Mopping Up The Helper Mess

None of the players in the "right of abode for domestic helpers" drama have acquitted themselves very well so far, and some have been downright dangerous. It is a time for sober reflection rather than incendiary statements.

We can start by dismissing the idea that this is the civil rights case of the decade. It isn't. Every community has the right to decide who can enter to live and work, and to set the terms and conditions. Hong Kong has exactly the same rights as everywhere else.

Every helper currently in Hong Kong knew what the rules were before they decided to come here, and they are no more stringent than elsewhere and indeed in some aspects (for example, minimum monthly salary) more generous.

There might be a moral argument that after a reasonably lengthy period -- say 10 years – on renewable contract terms the individual has become in effect "normally resident" and that therefore after seven further years with that status they should be eligible for right of abode provided they meet the other conditions. Whether that moral case can be converted to a legal one is doubtful, but is at least arguable. There may also be a window of opportunity provided by the wording of the Basic Law. And indeed some test cases are now set for hearing in the Court of First Instance.

The correct next step is for the lawyers to argue it out and for the judge to rule on what the law is. In the event either side loses, there will then be right of appeal to the Court of Appeal and the Court of Final Appeal.

Meanwhile the response of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong has been a dangerous and disproportionate one. The party's spokesman has publically forecast that up to 500,000 people will become eligible, unemployment will rise to 10%, the government would have to bear capital costs of over $110 billion and recurrent costs of over $26 billion per annum plus an astronomical sum for health care (my calculator ran out of digits).

When challenged on an RTHK radio show to justify these numbers, DAB's Starry Lee admitted these represented a "worst case scenario", that it was up to the Government to come up with realistic figures and that the party's responsibility was to sound the alarm. No it isn't Ms Lee. Your party is a member of the ruling coalition and your duty is to behave responsibly, not skate along the edge of rabblerousing with racist overtones.

The Government has not helped to cool passions either. Instead of a low key confirmation that the Government was aware of the case and would strongly defend existing policies, meanwhile gathering all relevant facts and figures, reports emerged that it was holding a special meeting of Exco. Surely this can only have had the effect of adding to the sense of crisis. That is not what responsible governments do.

Finally there was the call by some politicians to rush to the National People's Congress and ask for a preemptive interpretation of the Basic Law, a call seemingly backed up by reports that this was one of the options on the table in Exco.

What part of "high degree of autonomy" do these people not understand? Whatever happened to rule of law and one country two systems?

Let us bring the discussion back to earth. The Government has a good chance of winning the lawsuit. In the event of a partial defeat, there are a number of steps it can take to restore the effect of the present policy (for example by introducing a break in employment after every six years).

It is true that a number of helpers would become eligible for right of abode. By definition these will be people who have won the trust of successive Hong Kong families over many years. They have already shown themselves to be assets to our community. Their spouses and dependants will not have automatic right of abode.

There is no reason to suppose that the helpers will quit en masse and compete for low wage jobs. Some of them may in fact move up the value chain as they hold professional qualifications in such fields as nursing. Did I read recently the Hospital Authority has a shortage?

No doubt there will be some who seek to take advantage of our social safety net, but the scale is not going to be anything like the numbers being bandied around.

Abraham Lincoln once said "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt". It is a moral some of our politicians would do well to heed.