Bizcuits | Foreign, dark-skinned, female and thoroughly exploitable

Leanda Lee

Even though the draft bill to set a statutory minimum wage of MOP32 per hour has been accepted this week in the Legislative Assembly, it continues to divide opinion. Topping the list of controversies are the exclusion of domestic helpers and the disabled. Although some legislators propose to extend the law to the disabled by applying government subsidies to employers, with the exception of Mak Soi Kun fewer are as keen to include foreign domestic helpers under the protection of the law. Although both groups risk exploitation and need community support, being seen to side with a disadvantaged local group is far less politically damaging than being seen to support a relatively larger bunch of low-status foreigners. 

An explanation given by the Labour Affairs Bureau for the exclusion of domestic helpers from such protection, because their work does not contribute to profit-making business, makes clear that Macau places economic outcomes and parochial matters way ahead of any other sets of values – be they humanitarian, inclusive, moral, or ethical.

Even this explanation, however, is nonsense. If domestic helpers are to be excluded due to their non-contribution to business profits then why do we protect the wages of nurses, or teachers, or even government officials? Domestic helpers release their employers from the crucial but time-consuming work of maintaining a home and caring for the aged, the infirm, or the next generation of Macau’s citizens (our children) so that their employers are free to go out and earn an income, or raise profits, or contribute to the community in other, even non-economic, valuable ways.

No, this is plain informal (cultural) and formal (institutionalized) discrimination of the worst kind: exploitation of the foreign, dark-skinned and female. The legislation says these workers are worth little more than nothing. They can be relegated to a parallel world as a sub-class in our society – virtually slave labour. Our protections, our considerations, and our values do not apply to them.

Macau has hardly increased the minimum acceptable contractual rate for domestic helpers in over 15 years! It was once mentioned in pro-forma contracts put out by the Labour Affairs Bureau as MOP2,500 per month; recently a scholar mooted the rate was MOP4,000; and we now find the rate local employers are instructed to pay will change from MOP2,800 to MOP3,000.  It’s a moving famine. In addition, the MOP500 living allowance needs a thorough reality check, given the requirements for housing provisions set out in the Chief Executive’s Dispatch No. 88/2010 and the increase in rental properties since.

Ip Sio Kai and Song Pek Kei’s concerns for inflationary pressures and “negative effects to others”, such as “bankruptcy of small and medium-sized businesses” have not played out since the introduction of the minimum wage bill in the property management sector came into force in 2016, and unlikely to do so given the experience of other jurisdictions (economic theory makes no clear predictions) and the small percentage of the workforce (26,600 workers, 6.9% of the employed population) that this new legislation covers. Indeed, it is fair and just to markedly improve the lives of the few who are at the bottom rungs of society.

The wealthier average earner with a monthly median income of MOP17,000 sits in stark contrast to the newly drafted statutory minimum wage of MOP6,656 and the paltry instruction to pay MOP3,000 to a domestic helper. Considering that productivity (the thing behind those profits) measured in GDP per capita is second only to Luxembourg at USD86,355 (MOP695,106 – one-hundred times Macau’s minimum wage), it is hard to argue that our economy will suffer from the inclusion of all workers under the minimum wage provisions.

Macau has arrived economically. Macau has grown up and grown wealthy. It is now time to progress and even things out a bit.

Categories Opinion