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Hong Kong Airport Provides Unique Service for Migrant Workers


Hong Kong's airport is the only airport in Southeast Asia offering a social service for migrant workers. The Mobile Information Service gives assistance to new arrivals and informs them about their rights.

China Airlines Flight 680 from Jakarta has landed. Two women in beige suits take up positions in the midst of the crowd at the arrival concourse, a few meters in front of the immigration counters.

They quickly spot their targets: Indonesian migrant workers, arriving in Hong Kong to start new jobs. About 40 young women, many of them wearing the bright-colored jackets of their employment agencies, approach immigration. Speaking in Bahasa Indonesian, the women in beige ask the workers to step to one side, and then they introduce their service.

The ladies, Jenny Phang and Fira, are members of a Mobile Information Service for migrant workers at Hong Kong's airport. The six members of the team are from Indonesia, the Philippines and Nepal, and can talk to arriving migrants in their own languages.

Fira explains to the women that the team offers advice on working in Hong Kong, can help with immigration procedures and answer any questions the newcomers might have.

The team then hands out information kits, which include Hong Kong government publications for migrant workers, telephone numbers for consulates and migrant organizations, and hotlines the workers can call if they need help.

While the service targets migrant workers in general, the majority of the 200 or so new arrivals the team meets each day are women taking jobs as housekeepers.

Team leader Tara Polo, who is from the Philippines, says most newcomers know very little about Hong Kong's labor regulations and services, and the information service was created to help head off problems before they occur.

"They only give an orientation there [in their home countries], but they don't even say what are their rights in Hong Kong," said Ms. Polo. "They don't even give them proper information - like medical, processing fees - they can reimburse that, it's Hong Kong law."

There are more than 220,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong. More than half are from the Philippines, 43 percent are Indonesians and the rest come from other Asian countries such as Thailand, India, Sri Lanka and Nepal. They are part of an army of several million Asian women working outside their own countries, most of them in other parts of Asia or the Middle East.

Hong Kong has strong laws to protect foreign workers. The government cooperates with migrant organizations, and has printed guides to educate workers about their rights. Hong Kong's Home Affairs Bureau sponsors the Mobile Information Service at the airport.

But Hong Kong also places strict controls on foreign domestic workers.

Domestic workers must leave the territory within 14 days of the end of their contract if they have not found new employment. Minimum wages for domestic workers are mandated by law, and in 2003, in the midst of a recession, the wage was cut by $52, to $422 a month.

Many domestic workers are not aware of their rights, however. Eni Lestari, chairwoman of the Association of Indonesian Migrant Workers, says many are overcharged by the employment agencies that recruited them at home, and underpaid by their employers in Hong Kong.

"More than 93 percent of them saying that they have been victimized by their agency by paying a lot of money, equaling four to seven months of salary," she said. "Secondly underpayment. From the 2,777 people we surveyed, 53 percent said they received less than what they are entitled to."

Domestic workers also complain that their employers fail to give them required days off and holidays. Some are fired without proper notice and a few are physically abused.

Indonesians are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Migrants' rights workers say employment agencies in Indonesia try to make sure that workers remain ignorant of their rights. Ms. Phang of the Mobile Information Service says some new arrivals from Indonesia are scared to talk to her group.

"I ask them, 'Why are you scared of me? I can speak Bahasa, do not [be] scared with me.' Some of them tell to me it's because their agency in Indonesia tell to them, do not talk to anyone at the airport," she explained.

Some local representatives of the Indonesian agencies, who pick up new migrant workers at the airport, take the information kits away from them, so Ms. Phang's team tells the women to write emergency numbers on a separate piece of paper and hide it.

The Hong Kong government can take legal action against agencies for taking away the information material, which is considered government property. But few women are willing to file complaints about this or other abuses, for fear of losing their jobs.

Still, domestic workers calling help hotlines to report abuses often say they got the numbers from the Mobile Information Service. For many migrant workers, who work long hours with few days off, the meeting with the team at the airport remains their only chance to get information about their rights and options.

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