Wealth Blog

Help your helper to avoid financial misery

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 February, 2014, 3:55pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 February, 2014, 3:56pm

I remember getting flak from friends when a Hong Kong newbie asked about hiring a domestic helper. I advised, when interviewing candidates, to ask: do you have your passport? And ask to see it. If the answer is no, next question is, where is it? This is because many helpers are in debt and have pawned their passports to loan sharks. The Philippines Consulate will usually replace a maximum of two “lost” passports only, so this can present a problem if a helper is without a travel document. Also, serious debt leads to a raft of other issues. They often give the loan shark a copy of their contract, which contains the employers’ details. With one lady I started getting threatening phone calls at odd hours from dodgy-sounding men, culminating in one turning up on the doorstep demanding to see her. If she owes a lot of money, you need to know. It can seriously undermine the employer-employee relationship, with her becoming understandably miserable and asking for wages months in advance. She may even have borrowed from  neighbours’ helpers. I was on the other end of this one: my generous if naive helper tried to save her pals from the loan shark by lending them her hard-earned cash, but they failed to repay her.

Religious duty

Next question I would ask: do you have religious obligations over and above going to church on Sundays? If the answer is yes, the next question is, what are they? You may say an employer has no right to ask, but I learned the hard way. I discovered that while I was at work, one lady I employed sneaked off every day for several hours. I discovered she was cooking and cleaning for the priest in Mui Wo. My devotion to the Roman Catholic Church did not extend to lending him my housekeeper for free. As far as she was concerned, this was her religious duty and took priority over her day job.

Beware loan sharks

But the real bugbear is helper's finances. Sadly, many are in a mess through no fault of their own. As the current publicity about Myanmar helpers having to pay a HK$16,000 agency fee before they even get here shows, many arrive saddled with a massive debt. Many from the Philippines or Indonesia face higher amounts: illegal agency fees of up to HK$30,000 are common, though the agency usually tells the employer they cover all fees. Once here, migrant workers are bombarded with offers of more loans. On a monthly salary of about HK$4,500, with many employers illegally paying only half that, the girls can be in way over their heads.  Supporting families back home, they are under pressure to borrow against their future Hong Kong salaries, with tie loan sharks charging exorbitant rates of interest.

Education the solution

They can seek help from the Filipino Migrant Workers Union (see Facebook page) and Mission for Migrant Workers (www.migrants.net) and I read in Around DB magazine of a registered charity called Enrich, which gives helpers lessons in financial common literacy. Migrant workers are taught how to budget, save and get out of debt. The founder says of the 3,500 who have sought help, 70 per cent were in debt but 60 per cent managed to extricate themselves within two years of attending the workshop. Almost all say they are confident they can handle their money afterwards and nearly 80 per cent say they have started saving. Enrich’s four-hour Moneywise course costs only HK$280 and is held all over Hong Kong in English, Indonesian, Thai and Filipino languages. (www.enrichhk.org)

Call me politically incorrect if you like, but I would always advise anyone hiring a helper to inquire politely about their financial status, explaining that owing money is not a deal breaker, but you would prefer they came to you first and were open about financial difficulties. A small loan from the Bank of the Employer can be the stitch in time that saves nine.