Is Hong Kong's Tap of Cheap Domestics About to Run Dry?

Is Hong Kong's Tap of Cheap Domestics About to Run Dry?

What you need to know

Since the 1970s, Filipinos and Indonesians have flocked to Hong Kong to work as domestic helpers. Amid continued marginalization and better prospects back home, is Hong Kong’s supply of cheap in-house help about to run dry?

On Sundays at public parks around Hong Kong, groups mingle on cardboard and plastic sheeting. Some sit and chat, listen to music, dance and eat, while others make calls to family and friends. While the sight may seem unusual, this is how thousands of people, mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines – dubbed foreign domestic helpers – enjoy their one day off each week. With a lack of personal space or room to congregate in their employer’s home – where the workers also live – domestic helpers have few options.

In Hong Kong, one in every eight households and one in every three households with children hire a foreign domestic helper, making up about 10% of Hong Kong's working population and nearly 3% of the country’s entire population. As of 2013, 50% of Hong Kong’s domestic helpers were from the Philippines and 47% from Indonesia.

One Sunday in May at Kowloon Park, I approached a small group of women to ask them about life in Hong Kong. They were all from the Philippines, aged between 27 and 41, and spoke perfect English with slight American accents, which is common in their native country. Asked if they were happy with their current employers, they all agreed they were. Most worked eight to 12 hours a day, six days a week.

One of the women had been in Hong Kong for 11 years and had worked for four different families. She said her current employer, a Canadian family in Discovery Bay (an expat housing and leisure development on Lantau Island), is the best employer she has had in Hong Kong. But when I asked her if she had a least favorite employer, she was reluctant to answer.

Eventually she said that when she first came to Hong Kong, she worked for a local Hong Kong family: a husband, wife, and two children. The husband worked full-time while the children were at school. The wife, who didn't work and was strict, imposed an 8:30 pm curfew on Sundays, the helper’s one day off. The helper often worked late into the night, especially if her employers were receiving guests. The wife also shouted at her if the cleaning wasn't up to her standards or if she was in a bad mood. The helper worked for the family for two years before finding a job with another local Hong Kong family.

Second-class citizens

For years, the Hong Kong government has been accused of treating foreign domestic helpers as second-class citizens. Since 2003, the law stipulates that all domestic helpers have to live in their place of work and sign a two-year fixed contract. Employers must have a monthly household income of at least HK$15,000 (US$1,930) and provide healthcare.

Despite other government efforts, such as issuing a legal guidebook for the employment of domestic helpers and a domestic workers' roundtable at Hong Kong University, foreign domestic workers are still vulnerable.

For some of them, working in Hong Kong is a nightmare. There have been numerous cases of foreign domestic helpers being abused by their employees and cases of people working up to 17-hour days.

Foreign domestic workers hoping to start a family in Hong Kong also face difficulties. While there is no official data in Hong Kong on the numbers of people born to foreign helper mothers, Pathfinders, a charity working with foreign domestic helpers, puts the figure at 6,000.

While a standard contract implies that a domestic helper cannot lose her job due to pregnancy, this is not always the case in reality. In one reported incident, a foreign domestic helper who informed her employer that she was pregnant was ordered to get out of the house. The employer also threatened to call the police.

Some employers also expect their foreign domestic helper to do inappropriate tasks, such as cleaning the floor and heavy lifting while pregnant.

For foreign domestic helpers who become pregnant in Hong Kong, Pathfinders suggests making sure there are clear statements in the contracts providing for maternity leave entitlement.

Changing times

In a bid to boost the Filipino economy in the 1970s, then-president Ferdinand Marcos introduced a new law making it easier for Filipinos to work abroad. Marcos hoped this would alleviate the high unemployment rate and bring much-needed money into the Philippines. Filipinos flocked to Hong Kong – as many as 170,000 Filipinos live in Hong Kong today.

In total, it is estimated that around 2.3 million Filipinos work overseas, making the Philippines the world’s third-highest receiver of offshore remittance, at around US$29.7 billion a year.

However, the economies of key labor sources, the Philippines and Indonesia, are changing. As these countries develop and their workers learn more about labor rights, Hong Kong's supply of domestic workers could dry up.

Earlier this month, Indonesia said it would stop sending migrant workers as domestic help overseas by 2017 as part of its new “zero maid” policy. Last year, Indonesian officials banned their citizens from working in 21 Middle Eastern countries to protect laborers from being exploited. Indonesia is hoping to provide professional training and launch more than 10 million domestic jobs for its people currently offshore.

Choosing someone on the Internet to come and live with, cook, clean and perform other household duties for us may seem odd for many Westerners. However, unless the environment improves dramatically for foreign workers, residents of Hong Kong (and Taiwan, for that matter) may have to check their pride and learn to do all these things on their own.

First Editor: Olivia Yang