Migrant Workers Day: Strong with a Union in Hong Kong, SAR

When Pobsuk Gasing migrated to Hong Kong, SAR from Thailand in 1991 for employment as a domestic worker, her employer was abusive, she says. Yet Pobsuk was unable to change jobs because breaking her contract meant losing her legal right to stay in the country. Her husband had died and she needed the salary to send her three daughters in Thailand to school.

Some 11.5 million migrant workers, nearly three-quarters of whom are women, are employed in domestic work, according to a new International Labor Organization (ILO) report. The report notes that the number of migrant domestic workers is likely higher, because migrant domestic workers may not be regularly employed and often are “invisible,” working inside homes.

Millions of the more than 150 million migrant workers around the world endure abusive work conditions, with many in debt to labor brokers who charge such exorbitant fees for securing work that migrant workers cannot repay them even after years on the job. Some labor brokers also defraud workers, lying about wages and working conditions to workers who often have little access to justice in the destination country.

But in Hong Kong, SAR, Special Administrative Region of China, where some 330,000 migrant domestic workers from the Philippines, Indonesia and elsewhere are employed in homes across the island, Pobsuk and other domestic workers are fighting to gain recognition of their rights on the job through their unions.

“The most important reason people work abroad is that in their country, they have a lack of job opportunities,” says Leo Tang, organizing secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU). So it is essential, Tang says, that migrant workers in destination countries join together “to fight for justice.”

Domestic Workers often Excluded from Labor Laws
Most destination countries deny migrant workers’ fundamental labor rights, such as the freedom to unionize. In Hong Kong, SAR, where migrant domestic workers can form unions, they have created five unions, each based on country of origin. HKCTU, a Solidarity Center ally, is now “trying to unite all nationalities and migrants under the federation structure,” says Tang.

While in many countries, migrant workers are explicitly excluded from labor law protections, Hong Kong, SAR has laws on the books that cover migrant workers—but they are rarely implemented, says Tang.

“Places of destination define (migrant workers) as labor only. They don’t see them as humans.”

So HKCTU provides migrant domestic workers with legal assistance to defend their rights on the job and finds shelter for those who need to escape unsafe situations. Because domestic workers are employed in private households, they are especially vulnerable to verbal, physical and sexual violence with little recourse to defending their human rights.

Union activists like Pobsuk also work for national-level changes, such as an increase in the minimum wage, which is lower for migrant workers than other workers.

For many years now, Pobsuk has worked for employers who have treated her well, including her current employer whom she says supports her union involvement. For migrant domestic workers across Hong Kong, SAR Pobsuk says, we are sure to win.