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PostSubject: Hong Kong wage freeze alarms OFWs   Thu Aug 26, 2010 6:34 am

HONG KONG—Executives of this Chinese territory have announced they are freezing for the second time any increase in the wage of foreign domestic helpers (FDHs), raising fears that Filipino workers here are being “punished” for the death of eight Chinese tourists who died in a hostage drama in Manila on Monday.

The announcement came amid reports that Filipino workers and tourists in Hong Kong are starting to bear the brunt of the failed hostage-taking, where Philippine officials are drawing fire for the botched negotiations and siege by a SWAT team. Among the perceived elements of a backlash—besides the black alert travel advisory issued for Hong Kong citizens traveling to Manila, as well as flight and tour cancellations—are incidents of “discrimination” against Filipino workers.

The situation was compounded after several Filipinos posted on social-networking sites their photos with the bus in Monday’s hostage-taking as background, reducing the site to a “tourist” spot.

Hong Kong officials said the announcement of the wage freeze was not related in any way to Monday’s tragedy.

The Labor Department said the HK$3,580 minimum wage of the territory’s almost 300,000 foreign household service workers would remain for another two years. 

The department, however, increased by HK$10 the $740 monthly food allowance of foreign helpers. The increase in food allowance would be applied to workers whose contracts are signed starting today, August 26, the department said in a statement.

Hong Kong annually reviews the minimum wage of FDHs and normally announces its decision every August or September.

“The review takes account of Hong Kong’s general economic and employment situation, as reflected through a basket of economic indicators, including the relevant income movement, price change and labor-market situation,” said a government spokesman.

The $750 food allowance, however, will only be available to workers whose employers could not provide free food for them.

“The option to pay food allowance in lieu of free food rests with employers and serves to give them the flexibility to cater for special circumstances. The fact is the vast majority of employers at present provide food free of charge to FDHs,” the spokesman said.

The announcement came as fears spread among Filipinos here of possible reprisals from Hong Kong authorities brought by the death of eight of its residents in a hostage drama in Manila on Monday.

Consul General Claro Cristobal confirmed that he was informed about a Filipina helper whose services had been terminated by her employer on Monday.

“She said [her services] was terminated and was given a one-month notice on the same night,” Cristobal said in a telephone interview.

Eman Villanueva, secretary-general of the United Filipinos in Hong Kong (Unifil), said his group received at least two reports of Filipinas relieved from work by their employers after the Manila hostage crisis.

“One recruitment firm said two employers backed out in hiring Filipina workers,” he said.



Asked to go on vacation

Gina, a domestic helper here, said her employer on Monday night at the height of the hostage crisis asked her to go back to the Philippines for a vacation.

“I was surprised. My contract was just renewed. I was told to have a vacation. What happened? I also became a victim of Mendoza,” she said, in Filipino, referring to hostage-taker Rolando Mendoza, a dismissed policeman.

Gina, who has been working for the same employer for 10 years, flew to Manila on Wednesday morning.

She said she tried to appease her employer about the hostage crisis but the family refused to comment.

“She refused to talk about it. I noticed they changed their attitude toward me,” she said.

Amor Sta. Clara, an office worker, said her helper noticed that some police officers were checking identifications, mostly of Filipino women at a market in Kennedy Town in Central district.

“They seemed to be looking for overstaying workers. I think that was normal, but the number of policemen was big,” she said.

Timing

Labor Attaché Romulo Salud expressed doubts that the freeze in the minimum wage of FDHs was an impact of the hostage crisis.

“Nothing. That was planned long ago, but the person who will announce was on leave and arrived only today,” Salud said in an interview after emerging from a meeting with Hong Kong labor officials.

He said they were told that the income of Chinese employers has declined, prompting the government to maintain the current wage rate.

Militant organizations condemned the wage freeze, adding that it was an “insult” to foreign domestic helpers as they were also excluded in the legislated minimum wage ordinance signed by the Legislative Council in July.

“What could one buy from $10? This is an attack on migrants,” a female leader said.

She said Hong Kong should not use the wage issue to get back at Filipinos since other foreign domestic helpers are also affected by the wage freeze.

“They timed it to stop the protest against the wage freeze because they knew Hong Kong residents feel bad against the Manila incident,” she added.  

Safety

Meanwhile, a Hong Kong-based human-rights center has appealed to the Philippine government to help protect Filipinos, who are mostly in vulnerable domestic work, from becoming targets of inflamed retaliation by Hong Kong employers and to contain the local anger from degenerating into conflict of nationalities.

The Asian Human Rights Center (AHRC) already recorded messages of concern aired by some Filipinos in the former British colony, indicating their concern for their safety and that of their families.

One Filipina mother said she has not allowed her two children to go to the public park after the hostage-taking and expressed concern for the safety of her children when school opens next week after the summer vacation.

A Hong Kong man in Kowloon Tong area was also reported to have shouted, “We employ them [Filipinos] in our homes and they murder us in their homes.”

The AHRC said it was concerned with the growing disappointment and anger over the “poor crisis management of the Philippine National Police in dealing with the situation,” saying that the demand for explanation from the Philippine government did not come only from Hong Kong residents and their government but also from the more than 140,000 Filipinos who feared the aftermath to turn bad.

It said that while the Filipinos felt adequately protected and secure in the progressive Chinese territory and which was traditionally also a place of refuge for Filipino political exiles, “they have also felt disappointed that the country where they came from failed to provide the same degree of protection for the visitors from Hong Kong.”

AHRC expressed concern that people “are trying to blow this incident out of proportion by manipulating the tragedy in expressing their anger.”

“The AHRC draws the attention of the Hong Kong government and the Philippine Consulate to pay close attention to the reactions of the people in the territory. The safety of Filipinos should not be compromised by hatred and anger,” it said in a statement late Tuesday.

“This tragedy should not become a conflict of nationalities and it must not, at any point, be seen as such,” it added, saying that even “Filipinos who have yet to come to terms with the state of policing in their own country.”

It has sought the opinions and views from Hong Kong residents which it has sent to the two governments “to pay attention to.”

Most of the comment centered on the “slow and flawed” rescue attempt, the lengthy negotiation process and assault on the bus that they said “obviously” was in disregard to the safety of hostages as priority.

“It’s really shocking to see the way how the police dealt with the incident,” an anonymous interview. “Whether the gunman was innocent as he claimed, the way the police treated the matter was very disturbing.”

In Davao City, a former domestic help in Hong Kong who became an entrepreneur has asked families of overseas Filipinos to attend a sympathy gathering for the hostage victims and for the continued safety of Filipinos in Hong Kong.

Myrna Padilla, owner of a business-process outsourcing company, said the sympathy gathering would be held at the MinFed at Admiralty Garden on Sunday.

“We prefer that we all dress in black to convey our deepest sympathies with the families,” she said in a statement.

At the same time, Gabriela Party-list Rep. Luzviminda Ilagan said the government, especially the Philippine Consulate in Hong Kong, should now brace itself for the repercussions of the hostage-taking incident on the thousands of Filipino migrant workers based in Hong Kong.

Cher Jimenez, Business Mirror
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