International Labour Day 2013 has been and gone and today is another day. Vast numbers of workers are back to wallowing in disunity, uninvited to lose their chains. And on this the 2nd of May, I have three disjointed thoughts:
Solidarity with the people of Hong Kong, a city where I spent a total of 16 years and where the labour movement is quite vibrant albeit under the thumb of an undemocratic government beholden to business lobbies and to Beijing, which listens more to tycoons rather than to workers and ordinary people, never mind that the ruling party in China continues to use the word “communist” in its name for perhaps nostalgic reasons (if one might be charitable).
Hong Kong’s dockworkers have been on strike for a month now. All they are asking is for wages to be returned to levels before they were reduced on the pretext of economic downturn. The man who is denying them the small consideration is Hong Kong’s richest tycoon, Li Ka-shing, who reputedly enjoys a direct line to the Beijing leadership.
For several years until 2011, I marched on May Day with Hong Kong’s tens of thousands of workers from Victoria Park to Government House in scorching afternoon heat. The drumbeats of Indonesian domestic workers in colourful clothes and similar antics of others provided a bit of entertainment along the route, making up for the machinations of the police force mindlessly trying to restrict the space available for the rally.
Since moving back to Bangalore, India, in February 2012, I march, shout slogans and raise fist vicariously. To be sure, there were May Day rallies here too but mostly by individual political parties or groups linked to them.
Yesterday (May 1), Garga Chatterjee, rightly said in his Facebook update: “… Almost all of my Facebook friends from the subcontinent belong to the middle/upper-middle class. Since yesterday (April 30), many of them have been talking about May Day and workers’ rights, posting pictures and what not. Most of their homes have at least one domestic help working for them. I am sure, that person did not get a day off on May Day…”
And too late.
By the time I’d read it, a part-time worker had been and gone after her roughly one-hour stint helping clean dishes from overnight and beating up a few clothes on a stone, in addition to cleaning the floor around my parents’ house and the front-yard. She has a mobile phone but I doubt she’s on Facebook. How many domestic workers, full-time or part-time, in India are even aware of IWD?
In Hong Kong, foreign domestic workers – mostly from Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand and Nepal – have formed a number of unions and organisations to deal with not only their employers and the local authorities but the unreasonable fees and rules their own countries’ governments gouge out of them.
Garga Chatterjee might have had Facebook friends from among them had he lived in Hong Kong, as a large section of the foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong are on Facebook and use it partly to organise.
Eni Lestari is one such. She’s bright and dynamic but however long she lives in Hong Kong, she’ll not be granted permanent resident status. I got it after seven years, because my visa conditions were different. I once asked Eni if she couldn’t try and squeeze a scholarship to study in a university in Hong Kong. She said the foreign domestic worker visa precluded conversion to a student visa. Apartheid.
I too am a worker. I used to be a full-time journalist for decades. For 11 years I worked at a French organisation whose branch had no union but which nevertheless allowed a five-day working week (with compensatory offs for night shifts), 13th month salary and medical coverage until 2006 when I opted out, taking sabbatical leave to enrol in Hong Kong University. I subsequently worked for several months full-time but mostly part-time as a journalist for both commercial entities and human rights NGOs, something I still do since returning to my hometown, Bangalore.
The payment per day for freelance editing has stagnated at the 1990s level in Hong Kong. And that per word of translation for another Hong Kong-based entity has remained the same since, I am told, 2006. An agency in Taipei that used to be under the thumb of the ruling Kuomintang party – a once rabidly anti-communist group that presided over “White Terror” on the island until democratisation began in the late 1980s – pays a more decent rate and I might do a spot of work for them.
I am a freelance/independent journalist and translator. We hacks sell our wares and services to those who’ll have them at a price they quote. No union. Nada.