Posted by Adela Kamaragoda
In most countries around the world, May 1 is a celebration of Labour Day, International Workers’ Day or Fête du Travail, an annual celebration of the achievements of those lucky enough to be workers amongst us. It’s an extra day off that most of us look forward to, one we can spend with our families, indulge in hobbies or go shopping. Yet we all know, particularly those of us who have been out of work for sickness or unemployment, just how much we find fulfillment and meaning in our lives through our jobs: as we use our skills, we make a difference in our world and feel good about ourselves, right?
On this Labour Day, let’s spare a thought for those unable to work in Hong Kong, - refugees - not because they are ill or unfit, but because they are denied that basic right most of us are entitled to that enables us to provide for ourselves and our families.
A better life?
Refugees and people seeking protection in Hong Kong do not have the right to work, even after they have been recognised as refugees. Do they come to Hong Kong for a better life? Certainly – they seek security, safety and freedom from persecution. Yet in reality, life is no bed of roses for them in Hong Kong. Refugees flee their countries, having lived through unimaginable traumas like war and rape, seeking protection in our affluent city. How does our city respond? It offers substandard living conditions, inadequate food packages, limited access to healthcare and no right to work, tertiary education or even volunteering. What type of life is this?
People seeking protection in Hong Kong have so little control over their lives. They wait for years for a decision on their case, a life in limbo where they have little sense of purpose, no ability to get on with their lives. They are denied participation in society, denied the right to lead dignified lives, to have the autonomy to provide for their families. Instead, they are forced into dependence and destitution – exacerbating the misconceptions that include horrible phrases that I don’t even want to write down. It’s a catch 22 situation.
Professionals with much to offer
In our centre we meet highly qualified refugees – doctors, lawyers, journalists, people who had a career and would have been well-respected in their home countries at one time, people who have so much to offer. When refugees and people seeking protection come to Justice Centre, we see first-hand how their mental and physical well-being, their pride, their self-esteem and ability to meet their own needs is seriously undermined by their inability to earn a living.
Only 100 in seven million
The Hong Kong government says it can grant temporary right to work on a discretionary basis, yet there are just around four refugees who have been granted this permission. The government cites the so-called magnet effect as a reason to prohibit refugees from work, but there is no evidence to support this claim and it is not evidenced in other countries where recognised refugees are allowed to work, such as the UK.
The numbers in Hong Kong are minuscule. Recognised refugees amount to less than 100 in a city of seven million, and are not likely to increase greatly. That’s 0.00001 per cent of the population. Is that really a threat?
If refugees were granted the right to work and to volunteer, they could be a valuable asset to Hong Kong’s limited work force, and as they wait for resettlement to a third country, they could further develop their skill-set in preparation. The reality is that with limited government assistance that gives them a meagre HK$1500 towards rent each month and bags of food equivalent to HK$13 per meal, refugees can be forced to work illegally just to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. This puts them in a vulnerable position where they are at risk of exploitation, of being arrested and damages their chance of resettlement
We have been lobbying the government hard on this issue, and will continue to do so. But today, as we look forward to our days off, let’s consider just how lucky we are to be able to work, to earn a living to pay our rent and have enough to eat. It’s a privilege worth more than any pay cheque.