated, two weeks just doesn’t seem reasonable. As you know, for people who are supposedly ‘skilled’ or people who are not domestic workers, they can usually (at the discretion of the director of immigration) stay until the end of their visa. At the least, the option would be to allow women whose contracts are terminated prematurely to remain for a longer period of time and try to find an employer and find time enough to process a new visa in Hong Kong without having to leave and pay more agency fees. It’s a combined problem of that short period of time and the high agency fees, especially in Indonesia, that make it likely that people will overstay.

Doing away with the two week rule completely or expanding it to a more reasonable period of time would make a lot more sense because then people will legitimately try to find a new job and have time to do that. Then they don’t need to overstay and don’t necessarily need to pay that huge new recruitment fee if they can go through a local Hong Kong agency.

HKH: You write about several women who chose to settle out of court and are never awarded the full amount of money they are owed. Even in a successful claim, is justice accessible for migrants?

NC: It’s a whole bureaucratic procedure, it’s not like you are awarded money and you get it before you leave the court. There are number of cases where the women didn’t get what they were entitled to or didn’t get the full amount. Usually the women are eager to get back to work and make money and are dependent on charities. They don’t have months on end to sit around and wait for the next court date.

Many of the women feel very timid and insecure about the whole process so when they are offered something, it seems better than nothing and they accept it. This is much more the case when the woman is a mother with a young baby. They just want the whole ordeal to end. In the best of the circumstances, standing up to your former employer and saying ‘you owe me this’ is difficult when you are not in your home country and you have been calling that person ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ for the last year or two or longer. It’s difficult to suddenly be in a situation where you are asserting yourself. Many people don’t get what they are entitled to because they are not well off enough, they don’t have enough time, and they don’t have the confidence to defend their rights.

HKH: Because of limited land and resources, many people Hong Kong are worried about space and access to government resources like health care. Surely money spent on the court and prison systems could be better allocated to prevent law breaking in the first place or provide more resources for the public?

NC: What’s especially interesting in Hong Kong is the high rate of female incarceration – and it’s mostly mainland Chinese women who are suspected of being sex workers and I think it’s to deter mainland Chinese women from coming into Hong Kong to make money as sex workers. The part I find so interesting is that when the mothers went to prison- one in particular I call April was struck that she was being paid while she was in prison. Even though it was a small amount, it’s interesting to me that an overstayer who had surrendered herself and had worked illegally and wasn’t paid what she was owed, was actually being paid in prison. In Hong Kong it’s not illegal to be paid as a prisoner but it’s illegal to be paid outside.

What I find especially interesting about that is that Hong Kong clearly benefits from the cheap, vulnerable labor of undocumented workers because they are the cheapest and they are finding jobs and people are hiring them because they know they can pay them less. So in that way it is benefiting Hong Kong to have this steady stream of undocumented workers who are vulnerable, but it costs a lot to maintain institutions like prisons. It’s known that the women’s prison in Lo Wu is meant to be a very good prison, and in some ways the conditions there are better than they are outside the prison.

Nicole Constable The argument is that Hong Kong is a very small place – and it does have a lifeboat mentality that there are only resources for a few people and we don’t want people to come here, at least not permanently. But that is ludicrous when you allow people to do your dirty work but you don’t want them to stay and share the benefits of living there as a normal citizen. I think with its commitment to the market and the free market, people won’t be coming if there aren’t jobs. There clearly are jobs- legal ones and illegal ones. My view is that if the jobs are legal and people are getting fair pay, good treatment, and good benefits, it will benefit everyone.

Finally, if you could provide readers and Hong Kongers with just one key take away from your book, what would it be?

NC: Two points. First: migrant workers are people too. Even if people want them to just be workers, as some people in Hong Kong expect them to be, no one is just a worker. They never are and never can be. Their rights as human beings need to be respected. Migrant workers who become mothers in Hong Kong are not just workers, they are people who are trying to make good decisions regarding their lives and their roles as potential mothers and they should be accorded the rights that allow them to do so with dignity.

The second point is the wider issue of social justice and human rights and it is fundamentally unfair for laws and policies to construct local citizens as the beneficiaries and migrant workers as the ones who provide them with access to the good life. What Hong Kong rules and policies do is create two different kinds of people: those who belong to Hong Kong and deserve a certain good life and those who come to Hong Kong only temporarily and serve those people and help them have their good life.

What these examples do, I think, is lay bare the extent to which as we all should be viewed global citizens as belonging to a world where there is some degree of fairness and to treat people who come to Hong Kong to work there not as though they are some category that can be kicked out when they are no longer useful, but rather people who can be treated with respect, compassion, morality and a commitment to justice, where they deserve not only temporary migrant rights as they are defined for domestic workers, but rights of all workers and of all people who belong. There are examples of people who have stayed there twenty years, and they still have no right to remain in Hong Kong and no right to take advantage of the long term benefits of citizens. In a nutshell – Hong Kong has created a system in which certain people are excluded and are exceptions to the benefits of a market system – and that raises many moral and ethical questions.

Nicole Constable’s 2014 book ‘Born out of Place: Migrant Workers and the Politics of International Labor‘ can be purchased here.