Social equity has to be at the heart of any vision of sustainable urbanism.
There is also a balance to be struck between ‘freedom’ (whether market or individual) and necessary constraints if sustainability is to be an attainable goal. In the following piece, I explore one issue that at the very least should raise questions about social equity and the sustainability of contemporary urban environments. It focuses upon the role played by immigrant labour within ‘global’ cities.
There has been a flurry of recent articles in the South China Morning Post (SCMP, Hong Kong’s English language daily newspaper) around the widespread abuse of immigrant domestic workers in Hong Kong. Hong Kong has around 300,000 overseas maids and they are obliged, by law, to ‘live-in, that is, reside within the homes of their employers. They carry out domestic tasks such as cleaning, ironing and cooking, as well as often undertaking a great deal of childcare for the family. Some maids, the SCMP reports, are not given their own bedroom and have been forced to sleep in closets or bathrooms. Many do not receive the one day-off a week that they are (in theory) entitled to. Others find that their personal space is violated on an almost daily basis; in extreme but seemingly not that rare cases, maids are beaten, raped and systematically abused. They find themselves in an ambivalent and unworkable situation where they are ‘part of the family’ when they are not. Their status and rights are continually in question.
According to the SCMP, the Asia-Pacific region employs around 21.5 million young women working as domestic helpers. Some commentators attribute the rise of domestic work of this nature to an increase in females entering the labour market and the need to replace their domestic work in the home. Such concerns over abuse are not, it should be said, confined to ‘Asian’ locations; Professor Geraldine Pratt of the University of British Columbia has written on the abuse of domestic helpers and maids in Canada under the ‘live-in caregiver program’.
This is an issue that must be addressed by cities and governments where immigrant labour forms the backbone of their economies. It reflects wider concerns around migrant labour and a lack of basic, and not to mention equal, rights. This is not the same as illegal and undocumented labour (which is almost impossible to regulate) – many domestic workers migrate legally under a domestic worker ‘scheme’, and yet still suffer a lack of rights and basic protection from abuse. Immigration schemes need not just to facilitate the entry of workers, but need also to protect workers subsequently.
Dr Johanna Waters is a University Lecturer in Urban Geography and Fellow of Kellogg College. Her research interests include international and transnational migration (particularly in the Asia-Pacific Region), international education and student mobilities.