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HK Magazine Archive

The Foreign Domestic Helper Scene in Hong Kong

No matter which way you slice it, working as a foreign domestic helper in Hong Kong is not an easy job.

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 March, 2016, 3:59pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 4:59pm

Employing a foreign domestic worker has become increasingly common in Hong Kong, particularly among those with young children or elderly family members. According to government statistics, there were 330,000 domestic workers in Hong Kong in 2014, compared with 285,681 in 2010.

The growing FDW economy has the potential to benefit both parties: the extra help around the house enables families to earn double incomes and advance socioeconomically, while FDW can earn a better living to support their families back home.

Yet shady loan lenders, manipulative agencies, difficult living conditions and abusive employers can lead to dodgy situations. We spoke with four domestic helpers about their path through Hong Kong, lessons learned and healthy work relationships.

Virginia Ballon

Moving from her hometown in Mindanao in the Philippines, Virginia left behind her 8-year-old son to work in Hong Kong. Claire Glover is her second employer in Hong Kong.

I’m from a simple family. I have six siblings. My parents were farmers. I was married, separated with one kid. I’m supporting my son. I came to Hong Kong in 2008, and had an employer in Sai Ying Pun. I worked with them for one year and five months, and they terminated my contract. It wasn’t a happy time. My life now is very different.

I would have to eat their leftovers with their chopsticks still in it. My seat was next to the rubbish bin—sometimes I couldn’t take it anymore and I would just slowly pour the food into the trash, and I’d just eat rice. As long as I had something in my belly. At night, I had to sleep in the kitchen, along with the washing machine, the rubbish and everything.

They asked me to put my clothes on top of a cupboard in the bathroom, because they said they didn’t have room for me. I didn’t complain, I just worked. I needed to support my son. If I went back in the Philippines, I would have to struggle again. I have to sacrifice for that.

When I first arrived, I didn’t feel homesick because I kept thinking of the money I owed to the agency. Every time I received my salary, I knew there was nothing left for me. I needed to send money to my son but it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t even buy items for my hygiene.

Last year, I was really depressed because my mom had passed away. Of the seven brothers and sisters, I am the one who has stable work. I am the one who has to support everything. Claire helped me pay for the burial.

When I came back, I was so stressed because I was thinking about my future. I didn’t have any savings and I owed money to Claire. I worried about my son and his schooling. I think life is like that. We need to struggle sometimes. It’s a lesson to learn.

Now I am going to two classes at [financial literacy training center] Enrich: “Money Wise” and “Investments.” They have helped me learn how to budget. Before [with my previous employer], my mind was always closed. I couldn’t go out. I couldn’t talk with anybody. When they were at work, I used to sit at the window. I had no freedom.

Here, it’s very different. The ambiance of the house is happy. For me, I want to be comfortable with an employer. If they’re happy for me, I’m happy for them.

For me, I want to be comfortable with an employer. If they’re happy for me, I’m happy for them.

Employer's Take
Claire Glover hired Virginia Ballon five years ago. After Ballon suffered a family tragedy, Glover helped her join financial literacy courses held by Enrich.

When we interviewed Virginia, we found that she was knowledgeable, polite, friendly and respectful. Her contract had been terminated, and from what I could see, her previous employer had not been particularly nice. She returned to the Philippines and came back just after my eldest was born.

It’s a really vicious system: These women put up with a lot in situations that aren’t the best, because the last thing they want is to be terminated—it means they have to go home, and employers are less likely to hire them.

I’ve tried to make it as business-like as possible: set hours, with an hour for lunch—just as I would treat any other employee. Obviously, over the years, Virginia’s become part of the family. She has an amazing ability to give.

Always treat someone as you wish to be treated. I would never ask her to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.

I helped enroll Virginia in the courses at Enrich, because you see so many workers get into incredible amounts of debt. It is about financial literacy and managing money—but it’s also about empowering an individual.

Virginia came back a different woman. It allowed her to take back control of her life.

Julie Martinez Abuena

Julie moved from Northern Luzon in The Philippines to work in Hong Kong in 1997. She used the online platform HelperChoice to find her current employers.

My advice for both the worker and the employer is to put your feet in each other’s shoes. Different people have different lifestyles, different cultures, and treat people differently, right?

I met my fourth employer through HelperChoice. I didn’t really have a hard time adjusting to Hong Kong in the beginning because I worked previously in Singapore for four months.

For me, the working relationship is most important. I don’t want to be working with an employer who nags. I want to be working from my heart and with love. But you have to live with the person to know them well.

Back in the Philippines, we don’t have many job opportunities. I didn’t finish my university studies because I didn’t have the money to complete my course.

Until I got married, I was carrying my family on my shoulders. A few years back, when my mother was hospitalized—she has been bedridden for many years now—I used to send every single penny that I earned.

But the culture in the Philippines is that after you get married, you support your family less. You have to focus on your own new family.

My brothers are now helping me. I don’t have to shoulder everything.

I didn’t really encounter any problems with my previous employers, except for the contract that I terminated. This was because I had to wash all the clothes by hand, even during winter.

I broke the contract after one year, and looked for another employer through HelperChoice. Working in Hong Kong, I’ve also gotten the opportunity to visit different countries: Like this coming July, we are going to France for a month. That’s one of my dreams.

My advice for both the worker and the employer is to put your feet in each other’s shoes. Different people have different lifestyles, different cultures, and treat people differently, right?

Fely O. Tabay

Originally from Mindanao in the Philippines, Fely fi rst worked abroad in Singapore to save money for a placement in Hong Kong. She has been working with her current employer, Doris Lee, for 10 years.

I worked with my fi rst employer for five years and six months. Her mother-in-law introduced me to Doris.

My family had a farm in the Philippines. But we needed money. For over a year, our harvests were not good. I talked with my husband and decided to work abroad.

I left home October 1, 1994. I still remember. 

At that time my sons were still in primary school. 

My Singaporean employers were rich—both doctors—and were demanding. I worked in a big three-story house with a driveway and two cars to wash, a dog to walk and a fish tank to clean, all by myself.

But as it was my first time working abroad, I didn’t have any idea yet how to do certain things, so they were always mad at me.

I told them that I was willing to learn, to try. But it was very hard to work with them. Maybe because we weren’t comfortable with each other. 

My first employer here in Hong Kong was kind, but my job was tough. I had a curfew. I tried my best to tolerate my female employer, who had a bad temper. I also have a bad temper so we always fought.

They were good people, but they treated me like a servant. Unlike here with the Lees, where they treat me like family. 

You know, if you’re treated like a servant, it’s very hard to tolerate. In the Philippines, we are not that rich, but we have happy families and neighbors that talk to each other.

If you are an employer and you want to keep your helper around, you have to treat them as a human. 

My husband and I had marital problems and he’s no longer around.

By working here I have supported my three kids through their studies, and my youngest one when she needed an operation on her eye. I bought a house just two years ago.

Read More: Advice from Open Door Hong Kong on Being a Responsible Employer

Employer's Take
Doris Lee is the co-founder of Open Door Hong Kong, which began as a network of concerned employers posting stories of domestic workers, promoting peace  and good relations. for more advice from Open Door.

In some ways I’m similar to my helper: I’m a working mother, and I also moved to Hong Kong from somewhere else. 

Living where we do, there are a lot of domestic workers around. We started to hear about the things affecting them. 

Like the rest day—workers get one day off, but they couldn’t spend it as they wished or had to come back early. There are worse things, like the place they’re given to sleep is not really a bed. 

The first time I hired a domestic worker, I was expecting my first child. I was not that eager, because it felt strange to live with a totally new person in the same small house. 

There were some things I didn’t know how to deal with. Things like, who buys the shampoo? What will you do after dinner?

With our helper now, Fely, we eat together, and we watch TV together when there’s a movie on.

Phobsuk “ Dang” Gasing

As chairperson of the Thai Migrant Workers Union, Dang and her team campaign against unfair treatment of domestic workers.

Before I was here, I worked in a factory. We worked eight hours a day, starting at 8am and leaving at 5pm with a break for lunch. After work, we would go out with friends. But as a domestic helper, you wake up at 6am, sometimes you go to sleep at 11pm. With my fi rst employer I had to sleep next to their kid.

Apart from the working hours, I was also very far away from home. I have three daughters—back then they were about 2 years old. My husband had passed away.

My second employer was in Tuen Mun. He kept chickens on the roof—this was allowed back in 1998. I had to sleep in a room next to the chickens. I was sick all the time, and I went to the hospital twice. When there was a typhoon, the wind blew all the chicken feces into my room.

The granny liked to yell at people—she had a good heart, but a bad mouth. I learned a lot of swear words from her. 

I worked with my third employer for 10 years. My boss was good to me, but in the fi rst three months, we argued about the granny’s food. She suffered from diabetes.

When the old lady eventually passed away, I cried. I slept next to her, ate with her, did everything with her every day.

When the old lady eventually passed away, I cried. I slept next to her, ate with her, did everything with her every day. The granny even called her daughter-in-law by my name accidentally. Her son got jealous!

I’ve been working with my current employer for five years. My boss knows about my work with the union, and supports me, even when I have to leave the country to attend meetings—in Malaysia, in Switzerland, in America. She helps me write letters to get my visas. 

The most important thing is communication. We need to talk to our employers more.

If they yell at you, you can say “Am I doing this right? If not, teach me.” 

A newly arrived [helper] may not be used to the Hong Kong lifestyle.

Hongkongers are very fast and impatient. Nowadays, even I talk fast and do things in a rushed way. For a newly arrived helper, the fi rst thing they’ll probably hear from the employer is “man tun tun!” [So slow!]

Coming from the countryside, you arrive in Hong Kong and are only taught once to use electronics like the washing machine. You might not necessarily learn it right away.

A good relationship with an employer is like a friendship: if you chat well, and are good to each other, that’s how you continue staying friends.

If I’m unhappy and there’s a friend who is willing to take time and understand my problems, my heart will feel warmer too. 

As a helper, you have to look at yourself too—nobody wants a worker with a pissed off face and messy work.

I have been able to pay for my three daughters’ college educations and they can all make their own livings now. I have a piece of land, and I built a house for my family. It has all been worth it.