Operation Santa Claus

Hong Kong’s debt-ridden domestic helpers given vital support to manage their finances

Local charity Enrich is coaching some of the city’s migrant workers on how to conserve cash and avoid the cycle of debt

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 November, 2016, 3:53pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 November, 2016, 7:41pm

Filipino domestic helpers Joffz Jevier, Mariviec Castillo and Luisa Galleto do not want to work in Hong Kong forever.

They have set dates of between three to five years for when they will leave the city and return to their families.

They received financial advice from local charity Enrich, which has enabled them to cut back on unnecessary spending, invest their money wisely and set long-term financial goals. While they complete their time here, they hope to share their experiences with other domestic helpers ­particularly new arrivals, to help them avoid the spiral of debt.

Castillo, 31, said she was ­particularly proud that she had managed to reduce her spending on clothes, and successfully banned herself from shopping for six months.

“I have learned how to budget,” she said. “When I saw clothes in the shop, I would always buy them, especially if they were on sale. I don’t anymore.”

Galleto, 40, who wants to support the education of her two sons back in her hometown, said she felt increasingly able to decline ­requests from other families for non-essential items. “I understand the meaning of living within my means now,” she said.

Hong Kong’s 335,000 helpers face long and tiring days; their contracts require them to live with their employers, meaning there are few restrictions on their working hours and duties.

Their minimum wage was this year raised by 2.4 per cent to HK$4,310 per month, but unions have said the amount is still not liveable given the city’s status as the most expensive in the world for expats.

Enrich estimates 90 per cent of helpers in Hong Kong struggle with debt.

From March next year, it will receive HK$890,000 from Operation Santa Claus – the annual charity campaign jointly organised by the South China Morning Post and RTHK – for two years of financial workshops aimed at ­migrant workers.

The charity’s executive director, Lenlen Mesina, said educating helpers about their finances was hugely important for empowering them, making them “less vulnerable to abuses and scams”.

She said her main aim was to enable domestic helpers to take control of their money by setting a date to leave Hong Kong when it becomes financially affordable and they can make bigger investments such as buying a house in their home countries.

“If they are not able to control that problem of money, they will get into a cycle of debt,” she said. “You need to give yourself time to pay off these debts. I think it could set a very different pace financially if they were able to do this.”

Helpers in Hong Kong, most of whom are from the Philippines and Indonesia, often face high and unlawful fees from employment agencies to find work here, which are only supposed to charge them a maximum of 10 per cent of their first month’s wages.

This steep upfront fee often leaves them at risk of turning to loan companies, or even loan sharks, putting them in the red before they have even arrived in Hong Kong.

Since it was founded in 2007, Enrich has given support to more than 7,000 helpers through ­hundreds of workshops.

In less than a year it has assisted 3,000 helpers with their ­personal finances, double the number it helped in the same ­period last year.

As part of the programme, ­Mesina said helpers’ families needed to be encouraged not to put too much pressure on their loved ones to send money home.

“We want them to be mindful about this,” she said.

Enrich reports that two thirds of its course participants say they have been able to reduce their spending after attending one of its courses, while three quarters feel more confident about managing their debts.