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Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong

Can Hong Kong attract more foreign domestic workers to meet its growing elderly and child care needs?

Stuart Gietel-Basten says the regional market for child and elderly care is getting more competitive due to ageing societies and increased demand. Hong Kong needs to start offering higher salaries, better living conditions, specialised training and rights protection for foreign domestic workers

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 November, 2017, 1:35pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 November, 2017, 7:17pm

The government has made it clear that care for the elderly – and the young – will continue to be “outsourced” to the family and individual. But in a fast-changing society, where we can expect the number of older people suffering from long-term chronic illnesses to increase, families’ capacity to do everything “in-house” is also shifting. It is clear that domestic helpers will form an ever more central plank.

In allowing people to stay at home as long as possible, the government’s proposal to offer subsidies to the elderly living alone to hire domestic helpers is sensible. However, being restricted to single elderly folk and enforcing the “live-in” requirement, the policy’s reach will be relatively limited. A more radical policy would allow the elderly (and their families) to pool money and space and “share” help. Even more radical would be ditching the “live-in” requirement, providing decent outside accommodation for helpers who could optimise their (and their client’s) time more effectively.

With everything, there is supply and demand. The demand is clear. The Post recently quoted Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong as saying 600,0000 helpers will be needed over the next 30 years. But the laws of supply and demand mean there are threats to the future of accessible, affordable domestic help in Hong Kong. As countries near and far age and the middle-class booms, demand for domestic help is likely to soar. It is surely a matter of time before the mainland reforms its policies regarding non-foreign or SAR citizens from hiring help from overseas.

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Given their particular skill sets, the demand for Filipino domestic helpers is likely to be especially keen. Of course, other potential “source” countries exist, especially in Southeast Asia. However, these countries are in the midst of economic booms themselves. And unlike in the Philippines, where English is widely spoken, the skills which would be valued – if not required – to work in Hong Kong would be prized at home. Demographically, too, most Southeast Asian countries are experiencing much slower rates of population growth. Thailand, in fact, is one of the most rapidly ageing countries in the world.

Under this circumstance of changing supply and demand, then, Hong Kong must “up its game” to continue attracting domestic helpers. Salaries will be a part of this. It was recently reported that mainland salaries for helpers may be twice as much as those in Hong Kong. Here, to compete adequately, we will have to be prepared to pay more.

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While the Hong Kong mentality is to let the market rule the roost, I would argue that we can try to be a little more radical in terms of making Hong Kong a place where helpers want to work. We can have specialised education, training and development programmes, for example. The chief executive’s maiden policy address promised help in training helpers for specialised elderly care. An integrated, comprehensive skills programme could be developed out of this.

We can also provide a better living and working environment for helpers. Provision of decent facilities for helpers to socialise is sorely needed; imaginative solutions cannot be beyond the wit of policymakers and businesses here. The conditions of hostels where helpers stay while waiting for their next appointment are often parlous.

Ill-treatment and infringements of helpers’ rights must not be tolerated, and the government and agencies should take a firmer line. This must also be a joint endeavour with society. All of us “know” of situations where abuses occur: employers not providing or respecting holidays or time off; boarding arrangements we would never tolerate ourselves; physical and psychological abuse. We must be stronger in protecting fellow citizens – fellow humans – from infringements of basic rights.

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If the government insists on a non-interventionist approach towards care – for both the old and the young – it must also recognise the new economic and demographic reality of migration in the region. The laws of supply and demand tell us salaries will inevitably increase. But there is a real chance for us to change our society: to make Hong Kong a place where domestic helpers want to be, not just as a place to work.

Stuart Gietel-Basten is associate professor of social science and public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology