by Karen R. Rees
Money is a great motivator. It has enticed 240,000 women, mainly from the Philippines and now increasingly from Indonesia, to Hong Kong to work as household servants. For the last 27 years my husband and I have served a church mostly made up of these women, so I know their stories well.
They come here because the economies in their countries have been ruined by private and governmental greed and corruption. The women, all from the low-income bracket, dream of building a house, helping their husband start a small business, or sending a child to school.
The government-set salary is currently $450 per month (U.S. dollars). Because the Filipinas speak English, they can read the contract they sign, are more able to get help if they are abused, and can usually get the full salary. Foreign women, most of whom don’t speak English and can’t read the contract, often get only $200 to $350.
The employers who illegally underpay their maids defend this behavior by saying the maids are earning more here, even when underpaid, than they would in their home countries. This is true. But does that make it right?
Over the last 11 years the government has reduced the legal salary for household servants. Given the current worldwide financial crisis, many employers would like further cuts. If these women will work for two-thirds of the legal salary, why not reduce it to that amount?
The employers could hire local women, but those women won’t tolerate the oppressive working conditions. The foreign maids put up with the abusive situation because they had to borrow heavily to pay both the legal and the illegal agency fees to get their jobs. They can’t afford to quit.
A few years ago the government began requiring the employers to pay a levy of $50 per month on every foreign household servant they hired. To prevent employers complaining, the government reduced the wages of the foreign servants by that amount. The maids protested that, although they are well below the taxable income level, the levy amounted to a tax on their salary. Their protests were ignored.
Once the maids get here, loan companies offer them quick money at exorbitant rates. Since they come from poverty, these women have little experience with handling money or understanding the fine print on loan agreements. Many of them are soon trapped by additional debt. The loan companies, like the employment agencies, are in it for the profit. After all, no business can continue for long if it doesn’t make a profit. But how much profit is justifiable?
In the 27 years we have been working with these women, I’ve learned a lot about economic abuse. At the same time, having grown up in a capitalist culture, I know there is value in letting supply and demand set prices, that businesses must make a profit, and that “those who won’t work should not eat.”
The women who come here are willing to work. In fact, since the contract sets no limit on hours, many of them work 12 to 18 hours a day, six or more days a week. If they refuse, they are fired and sent home even deeper in debt than when they arrived.
During our years here, I’ve also become increasingly aware of the many Scriptures in both Old and New Testaments that speak of God’s special concern for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the alien, in fact, for all defenseless people.
Having grown up on a farm, I especially relate to Leviticus 19:9, 10. In this passage, God gives the Israelites instructions on how to harvest their crops of grain and grapes. They were to leave the edges of their fields unharvested, along with any missed bits in the field or on the vines, so the poor and the aliens would have something to gather.
This command was in addition to other commands instructing the owner to pay his workers a fair wage and to pay a tithe of the harvest to the Levites, who in turn were to share what they got with the priests and the poor.
Every seventh year all debts were to be canceled, and every 50 years all purchased land was to be returned to the original owners. What kind of economic system was this? It certainly wasn’t one based solely on profit.
GOD’S WILL FOR THE POOR
In reading God’s laws relating to wealth and poverty, it becomes clear he wanted to maintain a reasonable distribution of wealth. Although he knew some would be richer than others, he wanted to prevent both extreme wealth and extreme poverty. The French and Russians later learned the hard way what God already knew. Too much inequality leads to social unrest and even revolution.
Reading the prophets, we can see clearly that the Israelites failed to obey God. They rejected both God and his instructions regarding the fair treatment of fellow Israelites and resident aliens. In Isaiah 58, Jeremiah 7, and numerous other passages God sternly rebukes them not only for worshiping idols but for oppressing the poor.
In Isaiah 58, God makes a direct connection between our worship and how we treat the poor and defenseless. Jesus makes an even stronger connection in Matthew 25:31-46 when he says the way we treat the disadvantaged is how we are treating him. It also directly affects where we will spend eternity.
Unfortunately, the Israelites didn’t listen and ended up as captives in Babylon. That 70-year sojourn seemed to cure them of idol worship but, as we see in Nehemiah 5, it didn’t improve their treatment of the less fortunate.
The problem continues into New Testament times. The privileged rich grew richer. The poor were either exploited or ignored. Christ and New Testament writers such as James said a lot about financial issues. Many of their teachings echoed the concerns and warnings found in the Old Testament.
Fast forward to today. Main occupations have changed but, unfortunately, people haven’t. At least they haven’t in Hong Kong. Even schoolchildren know a person’s value as a human being is determined by how much money he has. That’s because the main god worshiped here is money.
FAVORING THE POWERFUL?
And what about people in the U.S.?
On recent trips to the States I’ve noticed a growing number of small loan companies that, judging from their signboards, are set up especially for the Mexican community. Are these companies as eager as the Hong Kong loan companies to increase profits by preying on low-paid and financially “naive” workers?
What about the employers who hire a large number of part-time workers rather than a smaller number of full-time ones so they don’t have to provide medical and retirement benefits that cut into profits?
Although the tax system in the U.S. agrees in theory with the biblical principle that those who have more should share more, how is it being carried out? Is it actually fair or is it more like the levy here in Hong Kong—slanted in favor of the wealthy and powerful?
Today we live in a world whose economy is in the middle of a major recession. The U.S. government is scrambling to reduce the financial damage.
WHAT CHRISTIANS CAN DO
How can Christians respond? This situation presents us with responsibilities and opportunities.
One responsibility is to do our best to ensure that all proposed laws, whether national, state, or county, follow biblical principles. And after they are passed, we need to see they are carried out fairly.
Another responsibility is to share what God has given us. Second Corinthians 9:11 tells us God makes us rich so we can be generous to others. We should share with those in greater need whether they live next door or on the other side of the world. This may be difficult as we see our retirement investments shrivel up or face a loss of income. It can be made easier if, instead of counting our losses, we count our blessings. The Macedonian churches, poor as they were, focused on their blessings and became a blessing to others (2 Corinthians 8:1-4).
The world financial crisis also is creating opportunities. It’s a time we can experience God’s care in ways we may never have experienced before—provided we are willing to trust him enough to follow his teachings.
It’s also an opportune time to share Christ with our non-Christian friends and neighbors. Having learned how heartless and untrustworthy their god of wealth is, people are searching for something better. Tell them about a God who is faithful and loving, who provides peace in times of turmoil, and who can bring good out of bad.
The current financial crisis was brought on by the greed inherent in all of us. The world’s economic wizards can make suggestions of how to avoid financial failure. Congress can pass legislation to stimulate a faltering economy. But only God can remove greed at the source.
He is the only one who can change our hearts—if we will let him.
Karen Rees, along with her husband, Benjamin, have been doing multicultural mission work in Hong Kong since 1975.