Maids plan WTO show of strength

Original Publication Date: 
26 September, 2005

Despite growing fears that World Trade Organization protests may be stifled, Hong Kong's foreign domestic helpers' Asian Migrants Coordinating Body has begun "intensifying" a campaign to mobilize its constituents to protest against deregulation policies.

"We are the products of destructive globalization policies," said Eman Villanueva, secretary general for United Filipinos in Hong Kong and a spokesman for the coordinating body.

Anti-globalization protests at the WTO talks are more often associated with either radicals, or local farmers concerned about declining incomes resulting from WTO agricultural trade policies.

But migrant workers, and especially the 222,500 domestic helpers in Hong Kong, should have an even greater interest in the deregulation of trade barriers because in their case, they are the trade.

The coordinating body, a participant in anti-globalization movements since it was founded in 1996, is planning to mobilize its own specific protest marches against the WTO on December 11, 13 and 18.

"In between those dates, we are preparing our own conferences and forums," Villanueva said.

Speakers from Europe and Malaysia have been invited to talk on issues concerning migrant workers in public meetings.

Since May, the coordinating body and the six subsidiary groups from their respective countries have been organizing small seminars and workshops once a month, entitled "WTO migrant educators," to explain to members why the WTO talks concern them.

Now, those who have been educated are spreading the word.

Sunday marked the beginning of the "intensifying campaign," with activists scattered around Chater Garden to promote the issues via a performance on Chater Road.

The Association of Indonesian Migrant Workers, also a member of the coordinating body, said they will hold a similar public campaign again this Sunday in Victoria Park.

Their concerns about WTO policies are twofold.

First, deregulation policies have a direct impact on the livelihood of migrant workers.

Second, the home countries of most foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong such as Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand are the hardest-hit victims of WTO policies, Villanueva said.

At issue specifically is the General Agreement on Trade in Services, or GATS.

According to the WTO Web site, "GATS is among the World Trade Organization's most important agreements. The accord, which came into force in January 1995, is the first and only set of multilateral rules covering international trade in services. It has been negotiated by the governments themselves, and it sets the framework within which firms and individuals can operate."

One of the four sectors covered by GATS is the "movement of natural persons," or alternatively, the "trading of people," Villanueva said.

And the negotiations between governments are really "a race to the bottom game" since one government reacts to another's reduction of trade barriers by reducing its own, he said.

"Many of the issues that we [migrant workers] are confronted with come from policies that are being promoted by the WTO," he said.

In Hong Kong, Villanueva cites the wage cuts for domestic helpers, the levies imposed on their employers and the reduced budget for social services such as hospitals as some of the policies affecting migrant workers.

Migrant worker associations cite the deregulation policies regarding recruitment agencies in Indonesia as one of the main factors foreign domestic helpers from the archipelago are so readily exploited.

With agency fees so exorbitant, the maids are in "debt bondage."

Although the Philippines still has laws regarding agency fees, the situation is essentially the same, Villanueva said, because the government turns a blind eye, and private companies rule.

"They [governments] don't want to antagonize the private companies. They are passing all the responsibilities to the private agencies," he said.

"But even without GATS, we are already affected by the WTO because other agreements are actually destroying the livelihood and the economy and the environment of the countries we come from.

"The reason we are working overseas in the first place is because globalization has destroyed our chance of getting employment in our respective countries."

The coordinating body will be marching alongside the Hong Kong People's Alliance on WTO, the main protest organizer, and they have been suffering the same frustrations in their preparations.

"Marching from where, at the moment, is still not clear," Villanueva said. "We are trying to book space [for the public speakers] but we are also hoping that the government will provide us with a centralized space to hold our activities in one place."

In February 2003, the coordinating body helped mobilize 12,000 migrant workers for a protest march against wage cuts and the imposition of levies on employers. Villanueva is hoping for at least half that number in December.

"If migrant workers sacrifice so much by leaving their families just to provide them with a decent living by working abroad, all those sacrifices will be wasted just because of WTO agreements. All migrant workers should participate in the protests."