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Last Updated: Monday, 19 December 2005, 12:00 GMT
Migrants see another Hong Kong
By Steve Schifferes
BBC News economics reporter in Hong Kong

Hong Kong skyline at night
Hong Kong is the financial and corporate centre of East Asia
It is not surprising that Hong Kong has been hosting the world trade talks.

The city proudly calls itself "Asia's world city" and is a monument to the success of global trade in transforming living standards.

But even here, there are some losers as well as winners from globalisation.

Hong Kong's GDP has risen 80-fold since 1955 and it has invested some of the fruits of economic growth in improving living standards.

Half the population is housed in public rented housing, mainly located in the outlying New Territories where nine New Towns have been built.

But even in Hong Kong, the benefits of free trade have not been equally shared.

Off balance

The cost of housing on the overcrowded island has been pushed up by demand from outside, especially from wealthy investors from mainland China.

Once thriving manufacturing industries such as the garment sector have disappeared across the border to the Chinese mainland, where labour is much cheaper.

Hong Kong's unemployment rate rose to 8.6% and still stands at 5.3%.

In view of the glittering skyscrapers of the Hong Kong waterfront lies the sprawling public housing districts in mainland Kowloon.

It is here that some of Hong Kong's losers in the race for globalisation have been concentrated.

Bed cage

Hong Kong's great wealth has attracted a flood of migrants, first from mainland China, and now from developing countries around the region.

Many of these migrants are now finding it difficult to adjust to the changes to Hong Kong's economy.

And older, unskilled workers are finding it difficult to find new jobs or retraining.

Wang Tung in his "cage bed" (Credit: Jess Hurd: Report Digital)
Wang Tung keeps his possessions in a shelf above his bed (Credit: Jess Hurd: Report Digital)

Wang Tung is a 64-year old unemployed worker who first moved to Hong Kong from mainland China in 1966.

Since he lost his job in a plastics factory six years ago, he has been living on social security payments of around HK$2,200 per month (US$282) about one third of his former wage of HK$5,500.

Mr Tung, who is not married, lives in a "bed cage" consisting of a single bed in a room with a dozen other single men.

All his possessions are in a shelf above the bed, including a suitcase, a radio, and utensils for cooking. He pays HK$700 ($90) per month in rent.

Foreign legion

There are thousands of Hong Kong workers who still live in such conditions, according to Sze Lai Shan, a community organiser with SOCO, a local community group.

Many do not want to move to outlying districts for rehousing, because they would be far from friends and family, she said.

She added that as well as the bed cage dwellers, 150,000 households live in inadequate housing with shared toilet and cooking facilities.

And many more recently arrived workers do not qualify for government social security payments and must rely on savings or friends for help.

The affluence of Hong Kong has also attracted another type of migrant worker.

Over 80,000 young women from Indonesia are now working in the city as maids and domestic servants, and many of them face exploitation by their employers.

High and dry

Hamida, who is 25, has been working as a domestic servant in Hong Kong for four and half years.

She moved from her village of Banywanti on the Indonesian island of Java to seek work to help support her family, where her father earns a living as a fisherman.

She has been sending home half of her HK$2000 ($250) wages each month.

Hamida, an Indonesian working as a maid in Hong Kong (Credit: Jess Hurd: Report Digital)
Hamida gives half of her wages to her family every month (Credit: Jess Hurd: Report Digital)

She says that she left home because there was no work to be found in her area, but that she has not seen her family and misses them so much that it makes her very sad.

Hamida has also been facing problems with her employer, who did not always pay her the full wage, and did not give her the two-week holiday every two years that domestic workers are supposed to get.

She finally fled to seek help from a refugee centre for migrant workers in Mong Kok, who helped her win a court case.

But her employer has disappeared and she is still out of work.

Workers at the refugee centre, where several dozen young Indonesian women are now congregated, say they get two or three cases each day of this type, and that they are just one of a dozen such centres in Hong Kong.

Shifting sands

Migration has become a key part of globalisation worldwide.

The amount of money remitted by migrants has doubled in the past ten years, now far exceeding the amount of money paid by rich countries in foreign aid.

Protestors in Jakarta, Indonesia
Critics say the WTO has failed to address the impact of migration

But international migration is largely unregulated.

Attempts to include it in world trade talks have been rebuffed by rich countries, notably the US, which does not want an international treaty which would interfere with its own immigration policy.

And the forces driving such migration - rural poverty in Asia - was also the focus of the trade talks.

Indonesia is leading a group of countries that are seeking a special exemption from global trade rules to ensure that home-grown rural products are protected from imports.

And it is the cost of adjustment which also drove the anti-globalisation protests seen in Hong Kong.

Gaining public support for trade liberalisation will be harder until better arrangement for compensating the losers are in place - as the head of the World Trade Organization, Pascal Lamy, admits.


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