Helpers in Hong Kong deserve to be properly cared for
Thanks to relaxed visa requirements, maids from Cambodia have recently arrived to help a fast-ageing population and thousands more are required
There is no shortage of people from Indonesia and the Philippines wanting to work in Hong Kong as domestic helpers, so it may seem odd that our city is now recruiting from Cambodia. The first maids recently arrived after the government relaxed visa requirements as part of efforts to meet the needs of a fast-ageing population.
There are concerns from support organisations that whenever a new nation is targeted, particularly one as poor, those brought in will be less aware of their rights and be vulnerable to abuse from exploitative employers. But high-profile cases such as that of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih have damaged our reputation and the government has to ensure protections are enforced and strengthened.
Erwiana, a former Indonesian helper tortured and abused by her employer, last month won a civil claim of more than HK$800,000. The employer, Law Wan-tung, was jailed for six years in 2015. Support groups for helpers have long been demanding better protections, including the ending of a rule requiring maids to return to their home countries if they do not get a new job within two weeks of filing an abuse case and a requirement that they live with their employer, a regulation claimed to invite exploitation. There are also complaints about overcharging by employment agencies and a lack of support from the governments of helpers.
Hong Kong already has 360,000 helpers, but authorities forecast 600,000 will be needed by 2047. There is competition from the mainland, where some wages on offer are more than the HK$4,410 a month our laws require. The average salary in Cambodia is less than a fifth of that and Phnom Penh is confident of meeting a target of 1,000 recruits this year. But there is also the lesson of Myanmar; helpers sent in 2014 proved unpopular and they returned within months and their country later banned recruitment over abuse concerns.
A support group has given the Cambodian maids a mobile phone and SIM card and the number of a helpline providing advice. That is a good start, but domestic helpers from overseas also need government backing. Their working conditions and terms have to be regularly reviewed and improved.