First Batch of Cambodian Domestic Workers to Hong Kong Highly Vulnerable to Exploitation

First Batch of Cambodian Domestic Workers to Hong Kong Highly Vulnerable to Exploitation
photo credit: REUTERS/Bobby Yip/達志影像

What you need to know

There are calls for more proactive measures to protect the incoming batch of Cambodian workers to Hong Kong.

A group of Cambodian domestic workers set to land in Hong Kong next month face a high risk of exploitation, frontline labor rights activists say.

Hong Kong is looking to the cash-strapped Southeast Asian nation as a new source of domestic helpers after Indonesia and the Philippines signaled cutbacks in the number of their citizens they would allow to go abroad for low-paid work.

In April, a deal was struck between Hong Kong and Phnom Penh, and the first group of domestic helpers from Cambodia, numbering in the hundreds, is expected to arrive in September. Hong Kong has a record of abuse and exploitation of foreign domestic helpers, and experts are concerned about the incoming group of Cambodian helpers.

“There is a lack of a Cambodian community. So compared to other nationalities, they will have the least support,” says Tang Kin Wa, organizing secretary of the Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions.

There is no union or advocacy organization for Cambodian workers in Hong Kong. But the group will receive training before departure and Hong Kong’s Labour Department will participate in the post-arrival orientation at the Cambodian representative office in Hong Kong.

However, Tang questions the value of these basic language classes and information sessions. A three-hour post-arrival seminar will have a limited impact, especially if it is not mandatory to attend, he says. The labor department itself does not organize an orientation program, instead, it sends officials to speak in seminars if they are organized by a foreign office.

“In terms of labor protection, at least the government should do something like an orientation program for all these workers, to impart knowledge about [labor] rights,” Tang says. “Otherwise, opening up doors to Cambodian workers will only lead to their exploitation.”

As The News Lens reported in May 2016, one in eight households in Hong Kong and one in three households with children hire a foreign domestic helper. These people, who are mostly women, making up about 10 percent of Hong Kong's working population and nearly 3 percent of the country’s entire population. As of 2013, 50 percent of Hong Kong’s domestic helpers were from the Philippines and 47 percent from Indonesia.

However, the economies of those key labor sources are changing. As these countries develop, their workers learn more about labor rights and their governments look to curb the numbers of workers heading offshore, Hong Kong's traditional supply of domestic workers has been under threat. Indonesia, for instance, has announced bans of sending workers offshore and is hoping to provide professional training and launch more than 10 million domestic jobs for its people currently abroad. And the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has pledged that the next generation of Filipinos will not be overseas workers.

Apart from language training for new arrivals, Puja Paryani, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, recommends “training (the helpers) in terms of the specific ways in which they may need to manage household duties for the Hong Kong employer but most importantly, they need, as do all domestic helpers, training in their own rights in Hong Kong.”

She added that language will be a significant problem and frontline officers in public-facing agencies must receive training to handle the needs of the new immigrants.

Holly Allan is the director of HELP for Domestic Workers, an NGO that provides assistance to domestic helpers in the city. She warns that “opening up Hong Kong to more migrant domestic workers from other countries provides more opportunities for human traffickers.”

She points to the U.S. State Department's Trafficking in Persons Report, “Hong Kong remains in the 'Tier 2 Watchlist' this year because the government has not done enough to combat trafficking.”

The incoming group will be governed by the general human rights framework of Hong Kong. But frontline NGO workers have suggested that the government strengthen legal protections before opening doors to more migrant workers.

“There are several areas for improvement in the policy governance framework for migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong,” says Anna Olsen, technical officer at The Tripartite Action to Enhance the Contribution of Labour Migration to Growth and Development in ASEAN (TRIANGLE in ASEAN) Programme.

“We are unaware of any particular special protective measures, though it is well-accepted that migrant domestic workers are especially vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, and hence additional protections may be called for.”

Additional measures the government could take include: providing appropriate consular support, translation of key documents or contacts into Khmer, and the maintenance of a regular communication channel between the domestic workers and an independent party in the Khmer language, Olsen says.

Unlike Tang, Olsen appeared less concerned over the lack of a country-specific support network for the new Cambodian workers. “Migrant domestic workers share experiences across national groups. The challenges are often very similar, though individuals may be better supported by stronger networks of existing or experienced domestic workers and community-based support.”

“The Hong Kong government may want to consider encouraging networks of Cambodian domestic workers, perhaps linked with existing domestic worker organizations,” she says.

With a lack of personal space or room to congregate in their employer’s home – where the workers live – groups congregate in parks, covered walkways and other public spaces.

Allan says, “HELP would like to see the government set up a community and recreation facility where foreign domestic workers can meet, seek information and help them develop networks.”

The labor department says efforts are underway.

“We will continue to work closely with the Cambodian Government and its CGs in Hong Kong to provide necessary educational efforts and assistance to Cambodian DHs with a view to safeguarding their employment rights in Hong Kong,” a labor department spokesperson told The News Lens.

For years, the Hong Kong government has been accused of treating foreign domestic helpers as second-class citizens. Since 2003, the law has stipulated 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 health care. 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.

Still, Allan notes that there is only one agency in Hong Kong with responsibility for recruiting Cambodian domestic workers.

“Without a choice of recruiters, domestic workers are more vulnerable to exploitation,” said Allan.

Read more:
Is Hong Kong's Tap of Cheap Domestics About to Run Dry?
Indonesia’s Migrant Maid Moratorium Creates New Avenues for Mid-East Trafficking
Taiwan Falls Short on Religious Freedom for Domestic Workers: Report

Editor: Olivia Yang