Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong

Hong Kong should cut out the greedy middlemen in foreign helper hiring process

N. Balakrishnan says Hong Kong should follow the lead of Malaysia which has begun a ‘direct hire’ system that benefits both employers and employees. Moreover, the city can innovate in making the process tech friendly

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 January, 2018, 9:22am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 January, 2018, 7:31pm

Anyone who has hired a foreign domestic helper in Hong Kong knows that the process involves a lot of paperwork, greedy intermediaries across borders and archaic processes such as declarations and red seals. Neither the employer in Hong Kong nor the domestic helper benefits from these time-consuming processes. The intermediaries, including the governments of the places the helpers come from, benefit financially while providing unnecessary services such as “exit permits” and “training”. 

With a willing employer in Hong Kong and willing employees in the Philippines and Indonesia, and with technology, we can short-circuit and simplify the current convoluted process. 

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After years of complaints, Malaysia has now started a direct hire method: the potential employee leaves her country as a tourist, avoiding the need for an exit permit. In Malaysia, the helper is granted a standard two-week tourist visa. 

The Malaysian employer, with a local agency if necessary, conducts the interview, medical tests and other formalities which are faster and more reliable since they are done in the country of employment. Because the employee and employer would have met face to face and the employee could have seen the place of work, the chances of gross misunderstandings are reduced. If both parties agree, Malaysian immigration converts the tourist visa into a domestic helper visa. 

This system bypasses the exit permit racket perpetrated by the government agencies of the Philippines and other labour-exporting countries. Charged with safeguarding the welfare of workers going abroad, the agencies specialise in holding both employees and employers to ransom. 

The budding direct hire system means government bodies issuing the exit permits now fear losing lucrative sinecures. The Philippines suspended the issuing of exit permits for a month before Christmas to investigate “corruption” in the case of direct hires. It was not explained why it was necessary to suspend the issuing of exit permits to do this. These permits remind me of the Soviet Union, which used to demand that scientists and artists compensate for the cost of their education before getting a permit to leave. The governments of poor countries are seldom on the side of their poor citizens. 

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The direct hire reform will have a positive impact on most middle-class households in Hong Kong with little government expenditure

It is time for the Hong Kong government to call the bluff of the labour-exporting countries and start a direct hire system soon. While Hong Kong immigration has a somewhat justified fear of tourists overstaying as illegal workers, a system can be set up to minimise such incidents. 

It is also time to computerise and put in the “cloud” the whole hiring process so that all parties concerned can stay updated and prevent bureaucrats delaying the process unnecessarily. 

Hong Kong has one of the highest densities of domestic helpers in the world. Therefore, the city would benefit greatly from a direct hire system. The government could, for example, start a web portal along the lines of TripAdvisor for employers and employees to “rate” each other. This would also streamline the process of testimonial-seeking and make it less subject to forgeries.

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Surveys keep indicating extreme Hong Kong middle-class unhappiness. In this class, both husband and wife work long hours and a helper is a necessity rather than a luxury. The direct hire reform would have a positive impact on most middle-class households with little government expenditure. What is more, Hong Kong could earn bragging rights for being a pioneer in “domestic tech”.  

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Transporting women across borders to take care of others’ families is a sorry business whichever way one looks at it. But, today, such transfers are mutually beneficial to women from economically undeveloped areas and cities such as Hong Kong where people have money but no time. As Marxist economist Joan Robinson observed, “The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.”

Hong Kong leads in the field of employing domestic helpers. It should use its advantage wisely.

N. Balakrishnan is a former foreign correspondent and an entrepreneur in Southeast Asia and India