Earlier this month, stomach-turning images of brutally abused Hong Kong maid Erwiana Sulistyaningsih shamed the world’s “freest” economy, and rightly so.
When the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal designate Hong Kong the world’s premier business mecca each year in their Index of Economic Freedom, they’re highlighting the free entry of foreign capital, a first-world legal system and low taxes. But Erwiana, a native of Indonesia, highlights the ugly underbelly of Hong Kong Inc., and of globalization itself.
Footage of the beaten, burned and tortured 23-year-old being carried, nearly lifeless, to safety quickly went viral. Few took seriously Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s pledge to protect the rights of the more than 300,000 foreign domestic helpers in his city. When laws and the officials meant to enforce them treat foreign workers like riffraff, so will many employers.
But anger should be saved as well for governments back home, in countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, whose policy failures have essentially forced their own citizens into becoming exports. It’s hard to fathom young Indonesians or Filipinos risking exploitative conditions in Hong Kong, Singapore or Riyadh by choice. Being forced to sleep in a closet? Wow, what an adventure! Risking violence or sexual abuse at the hands of an unscrupulous boss? Gee, sign me up for that. Getting scammed by dodgy employment agents? Sweet.
Many, many families treat their maids, nannies and cooks with respect and kindness. They pay workers fairly, give them Sundays off and regard them as humans, not possessions. But we will never know how many young men and women like Erwiana are trapped in abusive situations. They face fuzzy laws that generally favor employers, not the subjugated, and more incentives to keep quiet than to speak out. Indonesia, the Philippines, India, Bangladesh and even China must be more proactive in protecting their diaspora against exploitation.
More important, though, those governments need to work harder to create well-paid jobs at home. The nearly $500 billion in hard currency remittances that developing-nation workers around the globe send home legally each year supports banks, fills government coffers, and boosts sectors such as telecommunications, retail, transportation and real estate. It’s become a dangerous and unconscionable addiction.
It’s simply easier for leaders to ship their own people abroad and count the money than to take on vested interests and generate opportunities at home. Had President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono done more to eradicate the inefficiencies and corruption squandering rapid growth in Indonesia, Erwiana might have stayed in her East Java hometown or perhaps moved to Jakarta.
The Philippines is an even bigger offender. More than 10 percent of its 95 million people are working overseas, and loads more would join them if immigration laws in places such as the U.S. allowed. The main economic policy of Gloria Arroyo when she was president from 2001 to 2010 was shipping more bodies abroad. Her first talking point upon arrival in Hong Kong, Brussels or Washington was the need for more work visas for underemployed Filipinos. It’s hardly an accomplishment that the Philippines is now the fourth-biggest destination for remittances after Mexico.
Benigno Aquino, president since 2010, has pledged to bring more of this diaspora home, and his reforms have won coveted investment-grade ratings for the first time. But the task of creating millions of good-paying jobs is a work in progress, at best. And with each passing year, the Philippines becomes even more of a cautionary tale of the costs of mass exodus. The country is suffering a brain drain that directly affects its ability to compete against China and India. Hospitals, schools, airlines and business-process outsourcers all complain about a lack of skilled labor.
This migration also feeds underappreciated social problems as entire generations of children grow up without one or both parents present. Demographers Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild call this the “female underside of globalization.” In a series of studies and in their landmark 2003 book “Global Woman,” they explore the societal costs of fueling growth on the backs of migrants:
“Each year, millions leave Third World countries for jobs in the homes, nurseries and brothels of the First World,” they write. “This enormous transfer of labor results in a risky displacement, in which the same energy that flows to wealthy countries is subtracted from poor ones, easing a ‘care deficit’ in rich countries, while creating one back home.”
Amnesty International says it all when it characterizes Hong Kong’s migrants as “exploited for profit, failed by government,” and demands stronger laws and safeguards for them. If Hong Kongers don’t protect those making their prosperity possible, they lose their humanity.
At the same time, though, we shouldn’t forget why so many workers continue to venture overseas, potentially into harm’s way. Their governments, too, are failing their own people.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
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