Cheung Chun-fai was totally opposed when his daughter first broached the idea of hiring a maid to help care for his Alzheimer's stricken wife, Wong Mui-ling.
'I found the idea of having a stranger in the house unnerving. I am strong, and I have no problem tending to her needs,' says the 78-year-old former taxi driver.
But his daughter Winnie insisted. As it turned out, the helper, Titin Marsiah, has been a godsend.
'She brings much warmth to the family, and my wife smiles a lot when she's around,' he says. 'In the past, I always had to cut short mahjong sessions to pick up my wife from the day-care centre; now I can play as long I want, assured that she will be in good hands.'
It has been a relief for Winnie Cheung, too, although she lives just five minutes away from her parents in Fortress Hill.
'My dad's heart isn't very good. There have been times when we had to get him to emergency care late at night, but I had to drag my mum along because I couldn't leave an Alzheimer's patient like her alone at home. Now that Titin is here, I sleep better. We take her on overseas trips with us. We can't live without her.'
Estimates now put the number of foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong at 300,000 - a 15 per cent increase from 2009 - but bonds such as the Cheungs' with Marsiah tend to be the exception.
Reports sporadically crop up of abusive employers and malicious helpers. Although cases that warrant legal action are rare, relations between employers and maids are cool more often than not, with some families ordering helpers around like serfs and maids betraying their employers' trust, for instance, by skimming from grocery expenses.
Lawyers, labour experts and social workers dealing with such cases have observed more conflict, attributable in part to poor communication.
Another factor is that, amid rising demand for home help, dubious employment agencies are supplying problematic helpers. Disputes referred to the Labour Tribunal and the Minor Employment Claims Adjudication Board have been increasing, often over termination of contract, says Leung Hing-ki, president of the Hong Kong TKI Association, a group that provides support and arbitration for Indonesian maids.
'Some maids want to leave after just one month in the job for a variety of reasons,' Leung says. 'They might feel overwhelmed by having to care for the severely ill or the aged. Some find children too unruly or employers too mean.'
They give a month's notice, but some employers, fearing their aged parents or children will be badly treated during this time, ask them to leave immediately, Leung says. Employers are obliged to pay the helper's return air fare and a month's salary in lieu of notice, which adds up to about HK$6,000. When they refuse, cases that aren't resolved through Labour Department mediation are referred to the tribunal or adjudication board. There were 727 such cases in 2005 and 901 last year.
Leung reckons disputes with problem helpers are fuelled partly by a labour shortage. The Indonesian government has raised the minimum age for applications to work as a maid overseas to 21 and the Philippine government to 23, meaning fewer women are coming to Hong Kong. Meanwhile, capable, experienced helpers are leaving to work in countries with better working conditions, such as Canada.
As the labour pool gets smaller, some helpers take advantage of the situation and ignore their employers' instructions or simply muck around, Leung says.
Joseph Law, chairman of the Hong Kong Employers of Overseas Domestic Helpers Association, says problem helpers often come from employment agencies which aren't accredited by the consulates of their home countries. These agencies may fail to vet the candidates adequately or to prepare them for work in an unfamiliar culture and environment. 'Once they receive the commission and the maid steps into the home, the agency washes its hands of all responsibility,' Law says.
(The Labour Department lists 1,174 agencies licensed to place foreign maids, but information from the Indonesian consulate shows only 240 accredited agencies, and the Philippine consulate shows 300.)
A banker, who would give her name only as Chu, was so put off by her recent experience with an errant maid that she has now decided not to get any full-time help. She hired the helper, a 37-year-old Filipino woman, in August to care for her newborn. But trouble started a month later, Chu says, when she received a call from a hospital saying her maid had dialled 999 seeking help with a waist injury sustained at work. 'The doctors did 40 X-rays on her and couldn't find anything wrong. But she complained of pain when we visited her [in hospital],' Chu recalls.
The maid checked out of the hospital after a week without informing Chu and her husband. The couple left phone messages asking her to go to the employment agency so they could pick her up, but she disappeared. She did, however, consult various doctors who prescribed sick leave for about six months, and she sent phone messages urging Chu to pay her salary.
'As first-time employers, my husband and I were very worried and visited the Labour Department seven times to deal with the case. We finally handed cheques in the presence of labour officials, who were otherwise very unhelpful. What's more, loan company people came knocking on our door saying [the ex-helper] owes them about HK$40,000. The experience was so terrible, we won't employ a domestic helper again.'
Of course, there are exploitative employers who refuse to compensate helpers suffering genuine work injury, or who fail to pay their full salaries, according to solicitor Melvin Chan Sheung-tak. 'I once helped an Indonesian maid who was owed more than HK$100,000 in unclaimed statutory holidays, severance pay and wages over six years of service after her employer went bankrupt,' says Chan, whose firm - Tang, Wong and Chow Solicitors - offers consultation to helpers and employers for free.
A Labour Department spokesman says its officers provide a voluntary service to help employers and helpers resolve disputes. 'Without the power of adjudication, the conciliation officer serves as a neutral intermediary who assists both parties to understand the crux of the problem, as well as their legal or contractual rights and obligations, with a view to [reaching] a mutually acceptable settlement,' he says.
However, such a service is pointless when parties involved are unco-operative, Chan says.
Disputes are referred to the Labour Tribunal when conciliation fails, but decisions can take up to a year. So families should think through the ramifications before employing a maid, labour and legal advisers say (see box).
Having live-in help raises issues of privacy, especially in cramped spaces, and cultural differences to consider. Just as they hope helpers can act responsibly and fit into the household, families should consider the helpers' needs and compromise.
Jessica Kwok Mak Pui-wa, a businesswoman running a trading company with her husband, realises the importance of give and take with Nunuk Wahyuni, the Indonesian helper who has been with her family for five years.
'I never raise my voice when I find something wrong; it will only make things worse,' she says. 'I am grateful for what Nunuk does for my family. She takes very good care of my three children, who cling to her. She likes attending cooking lessons.
'Sundays are her rest days, but sometimes when I am busy, she takes my children along when she goes out to meet her friends. I appreciate all these gestures, and we take her with us on family trips overseas. We have been to South Africa, Singapore and Macau and always have a good time together.'
Winnie Cheung, too, appreciates Marsiah's role in maintaining a happy household. 'I went home to have dinner with my parents in November and saw Titin looking upset. She said her best friend had cheated her of HK$10,000, and she wanted to take two weeks off to return to Indonesia to reclaim the money. A maid normally can't take annual leave until the contract is completed, and hers ends in March. But I let her because I thought her worries would prevent her from taking good care of my mother.'
The helper also earlier borrowed HK$5,000 to help her father buy land in Indonesia, the sum to be repaid by deducting HK$1,000 from her salary for five months. Cheung recalls: 'My friends thought she might abscond after her home visit in November ... She eventually came back with a smiling face.'
In the end, Cheung says: 'Trust is most important.'