Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong

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