On 15 December 2002, 3,000 migrant workers and their supporters met to reclaim the streets of central Hong Kong, to protest against another discriminatory government proposal: a targeted flat tax of HK$500 per month (aboutUS$65), aimed at the wages of Hong Kong's Foreign Domestic Helpers(FDHs). That this gathering took place on a Sunday was an important factor--for many of the protesters, this was the one day's holiday they are given per week by their employers.
There was a charged atmosphere as excited protesters prepared for the hour-long march to the Central Government Offices unfurling colourful banners, and tying bright strips of yellow and red cloth around each others' heads, the words “NO TO WAGE CUTS!” painted in white across them. Even at this early stage, the police were confused.
”Who is in charge here?” a senior officer barked at one of the protesters, only to be met with a genuine shrug. As the crowd took shape, and we waited for the march to being, an old man rode by on his bicycle. “I support you,” he shouted”Don't give the bastards anything! They want $500, don't even give `em $5!”
Doing your bit!
The tax being proposed by the government is a deplorable, highly selective levy. Though it ostensibly charges employers the monthly rate of HK$500, the mini-mum wage of FDHs will also be lowered by the same amount if the levy is enacted. This is the latest in a series of anti-migrant proposals the Special Administrative Region government has attempted to pass over the last few years. Two years ago a direct 20% levy on migrants' wages was proposed, and a HK$500-750 levy was floated just last year. Both were defeated after massive, popular protests from migrant worker communities and their allies, forcing the government to consider more indirect forms of taxation, such as the present proposal.
The earlier measures were also too obviously discriminatory to be whole-heartedly endorsed by any political party in the territory. The current proposal,however, has a number of powerful backers in Hong Kong's political centres. The pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB), pro-business Liberal Party, and the so-called Progressive Alliance have all thrown their weight behind the idea, saying that such a direct siphoning of money to the rich from poor, unprotected sectors of society was a “difficult and painful decision” but that migrants had to do their bit to “help the economy”.
Fighting for fair treatment
Naturally, most human beings, and particularly migrant workers' unions and support groups, have been completely appalled by the proposals and the ferocity with which they are being pursued by the government. The Asian Migrants Coordinating Body (AMCB), for example, calls the proposed levy and its predecessors”institutionalised robbery in the making”, saying rightly that “[they] rob from those who are already plunged deep in economic problems... taxing those who are already struggling to make ends meet”. Requests from migrant workers' groups to discuss the levy with government officials have been denied. Smaller, more “alternative” media have also been highly critical of the government's moves. Filipino community newspaper The Sun, for example, pointed out in an editorial that migrant workers “have done their part in making Hong Kong the economic success that it is now. For this alone, they have the right to be treated fair and square.”
Of course, most outraged have been the proposed victims themselves, the nearly 240,000 Foreign Domestic Helpers who live and work in Hong Kong. They are mostly women, and have come here from many countries around Asia--most often the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. As individuals and as a sector of society, they are some of the most vulnerable, marginalised, and easily exploited in the territory. But their many voices came together on 15 December in a brave, lively, and spirited challenge to the government's attack on their lives and livelihood.
Walking through the Central Business District, the protesters screamed slogans such as “THE LEVY IS DEAD WRONG!” as they carried large, mock$500 bills. They also held enlarged pictures of Tsang Yok Sing of the DAB,James Tien of the Liberal Party, and Ambrose Lam of the Progressive Alliance,with the words “Enemy of the poor” printed under each of them. Appeals such as “Respect Workers' Rights”, “End Modern Day Slavery”, and “Workers of the World Unite” were all prominently displayed, along with such simple pleas as”Spare $500 for our families”.
They beat drums and gongs, and crashed cymbals, and a positive, festive atmosphere prevailed despite the powerful and insidious forces aligning against them. They were cheered from the pavements by fellow migrants and local supporters as they made their way to the Central Government Offices.
Thousands of people then packed into the Central Government's premises to listen to speakers from Thai, Sri Lankan,Nepalese, Filipino and Indonesian workers' groups. “We are the people who clean your houses!” one speaker screamed. “We sleep on your kitchen floors. This is an attack on us!” Other speakers pointed out that migrant workers are always the easiest scapegoats for politicians and groups seeking a quick route to power. The only way to stop this, they said, was to collectivise, and to actively support each other.
”Long live international solidarity!” the crowd responded. A government representative later came out to be presented with a 20,000-strong petition against the levy. The gathering eventually disbanded,its participants returning for another week to their jobs, and an uncertain future. But they left promising to continue their struggle in defence of their rights, dignity, and welfare. Another march was planned for early 2003.
”Migrant workers are a very vulnerable sector of society, but these proposals have brought them out to the streets to protest,” a member of United Filipinos in Hong Kong said. “They are out here because they have to be. Because this tar-gets their means of survival.”