Photo: Tang Ming Tung
With long waiting lists and hefty price tags, the availability of affordable childcare is often cited as the No.1 reason why women aged between 25 and 34 are currently out of the workforce. The absence of these women from the workplace is being targeted as a major productivity issue for Australia.
The Abbott government has commissioned an inquiry into future options for childcare, with a focus on improving the system that supports voluntary workforce participation, particularly for women.
Of the 400 submissions received, ideas range from a HECS-style loan for childcare, to means-testing the childcare rebate, to importing low-cost nannies.
The latter idea, proposed by the Indonesia Institute, a Perth-based think-tank, would allow nannies from countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines to come to Australia and mind children for $200 a week (an amount double what they would earn at home).
Australian families would provide their imported nanny with accommodation, clothing and medical insurance. The nannies would also be entitled to Sundays off and a return airfare home for two weeks each year.
The institute argues that the scheme would bring mutual economic and social benefits to Australian families and Asian workers.
The financial burden on Australian families would ease; the nannies could earn sufficient funds to purchase a property or set up a business when they return home. And the agreement could potentially strengthen ties between Australia and its regional neighbours in this Asian century.
While there may be mutual benefits, the long-term human costs could be enormous and it will be largely women who bear this cost.
Hong Kong introduced an almost identical scheme in the 1970s when its economy was booming.
Under British rule, Hong Kong was home to a large number of expats looking for domestic help. The expats were unable to recruit locally as low or unskilled Hong Kong women preferred to work in manufacturing or retail. The colonial government intervened and arranged for Filipino women to come to the territory specifically for domestic work.
The availability of cheap domestic help also meant that successful Chinese women could stay in the workforce, thus further strengthening the Hong Kong economy.
At the same time, the Philippine economy stagnated. The Philippine government encouraged its people (almost exclusively women) to go abroad, giving them the opportunity to earn the kind of money that they could only dream of at home.
The minimum wage for an imported maid in Hong Kong is around $A450 a month for a six-day workweek. This includes room and board. But far from squirrelling away hard-earned cash to build a better future, many maids just get by, sending every last dollar to support impoverished families back home.
As there appears to be no shortage of south-east Asian women seeking this type of work, many other countries have signed up. Hong Kong now hosts more than 300,000 maids from the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and more recently, Nepal, India and Bangladesh. The maids make up 3 per cent of the Hong Kong population. It is so common that middle-class families with modest incomes can afford one.
The social consequences for the women are immeasurable. The women become commodities, sold through employment agencies and word-of-mouth. Last year, the first arrivals of Bangladeshi women into Hong Kong were marketed as being trained in Cantonese and Chinese cooking, and personal hygiene.
As a bonus, Bangladeshi maids have fewer compatriots in Hong Kong, so they would spend more time working and less time gossiping and slacking off, the message ran.
The emotional toll on these women is often overlooked. Many endure homesickness, loneliness, spousal infidelity and the weight of being the sole provider for extended families back home.
As the condition of their visa is work, without a contract, maids must leave Hong Kong. In fear of deportation, many do not report incidences of employer abuse. Five decades on, the extent and brutality of maid-abuse is only now bubbling to the surface.
Last year, Hong Kong's highest court ruled against granting residency to two Filipino maids. Despite having worked and lived in Hong Kong for more than seven years (one maid had worked for 17 years), a period that would ordinarily allow foreigners in other professions to apply for permanent residency, maids are specifically excluded to apply.
The decision speaks volumes about the social and economic worth of those who do housework and childcare. Maids contribute economically by freeing others to go to work. They contribute socially by raising generations of children. Yet, when they are no longer required, they are asked to leave.
While some may argue that the plight of maids in Hong Kong will not transpire in “fair-go” Australia, I'm not so sure. Without adequate workplace conditions and a chance at full citizenship, a second-class of citizen will be inevitable.
Australia is on a brink of a “once-in-a-generation” policy reform and any childcare solution should be one that advances Australia economically and socially. Smarter investment in the childcare sector, increasing the role of fathers and promoting more family friendly work places are all infinitely better options than legalising paid slave labour.
•Lucille Wong was born and raised in Hong Kong before her family moved to Australia when she was eight. She returns to Hong Kong regularly.