• Thu
  • Aug 21, 2014
  • Updated: 4:50am

Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong

Foreign domestic workers make up around 3 per cent of the Hong Kong population. In 2013, there were some 320,000 foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong, of which 50 per cent were from the Philippines, 47 per cent from Indonesia, and the rest from Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Hong Kong law states that such workers must reside with their employers. Their wages are subject to a statutory minimum of HK$4,010 per month from September 30 last year. There have been several high-profile court cases in which domestic workers have alleged torture and abuse at the hands of their employers. According to a 2013 report by Amnesty International, Indonesian migrant domestic workers are at risk of serious human and labour rights violations in Hong Kong.

CommentInsight & Opinion

Hong Kong must address the social costs of hiring domestic helpers

Paul Yip says while the hiring of foreign domestic helpers benefits both employer and employee, there are social costs involved and problems we must address

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 February, 2014, 3:48am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 February, 2014, 3:48am

The number of foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong has risen since the 1980s, and has coincided with the city's economic growth. According to the Immigration Department, more than 310,000 were in Hong Kong as of May last year, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia. On average, one in eight households now has a maid; the figure is one in three for households with children.

The support provided by these workers has played an important part in releasing women into the workforce, especially those with higher education, and this has contributed significantly to the city's economic growth. The female labour force participation rate has increased continuously, from 47.5 per cent in 1982 to 54.7 per cent at the end of last year. Meanwhile, the male labour force participation rate has dropped, from 81.3 per cent to 69 per cent over the same period.

Given the lack of childcare facilities in the community plus the unfeasibility of living on one income, most families have little choice but to employ some help. Furthermore, with an ageing society and insufficient elderly care home places, domestic helpers are needed to take care of the older members in our community.

The situation in Hong Kong is quite different from that in Western nations, where only the very wealthy can afford a full-time domestic helper, who is protected by that country's minimum wage laws, and not forced to live with her employer.

If our foreign domestic workers were paid the minimum wage, their salary would escalate from the present HK$4,010 to more than HK$6,000. And that's if they worked only eight hours a day and had one day off a week; the reality is that most work longer hours, have limited living space and a heavy workload, making their lives pretty demanding.

Perhaps some of us have become too lazy to do our own household chores and take for granted the service they provide.

Yet, despite the hardships and pain of family separation they endure, there is still an abundant supply of relatively cheap labour from neighbouring countries. These workers can earn up to six times what they could make at home. To be fair, salaries and labour laws that safeguard their welfare are more favourable here than in many Asian nations, which may offset to some extent the very small living spaces in Hong Kong.

According to the local regulations, domestic helpers should have suitable accommodation with reasonable privacy. For some households, that's difficult if not impossible. So, sometimes, their rights and well-being can be overlooked.

The flourishing of domestic help in Hong Kong and elsewhere can be seen as an opportunity cost based on financial gains for both sides. Hong Kong families can supplement their income with an additional person working and the helpers can boost their family's income back home.

The amount they send home may be modest on a personal scale but the remittances from the hundreds of thousands of women working abroad are enormous, ploughing billions of dollars into the economies of the Philippines and Indonesia for example. Directing those funds into entrepreneurial projects could have an even bigger multiplier effect for developing countries, if the money is used wisely.

When all goes smoothly, therefore, it would seem everyone benefits. However, some potential problems have been overlooked and need to be addressed.

For example, there's the impact on the local domestic helper market. Due to the relatively low cost of hiring foreign domestic workers, the rates for locals are unattractive to families who need help. Perhaps the government should provide incentives for people to employ local help.

Taiwan imposes requirements on those wishing to employ a foreign domestic helper, including having to demonstrate that the need cannot be met locally - for example, if round-the-clock supervision is required for a disabled relative or old person. Wages for local domestic helpers in Taiwan are protected and they have to undergo formal training and licensing. Consequently, families need to pay more for help, which means such workers are not that common.

We should also consider the well-being of the children, both those in Hong Kong who are cared for by a helper, and those left behind in the workers' home country. The ability of Hong Kong children to manage even basic everyday tasks has long been a concern. With 24-hour back-up services available, working parents can overlook their parental responsibilities.

Meanwhile, in the Philippines for example, millions of children are being brought up without their mother. In both instances, parents may have missed the chance to build a strong bond with their child. These are just some of the hidden social costs of the economic gains.

To address the problem, the government should promote a more family-friendly working environment, including flexible arrangements for parents and more care facilities for both young and old. Elsewhere, both parents work, and they manage without a helper. One reason is because of the provision of extended family leave and more accessible childcare support in the community.

Society and individuals pay a high price when relationships are not nurtured because families do not spend enough time together.

The government is currently seeking ways to get more women back into the workplace. Certainly, having a domestic helper eases the load of household chores and childcare. However, society also needs to value the women who are willing to give up a salary to look after their family full-time.

Cases of abuse are unfortunate but, I believe, also relatively rare. We should certainly not tolerate any such abuse. One way to prevent or identify early any mistreatment would be for the government to consider implementing checks on conditions and continuous monitoring measures. Agencies must also be tightly monitored and any illegal practices punished severely, and offenders removed from the registry.

We must do more to protect these vulnerable groups. The community owes foreign domestic workers a big debt of gratitude. It's important that both sides show their appreciation of each other, especially as they live under the same roof.

Paul Yip is a professor of social work and social administration, and director of the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention, at the University of Hong Kong


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This article is now closed to comments

This is an excellent article. The policies regarding foreign domestic helpers (FDH) in Hong Kong are indeed long overdue for reform. As it is, FDHs are quite similar to indentured servants.

First, FDHs must be treated the same as regular workers, subject to the full protection of labor law. To treat them as an exception is equivalent to exploiting them. The fact that they are able to earn "up to six times what they could make at home” is irrelevant. In other words, they would need to be paid minimum wage, be paid over time at reasonable over time rates for work over the standard 40 hour work week (which will hopefully be quickly implemented), etc.

Second, children growing up in a household with FDHs tend to develop an expectation that they ought to be served and/or a sense of entitlement. They grow up being cognizant of the fact that there exists a certain group in society who live and work like slaves. Moreover, if a couple decide to have children, they are responsible to raise and nurture the child. This is something that should never be delegated. If they do not have the financial ability to do so, then they have no business having children. The social costs of children being raised without proper nurturing and parenting are immeasurable, and certainly not positive.

Fourth, it puts a tremendous strain on public recreational facilities. For most of the day each Sunday, an extra 310000 people will occupy vast swaths of public spaces.
Mr Yip, on what basis do you claim that 'cases of abuse are ….. relatively rare'? It is incredibly sad that someone in a position such as your own is so obviously out of touch with the evidence on this issue.
The surveys that have been done, and surely these are the best evidence we have, show that approximately 20% of helpers are physically abused by their employers. This is 'extensive abuse'. Mr Yip, please inform yourself more fully before commenting as a supposed expert.
The Government should set up childcare and elderly care centers in all districts. They can be staffed by qualified people locally or from overseas and be paid reasonable wages although they will be responsible for their own food and lodgings. Then we can stop employing foreign maids altogether. There will no longer be angst over the size of a maid's accommodation, or evil employers abusing their maids, or social problems etc. The financial plights of the unemployed foreign maids back home will not be our concern, not if it leads to so much criticisms.
Whilst I'm not an advocate of Govt intervention in anything there is a need for greater scrutiny of employers and home conditions. Shamefully you are asked more searching questions if you adopt a stray dog from a rescue centre than employing an overseas maid.
Abusive treatment of any individual, be they a domestic helper, an aged person or a family member is reprehensible and where proven, those guilty of the assault should feel the full force of the law. The present case of the Indonesian maid, Erwiana is shocking and calls into question the screening of not only domestic helpers, but employers too; employment should be based on more than simply an ability to pay a basic salary. It also brings into the argument the requirement for domestic helpers to be properly and safely housed within their employers homes; as most new builds do not have self contained maids quarters, then these homes should not be allowed to hire maids; it simply adds to family stress and tension if a domestic helper has no place to call their own with no escape from the family. Impossible as it is to legislate this issue, homes of under a certain size should also be prohibited from hiring full time live in helpers; in Asia's world city, forcing anyone to sleep on a kitchen floor or in cleared out cupboards must stop. The government must address this issue of abuse, perhaps an emergency 'Maids Line' that can be called free of charge from any phone should be implemented.
Professor Yip is too polite or afraid to link the ubiquitous use of domestic helpers to property industry in Hong Kong. Yes, the foreign domestic helpers are indeed the economic pillar in Hong Kong. But it becomes so with abundant social problems. It is the property developers colluding with government that 2-income is a must for the overvalued and undersized flats people must live in. Taiwan, as cited in the column, the government has straight rules on employing foreign domestic helps in protecting the local helpers in contrast with Hong Kong of exploiting the foreign helpers.
The society of Hong Kong its present and future is better off if family is to live a normal life. One parent stays home in taking care of children and housework. Pillar of foreign domestic helpers in reality is to support the collusion between government with the property developers of which revenue for the former and profits for the latter in huge amount year after year.
The conflicts and dependence on foreign domestic helpers are not a matter of human understanding. The grave deficiency in living condition and time spent at home can’t achieve a peaceful environment which all human are entitled to.
To achieve quality of life on the contrary is to live without foreign domestic helpers -- at least the live-in type. The government must use its vast trillions dollar to reimburse the flat owners so a choice of staying home can be made. More importantly, delink property development as a major source for government revenue and there we will not have the foreign domestic helpers as the economic pillar of Hong Kong. Exploitation is primitive and shameful in a modern city.
It is fake charity to claim we are helping the unfortunates worldwide. For the Phillippines, we have been doing that for two deades and they still are coming as maids. Our money has made no difference for the betterment in that country as claimed by the professor.


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