Photo: Gonçalo Lobo Pinheiro

Migrants, “the modern slavery”

They have no minimum wage, they pay for 100% of their healthcare, yet the government still wanted to impose higher bus fares. Many non-resident workers work longer hours and receive less money. We can’t understand, as Chan Chak Mo would say. 

MB Jan 2020 Special Report | IMF: from glory to recession


Two months after Macau Business revealed that Macau would be the richest place in the world by 2020, the English newspaper The Guardian asked local photographer Gonçalo Lobo Pinheiro to show his readers what this territory is like. 

Lobo Pinheiro called his photo essay “Multibillion-dollar Macau: a City of Glitz and Grit”, and won at the Chromatic Photography Awards and the Monochrome Photography Awards. His project shows that there are serious social asymmetries among the people of Macau – yes, Macau is the land where a deputy dared say he did not know how a maid could live with MOP 4,500, when he personally spends more than twice as much for his dinner. 

One of the people photographed by Lobo Pinheiro was the 38-year-old Indonesian chef Roy Wardha. She works six days a week and earns MOP 7,700 a month, and she lives in a 40 square-meter apartment that she shares with 11 mates. Her bed is in a bunk bed with a locker, and costs MOP 1,200 a month. 

To The Guardian, Wardha said she “would like to receive the same salary as a resident for the same job”, concluding that “I would like life to be fairer in Macau”. 

There are about 190,000 non-resident workers in Macau and everyone hopes for the same thing, but this seems to be a highly unlikely scenario in the immediate future and even in the medium term. 

The rights of non-resident workers are not part of the priorities of rulers or political movements, to the extent that penalizing these workers appears to be a popular political measure in local public opinion. 

It was at great cost that in 2018 Transport Secretary Raimundo doRosário dropped the proposal to increase bus fares for immigrants, which had never happened in Macau before (and still does not happen). 

Local researcher Penny Wan, who has published several works thatanalyse the social effects of gambling, confessed to Macau Business that “yes, there are some negative sentiments and problems toward the excessive reliance on migrant workers. For instance, the lack of opportunity to climb up the career ladder for the locals, the difficulties to get a job for some, etc.”. 

Ms Wan points out that when the Macau government decided to liberalize its casino license, one of the the goals was “to provide additional employment opportunities for Macau residents and derived benefits”. So, “if local employment opportunities are notprotected, this contradicts what the government promised us”. 

Another expert in this area heard by Macau Business is Michael Lai, Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Saint Joseph. 


“Their promise of a basic salary is nowhere near its fulfillment.” – Michael Lai 

“These issues are both financial and social. Of course, this is financially speaking a major problem for migrant workers. Their promise of a basic salary is nowhere near its fulfillment. This is an important issue that should be dealt with. It seems that people know there are migrant workers but their situation is less-known in the society, and the government does not have comprehensive policies to cope with the problem”, stated Mr Lai, interested in welfare-related issues. 

The researcher also underlined that “another important problem from a socio-cultural perspective is the way they are seen. Migrants are framed as problematic, and that’s why they get discriminated”. 

Not everyone agrees with this diagnosis. Caritas Macau’s Secretary General, Paul Pun, told Macau Business that “as for migrant workers, Macau is a socially inclusive society and welcomes migrants from other countries. The society in general does not discriminate against migrant workers”. 

Nevertheless, he added, “we believe that financial inequalities might be relatively more apparent as migrants’ income is lower and, at the same time, they have to deal with the high cost of rent, food and healthcare (the government medical scheme currently does not cover migrants)”. 

“So far, we have not heard of any cases of domestic workers who have been physically abused by their employers. Overall, therelationship between Macau residents and migrant workers is a positive one”, emphasised the Caritas Macau Secretary General. 


“We have no rights” 

Domestic workers are not entitled to a minimum wage, allegedly because there are several families in Macau who want / need to have a maid but have no (or not enough) money to pay them. The minimum wage is one of the main claims of these non-resident worker, not a lower salary than what they are legally entitled to in Macau, as announced by Member Sulu Sou. 

“Of course not”, responded Jassy Santos, President of the Progressive Labor Union of Domestic Workers. “Regardless of whether our qualifications are high or low, whether we have much or little knowledge, we are nonetheless human beings and deserve equal rights”, said this activist, following a meeting with Sulu Soulast year. 

Another representative of domestic workers, Benedicta Palcon, gave the local newspaper Ponto Final some examples of inequalities: “We pay more for any medical service, everything is 100% charged to us. Our insurance only covers work-related illnesses”, the President of the Philippine Green Migrant Workers Union explained. 

Another activist from the same organization, Nedie Taberdo, added: “we are discriminated against, we have no rights, no healthcare and no one listens to us”.