Sars and the economic slump combine to halt a steady rise in the maid population The number of foreign domestic helpers declined by 17,000 from February to May, with the impact of Sars and the continuing dismal economy taking their toll. Their population fell by 9,500 at the height of the Sars outbreak from March to May, while a net total of 7,500 returned home in February, Immigration Department figures show. From 226,320 foreign maids in March, their numbers declined to 216,810 by May. The biggest decline was among domestic helpers from the Philippines, with a net total of 6,830 returning home. The number of Indonesian and Thai helpers fell by 2,300 and 320 respectively, while the number of helpers of other nationalities fell by 60. Despite a worsening economy in recent years, the city's foreign maid population rose from 171,000 in December 1997 to 237,100 in December last year. But Sars has helped put a brake on the trend, the figures show. 'Sars definitely affected the whole [foreign domestic helper] population,' said Domingo Lucenario, the Philippine Consul in Hong Kong. 'Many employers lost their jobs, so they had to terminate the employment of their household helpers. Some maids also decided that instead of renewing their contracts, they would opt out and go home to wait out the Sars outbreak,' he said. Hong Kong's unemployment rate hit a record 8.3 per cent in May. Now that Hong Kong is Sars-free, Mr Lucenario said he expected the figures to rise again. The proportion of Filipino maids has also fallen away in recent years as more Indonesian helpers have entered the market. In December 2001, the Filipino population reached a peak of 155,450. The decline in Filipino numbers was most dramatic between January and May this year when their population fell from 148,390 in December to 133,570 in May, immigration figures show. Indonesia, which did not impose a ban despite the Sars advisory, has seen a decline in its population of maids for the first time. Peaking at 78,500 in February this year, the number of Indonesian maids stood at 75,980 - down by 2,520 - in March, with a further decline to 74,680 in April. In December 1997, there were just 24,700 Indonesian maids in Hong Kong. Mr Lucenario said that the tit-for-tat ban on the deployment of Filipino maids to Hong Kong in March did not significantly affect the hiring of Filipino helpers. In March, the Philippines imposed a ban on new hirings in retaliation for Hong Kong's decision to cut maids' pay by $400 a month, from $3,670 to $3,270 from April 1 and the introduction of an equivalent employers' levy of $400 a month from October 1. The Philippine ban was extended as the Sars epidemic worsened in Hong Kong, and was rescinded only when the World Health Organisation lifted its travel advisory against the city in late May. Meanwhile, four of the 10 foreign domestic helpers planning to seek leave to challenge the pay cut failed in their bid to seek legal aid, Mr Lucenario said. The group was granted leave for a judicial review of the Hong Kong government's decision in February. They are seeking a court order to quash the pay cut and levy.