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[AHRC Joint Statement] HONG KONG: Transparent and reasonable mechanism for minimum food allowance for foreign domestic workers needed to ensure right to adequate food

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
AHRC-STM-190-2009
September 11, 2009

A Joint Statement of Civil Groups

HONG KONG: Transparent and reasonable mechanism for minimum food allowance for foreign domestic workers needed to ensure right to adequate food

On Sep 2, 2009, Hong Kong SAR government announced that the food allowance in lieu of free food for foreign domestic helpers would be increased from not less than HKD 300 per month to not less than HKD 740 per month. Please see the full text.

The statement that announced the freezing of domestic helpers’ wage level and the increase in minimum food allowance was released unexpectedly. Domestic helpers’ unions were not consulted either. As the initial minimum food allowance of HKD 300 was arbitrarily notified to the public by the Hong Kong Immigration Office about 25 years ago, the HKD 740 was also renewed without transparent and reasonable procedure.

The statement said that the government has reviewed the food allowance in lieu of free food this year and decided to raise it to the new level after taking account of the movement in the relevant consumer price indices. Accordingly, the primary indicator for renewal of minimum food allowance is the relevant consumer price indices. Then, what should be the initial level before other indicators are reflected in it?

The minimum food allowance is the standard that should not be less than that required in order to ensure right to adequate food with dignity. In other words, it reflects an adequate quantity and quality of food on average respecting people's food culture and tradition.

According to the report on Household Expenditure Survey conducted by Census and Statistics Department of Hong Kong, the monthly average expenditure per capita is HKD 6,108 as of 2004-05. As the food expenditure amounted to 25.94%, the average food expenditure per capita is HKD 1,645. In addition, as the government mentioned, the consumer price indices reads as 109.2 as of July 2009 compared to 100 of October 2004-05. Accordingly, it is estimated that the food expenditure per capita would be more than HKD 1,645. Approximately 50% of survey sample composes of low income groups, which means the indicator is reasonable and average to apply to all residents including foreign domestic helpers and migrant workers in Hong Kong.

As also mentioned in the statement, most of the employers at present provide food for free at home. Unlike Chinese domestic workers or other migrant workers in Hong Kong, foreign domestic workers are required to live in their place of work according to the decision of the Hong Kong government in 2003. For workers who work and live in the home, three meals are thus also required to be provided for the workers with reasonable time given to eat the meal. In the case that the domestic workers are given food for free at home, the food should have same value as minimum food allowance we proposed here above. The relevant government also needs an indicator to monitor since housework tends to be seen as private sector, which causes difficulty in assessment. Many domestic workers reveal that they receive no food allowance but due to inadequate or inappropriate food provided, they must use much of their own money to supplement their diet, or end up eating sufficiently only on their single rest day, due to being both too busy and lacking opportunity to buy their own food during the week. As the government said, the minimum food allowance needs to be reviewed every year.

So far, most of the employers have decided whether to provide food for free at home or provide food allowance depending on their convenience. The foreign domestic workers may not always be able to consume certain foods, due to their food habit or religion. Many foreign domestic workers come from Indonesia, where most people are of Muslim religion and prohibited from eating pork. Do employers ensure provision of adequate food suitable for them, and the government provide guidelines or mechanisms for monitoring? The right to adequate food stipulated in International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) means to correspond with food culture and personal habit. The way should be decided by mutual agreement and furthermore, the domestic workers' choice should be given priority.

The government cannot underestimate the contribution of foreign domestic workers in economic development. It is the same principle as that of the housewife contributing to domestic economy. However, the government has never shared economic growth with them, but rather forced them to share the difficulty for decades. To employ foreign domestic workers is not to give charity or kindness but to create mutual development. As much as Hong Kong society gets benefits and support from foreign domestic workers, it is true that the workers should also get support from the society. To improve mutual relationships as well as to create an honest society with justice to all, the government need to build a clear indicator and standard which should be discussed and decided by public discourse. Without transparency and rationality based on human rights and dignity, the government cannot keep pace with international society.

The government says that its planned arrangement should allow sufficient time for employers to send the signed contracts to Immigration Department for completion of the necessary application procedures. Before they decided to increase the minimum food allowance, there should be sufficient open discussion for a mechanism to be established regarding standard setting and procedures to involve. It is not late. We can start the discussion now. This is the way the government creates transparent society that is respectful of human rights, as a responsible member of international society.

Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)
Asian Migrants' Coordinating Body (AMCB)
Asia Monitor Resource Centre (AMRC)
Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants (APMM)
Association of Indonesian Migrant Workers (ATKI)
Bethune House Migrant Women's Refuge
Filipino Migrant Workers' Union (FMWU)
Mission for Migrant Workers (MFMW)
United Filipinos in Hong Kong (UNIFIL-MIGRANTE-HK)
Hong Kong Catholic Commission for Labour Affairs (HKCCLA)
Hong Kong Domestic Workers General Union
Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions
Helpers for Domestic Helpers (HDH)
Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese


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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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