[SCMP Column] Time to put in place ‘Earn, Learn, Return’ initiative in Hong Kong and Asia

August 12, 2015

You probably have not yet heard of “Earn, Learn, Return”. But hopefully you soon will. And hopefully this radical new initiative being nursed to life by the APEC Business Advisory Council will before too long begin to corrode some of the shameful corrupt and slavery-like practices that blight the lives of the 30 million international workers that currently oil the wheels of Asia’s most competitive economies – including Hong Kong.

“Earn, Learn Return”, referred to in Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) circles as ELR, has a simple aim: to improve the management of movement of international workers around the APEC region, whether they are nurses, construction workers, entertainers, home helpers, or skilled professionals.

The initiative is the culmination of more than a decade of work within the APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC) to purge the corruption and abuse from the many regional schemes that help thousands of businesses in Asia to meet skills shortages by recruiting workers from distant economies.

It is a scheme intended to breathe some humanity back into practices that are often inhumane, and are sometimes incubators for modern-day slavery.

And that includes Hong Kong, where the recent case of appalling abuse by a Hong Kong Chinese employer against Erwiana, an Indonesian domestic helper, has shone an embarrassing light on abuses that are more widespread in Hong Kong than many would like to acknowledge.

The ELR initiative – which is linked to parallel initiatives to map regional skills shortages more accurately, and to facilitate regional recognition of qualifications around the region – is based on a simple premise: that most international workers, often mis-described as “migrant workers”, are in fact not interested in migrating anywhere.

In reality, they are being driven by economic need and the economic failings inside their own economies, to support their families by working overseas. In reality, they are no happier to be living in squalid and demeaning living environments in countries far from home than the trade union activists who spit on them for “stealing” jobs from local workers.

In reality, most want to build savings for a home, or education for their children, and then return as quickly as possible to their families and kids. They hope on return from their period of work overseas that their overseas training or experience might qualify them for more promising work once back home.

But a combination of corruption, abuse, and complex and xenophobic regulatory practices makes such a benign cycle of “earn, learn, return” anything but the norm. Nurses in Indonesia often pay so many illegal and under-the-counter fees to international employment agencies that three years out of a five year contract often pass before debts have been repaid.

At the end of such contracts, with no savings yet accumulated, many are tempted to go “underground”, becoming part of an illegal underclass that are exploited by employers, and giving heartburn to immigration officials under pressure to prevent illegal migration.

While abroad, such workers lose health and pension benefits at home, reducing the incentive to return. The experience they accumulate while working overseas is unrecognized at home, leaving dark black holes in workers’ CVs.

ABAC’s first step into this issue was driven by business recognition that the international movement of workers is not a blight but a blessing. As Asia’s wealthy societies like Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore rapidly age, so skills shortages have become progressively more acute, intensifying our reliance on such international workers to keep the wheels of our own economies humming.

This is as true for the 350,000 relatively low-skilled home helpers in Hong Kong as it is for welders in the Middle East, or nurses and factory workers in Korea.

ELR aims to purge the blight that currently infects this critically important regional labour flow. It calls for employers – not workers – to pay the fees needed to get them their jobs. It calls for health and pension arrangements that provide continuity with the schemes they would have had if they had stayed working at home. It aims to ensure that workers can return home regularly to their families, to minimize the risk of family break-downs. And it calls for overseas working experience to be recognised and properly valued on return.

Such moves in combination would help to reduce the abuse that so often blights the lives of overseas workers in economies like Hong Kong – illegal underpayment, withholding of passports, insufferable working and living conditions. Other steps in Hong Kong would include allowing domestic helpers to live outside their employer’s home if they wish – a recommendation made by the judge in the Erwiana court case as she sentenced the employer to seven years in prison for her far-from-uncommon abuses.

With at least 30 million international workers currently in place around the Asia-pacific, such an ELR scheme is already overdue. As regional skills shortages become more acute the need to have such arrangements in place will become increasingly acute. Until now, both Hong Kong people and the Hong Kong government have been indifferent to this imperative. This is not acceptable.

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