How to Help Hong Kong's Domestic Helpers
Foreign domestic workers are an essential part of many Hongkongers’ lives. But are they welcomed by the city? Adrienne Chum investigates.
Hong Kong is home to more than 330,000 foreign domestic workers (FDWs). That’s 4.6 percent of the population: a significant chunk of the city. But it’s a hard life. Even setting aside the domestic abuse cases which have come to light in the past year, three chronic issues have plagued Hong Kong’s foreign domestic workers for years: exorbitant agency fees, the compulsory live-in rule, and the two-week rule. This week, we dig deeper into these issues and explore ways to help our helpers.
Illegal Agency Fees
Many agencies charge Foreign Domestic Workers additional, illegal fees to find an employer.
The Live-in Rule
A compulsory live-in rule, introduced in 2003, decrees that FDWs must live in the same dwelling as their employers.
The 2-Week Rule
The two-week rule: Workers whose contracts are completed or terminated must find work within the next 14 days, or else they are required to leave Hong Kong.
What has the government done about these issues? What hasn't it done? And what can it do?
Even More Heinous Shit
In 2014, the Mission For Migrant Workers reported handling more than 1,200 new dispute cases. Of more than 4,000 ongoing cases, 46 percent reported agency malpractice, 51 percent reported labor-related issues, and 56 percent reported a premature contract termination.
“They took all my documents. My passport, my ID, everything.” – Arlene
A common part of agency malpractice includes confiscation of passports, visas, certificates, and legal documents. Though illegal, agencies and employers confiscate the documents as a way to hold power over the helpers. Workers can’t find new jobs without their passports, so even if a worker is given a one-month termination notice, they cannot begin preparing for their next employer. “It’s a common thing,” says Eni Lestari. “Out of 10 workers, only one or two have their passports. The two who have them usually have more experience and insist on keeping their passports. But the newcomers, they don’t know.”
“In the Philippines, I used to be an English teacher.” – Victoria Cabantac
Many helpers have at least a bachelor’s degree. But does this give them any advantages? Not necessarily, says Lestari: Wages always start from the bottom, especially if a helper changes employers. Multiple skills may give you more choice of employers, but chances are that you’ll still earn $4,110 per month.
“Even if we live here for so long, we cannot stay.” – Eni Lestari
In 2011, the High Court ruled that the law allowing foreigners to gain residency after seven continuous years of residency should not exclude FDWs. However, in 2013 the Court of Final Appeal reversed the decision, ruling that domestic workers were not eligible for residency. This meant that workers who have lived away from family and worked in Hong Kong’s homes cannot be Hongkongers, regardless of how many decades they have lived and worked in the SAR.
What You Can Do
Volunteer for a local organization.
Mission for Migrant Workers
MFMW has been fighting for migrant worker rights since 1981. The charitable organization runs “Know Your Rights” seminars geared towards newcomers. Many volunteers for the Mission work as translators for statements, court cases, and employer communication issues.
St. John’s Cathedral, 4 Garden Rd., Central, 2522-8264, www.migrants.net.
Asian Migrant Coordinating Body
AMCB brings together migrant organizations with primarily southeast Asian workers and works to defend their human and legislative rights.
C/O Asia Pacific Mission Migrants, 2 Jordan Rd., Jordan, 3156-2447.
Open Door is an association of employers who want to improve the working and living conditions for FDWs. The organization welcomes employers who support workers’ efforts to fight against agency fees and discriminatory legislation.
Helpers for Domestic Helpers
HDH was founded by lawyers in 1989, primarily to give helpers free legal counsel and other professional services. Today, HDH continues to provide legal services for free, but also supports workers with basic needs. The organization is always open to volunteers.
St. John’s Cathedral, 4 Garden Rd., Central, 2523-4020, www.hdh-sjc.org.
Resources To Trust
Arrow was established in 2005 as a bridge between employers and workers. The agency employs a team in the Philippines that evaluates and trains applicants. It offers new employer orientation classes and several other resources.
Room 1603B, Sunbeam Commercial Building, 469-471 Nathan Rd., Yau Ma Tei, 2151-1125, arrowes.hk.
Fair Employment Agency
Fair Employment Agency is an NGO that focuses on preventing the abuse and exploitation of Hong Kong’s FDWs. The agency does not charge helpers placement fees.
Unit 282, 12/F, Ping Lam Commercial Building, 280-282 Lockhart Rd., Wan Chai, 3568-6858, www.fairagency.org.
Helper Choice is a website comparable to LinkedIn—but specifically for employing domestic helpers in Hong Kong. Employers post paid ads with what they’re looking for and applicants create profiles for free.
Enrich holds subsidized training sessions on financial literacy for migrant workers. Taught in the migrants’ native languages, these workshops aim to empower and help individuals not only get out of debt, but control their finances and learn about entrepreneurship.
1102 Enterprise Building, 228-238 Queen’s Rd. Central, 2386-5811, www.enrichhk.org.