07 November 2011

Intimidation and Injustice

One of the things that I do as part of my work here is to accompany clients to conciliation meetings or labour tribunals. I am there ostensibly to offer support, advice if necessary, but sometimes I feel like a big dog. As my friends in Ecumenical Accompaniment programs know, having a third party from the outside there can make a difference. Not always to the way things turn out but definitely for the person who is being accompanied.

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8 )

I have certainly encountered a few roaring lions here. Mostly agencies and employers who want to avoid paying in full their obligation to a helper. 

Case In Point: I have a client who was terminated because the employer said she beat the child. The child in question was, as the helper described, a real brat. He would kick her, spit in her face, and otherwise be unruly. He's five years old. After enduring a month of this abuse from the child, she smacked his hand. Not hard, more of a tap, and then covered his mouth with her hand (because he was trying to spit on her again). She didn't bruise the child or leave a mark on him. Most parents would see this as appropriate discipline for an unruly, violent child. 

My client waited 7 days after termination to receive her payments (the prescribed time in the labour ordinance). According to the contract the employer must pay her the salary she is owed, travel allowance, annual leave time accrued, the plane ticket home and bus fare from the airport to her house in the Philippines. And, if she does not serve a one month notice period, wages in lieu of notice. She did not hear from her employer so she filed a case with the labour tribunal. 

This client also had to take out an (illegal) loan to pay for (illegal) agency fees in the Philippines, so she reported to the Overseas Workers Welfare Association (OWWA) in the Philippine consulate. They scheduled a meeting with her and her agency here in Hong Kong. With the money she has paid so far and the balance of the loan, the total is ~P152,000. (that's US$3530)

After she filed her case with the labour tribunal, she received a phone call from the police saying that her employer had filed a case with them and that she would need to come in and give a statement. This scared her. Anytime the police or the authorities get involved most helpers are frightened into signing whatever just so that there is "no trouble."  It ends up causing them more trouble in the end. She came to the Mission and asked what to do.

My suspicion is that the agency told the employer that in order for her to not have to pay the wages in lieu of notice (an extra $3580 in addition to the $3740 she already has to pay) she should file a case with the police to intimidate or scare my client into signing an agreement for the $3740. Most of the time that works. Because in the labour tribunal they will ask if a case was filed (nevermind that it was filed much later than when she was terminated).. We have so many clients that signed agreements, not realizing that they can't file a claim later for something that they were cheated out of. 

We advised her not to say anything and not to sign anything. Too often their words are used against them in court, they meant something else but it could be construed another way, like as an admittance of guilt. It is better not to say anything and let the employer prove it. 

I accompanied her today to the consulate for her conciliation meeting with the agency. She was nervous, but more nervous about having to go to the police station tomorrow. We took deep, calming breaths. I sat next to her while we waited and the agency representative sat nearby. When they were called into the meeting room I gave her an encouraging smile. 

It took about 45 minutes. He tried to intimidate her into signing for less than what she is owed from her employer ("did you get a call from the police? I got your number from the police.") but I advised her not to sign it and pursue her claims in the labour tribunal. She was strong. She stood her ground. When it came to the amount of the agency fees and the lending he said he would 'have to think about it' and 'consult the agency in the Philippines.' Right. Okay. So they have another meeting next week. 

The injustice of all this is infuriating. Because of her labour tribunal case (and now pending police case) she cannot sign a new contract. She cannot work while this case is going on. She has to stay in a shelter and hope that one of the potential employers she interviews with won't mind waiting until the case is concluded. My presence there may or may not make a huge difference in how things turn out, but it makes a difference for her. Having someone there who is fighting with her, for her, makes a huge difference to her. 

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)

Never forget, dear ones, the importance of showing up; the importance of being there, present, with someone.

Grace and Peace,

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