The secret society

Friday I got invited into the secret world of Nepalese food.  I say secret because, well, for some reason, Hong Kong doesn’t like to recognize Nepalese workers, even when they try to open restaurants that serve really fantastic food.  Luckily, I know a guy who knows a guy, and Friday afternoon, I got invited in.  We walked along a few side streets, past no less than four 7-11s (this city has an unhealthy obsession), 2 buildings under construction and a tasty looking fruit stand, into a very normal looking apartment building.  We had to wait outside the front gate until some one who actually lived there went in.  We went up a few flights of stairs to what would appear to be a normal apartment. Had the door been closed, I’m sure there would have been a secret knock.  But they were expecting us (call ahead only) and the door was wide open, delicious smells wafting out into the open-aired hallway.  They led us past the crammed little kitchen, through the living room containing a cooler, a very large T.V., three tables with plastic chairs and a very cool paper lantern. We were shown into what was supposed to have been a bedroom, but had been converted into a “private dining room.”  A few minutes after we sat down, the owner/cook/waiter brought our silver platters to the table.  Rice, pork, sliced cucumbers, some potato-eggplant-curry mix, bok choy (the typical Asian greens), and this amazingly delectable yellow bean sauce called Doll.  For 30 HongKong Dollars (I’ll save you from having to look up the conversion, that’s $3.84 American) it was an all you can eat meal.  That’s right, never ending plates of Nepalese goodness.  Served by a man who calls everyone “Friend” and keeps a watchful eye on the door for anyone that doesn’t belong. 

The Nepalese restaurant has had to move a time or two.  Because the Nepalese can’t get a work permit in Hong Kong, they have to keep their cooking on the down low.  All the local Nepalese people know where to go, and if you find yourself befriending the right guy or gal, you will eventually find ourself at “Friend’s” place, dining on the best Doll Sauce this side of the Himalayas and never ending portions of pork, mutton, liver, and vegetables.  Its good to know the right people in this city.

What’s a girl to do?

I’ve been noticing recently the way that, not only are the systems in this country set up against the average domestic helper (DH), but are often quite hypocritical.  For instance:

*If a migrant worker participates in illegal work (this is classified as any work outside of the stated address on the employment contract) and reports it to Immigration, they are arrested.  If the employer asks (read “forces”) the DH to work illegally (this is very common, as the employer wants you to not only clean their house, but their mother’s house, their sister’s house and their cousin’s husband’s office) and they refuse, then report it to Immigration, they are told that there is no “evidence” and the case is dropped; though first a letter is sent to the employer, who then terminates the DH upon finding they have complained.  If an employer forces a DH into illegal work, they report it and Immigration believes the evidence, then an arrest is made.  Only, its the DH who is arrested and promptly deported, while the employer just moves on to the next worker. 

*If a DH’s passport has been confiscated and they report the matter to Immigration or the Labour Department, they are told to contact the police.  If the DH contacts the police and it is the employer who has confiscated the passport, and the DH is still employed by that employer, it is called a “domestic matter” over which the police have no control.  If they are no longer employed, the police cannot “force” the employer to relinquish the passport (even though it is a violation of Hong Kong and International law to confiscate another person’s personal documents).  If it is the employment agency who has confiscated the passport, the police will help, but grudgingly.  If an agency insists that the DH gave them the passport for safe keeping, the agency is automatically let off the hook with no chance at prosecution (guess how often agencies use that line!)  And to make matters worse, if a DH is caught on the street without their passport (because its been confiscated) it is deemed a “prosecutable offense” laden with fines and possible jail time.

*If a DH is underpaid and they report the matter to the Labour Department, the Labour Dept. will promptly send a letter of enquiry to the employer to clarify the matter.  Of course, the DH is immediately fired for snitching, the employment agency swoops in and ships the DH home before they even have the chance to claim their wages in arrears, which is their legal right as migrant workers in Hong Kong.  If the DH does not report the underpayment and are terminated for another reason and the case is taken to the Labour Department, the court doesn’t believe the DH was underpaid because why would anyone work that long and remain underpaid and not report it?  (hummm, could be cause they are afraid of being terminated, or because they are never made aware of their legal rights as migrants to report job abuse, or maybe even because they never even knew there was a legal minimum wage in Hong Kong in the first place!)

*If there is the off-chance that the court believes the DH that the employer had been underpaying their wages, denying rest days or some other contract violation, the DH is then asked to be a witness in a prosecution case against the employer.  But, these cases often take anywhere for 4-6 months, and a DH is not allowed by Hong Kong law to be employed while involved in a case (labour, immigration or criminal).  So how is the witness supposed to support themselves for 4-6 months, not to mention their family back home, while waiting to be a witness?  The government sure doesn’t provide any assistance!  Because no one ever pursues the chance to be a witness against the employer, cases are constantly dropped, and the government states that underpayment must not actually be a problem if no one is willing to take the stand. 

*Finally, just a personal pet peeve.  Why can the judge be 45 minutes late for a hearing, and everyone still has to stand and bow when he enters (in his white powered wig, I’m so not joking), but if anyone in the court is so much as 5 minutes late, the hearing is delayed or the judge reprimands them in front of the entire court. 

That is just a glimpse into what I, and nearly 300,000 migrant workers, deal with every day.  Injustice clothed with frilly terms like “worker’s rights” and “opportunity.” 

Since my blog is my homepage (how humble of me) I keep looking at the same post over and over thinking, “I should write something new.  Maybe something funny, or exciting, or heartwarming.”  And day after day, I keep looking at the same words.  Okay, so maybe it has only been a week, but that’s a long time in the blog-world, as we all know.  And a lot has been going on here.  But I just can’t seem to get the words out.  There have been some big wins and some heartbreaking losses here in the last week.  I have felt the depths of anger and sorrow within the same waking period as joy and contentment.  Some days I feel truly manic.   I feel a lot of pressure.  To counsel and advise, to guide, to research, to write, to change, to maintain. 

Today I watched one of my clients be taken away by the police, accused of a crime even the police admitted they knew she didn’t do.  But because her employer knows how to work the system here, has figured out all the loop holes, she was accused so the employer could escape her financial obligations.  I sat in a court for 7 hours watching the face of evil (aka the employer) look smug and confidant as she avoided questions and blatantly lied about the conditions of employment she provided.  She was smug because she knew, even if my client had all the evidence on her side, there were police waiting outside to take her away for a crime she so obviously didn’t commit.  And in a few days, she will be acquitted and returned to our shelter, exhausted, threatened, scared.  Which is exactly what the employer wants.  It wasn’t enough that this girl was kept like a virtual prisoner for 18 months, that her very life was threatened.  Anything the employer can do to elevate her power, she will.  And with the system stacked against the worker, there are little hopes for true justice. 

When I returned to the office tonight, I literally collapsed in the rolly chair and fought the tears as my wonderful co-worker listened to my day and sympathized.  “Its a struggle, and honestly, there isn’t much chance they will always come out ahead.  But what these women really need is someone to just be there, to say ‘Hey, I’m on your side.’ To give them that encouragement, and let them know that they aren’t alone.” 

So today, while Little Miss Evil pranced around thinking she had the upper-hand, I just held my client’s hand.  I told her that truth was more important than power and that regardless of what happened, we were there for her.  Only, I got to go home tonight, curl up in my green blanket and drown my day in chocolate cake (homemade of course) and quippy episodes of Gilmore Girls, while a young Indonesian woman is stuck in a jail cell, waiting for the investigation team that will arrive in the middle of the night and can question her at any time (their favored time is usually 2 or 3 am).  She lives waiting for the next shoe to drop and wonders how many feet her employer has in which to stomp her down. 

Is truth really greater than power?  And if so, how come truth hardly seems to prevail?  Hope, in the face of evil, is hard.  Just plain hard.

Offering Relief

First off, thank you to everyone who has been checking in via email, facebook, and text messages. Thankfully, Hong Kong was not affected by the devastating earthquakes that hit central China on May 12th. But celebration for safety is clouded with a desire to send relief and aid in anyway possible. Victims are still being found, while search and rescue teams work tirelessly to save as many as they can. The plans for rebuilding demolished communities has not yet begun. For all the bad press China gets for Human Rights Violations, they have really stepped forward and done everything necessary. Thousands of troops have been deployed to remove rubble and search for survivors. Surrounding communities have sent relief by way of manpower, shelter and food.

The United Methodist Church, via its China based organization Amity Foundation, was on the scene nearly immediately, and has pledged to offer food, clean water, counseling and money.

These last few weeks in Asia have been overwhelming following first the cyclone in Myanmar, and now the earthquake in China. The recovery process for both of these countries will be slow and painful.

UMCOR (the United Methodist Committee on Relief) has been offering immediate and long-term assistance in response to disasters around the world for years, and now is no different.

If you are interested in helping to contribute to their efforts, please consider visiting these links to the UMCOR website.
For earthquake relief:
http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umcor/newsroom/releases/archives08/amityearthquakeresponse/

For cyclone relief:
http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umcor/newsroom/releases/archives08/relieftomyanmar/

For more information on Amity, check out their website:
http://www.amityfoundation.org/

Bloggers Untie?

No, Bloggers Unite – only, its after midnight here and I can barely see the screen I am so exhausted. So unite and untie look remarkably similar.  So, I want to unite, I really really do.  And I will.  But until then, is it ok to just reference some of my previous posts??

For all the Mother’s out there…

Its weird to me that I know so many Mothers.  I mean, that I have friends that are Mothers.  Sometimes I forget how grown up we are. 🙂

So a special tribute and prayer for all of you Mothers or soon to be moms: Stephanie, Emily, Emily, Heather, Leslie, Kate, Carrie, Laura, Allison, Stacy  – May your day be beautiful, full of love and laughter and appreciation from your family.  You are all amazing!! 

And to my own Mom:  Forty days until I get to see you again!!

A woman who loves her family above all – who creates time for laughter and memories…..

One of the most kind and nurturing women I know….

And to my amazing Grandmothers – who showed me what it means to love your family no matter what, to give selflessly, to laugh through the tears and to love God above all else.

A woman with a grand sense of style and a laugh that begged you to join in.   

A woman who wasn’t afraid to show how proud she was…of her family and her friends, and who never missed a chance to tell you a good story.