Those who abuse Hong Kong helpers must pay
Despite mildly encouraging results from a pay survey, too many are victims of rogue agencies and employers, and government action has to prove effective
Domestic helpers earning the legal minimum wage are among Hong Kong’s poorest paid, and surely the lowest paid on an hourly basis under their unique conditions of employment. But their real wages depend on what employers are prepared to pay. Helpers in Central and Western district earn 27 per cent above the legal monthly minimum wage of HK$4,410, or HK$5,595, according to a survey by HelperChoice, an online platform that matches helpers with employers.
However, wages range from the minimum offered by most employers in Kwun Tong to HK$8,500 paid by some in Happy Valley and Sai Ying Pun. The top five districts for wages are Southern, Central and Western, Islands, Sai Kung and Wan Chai. The worst are Yuen Long, North, Wong Tai Sin, Tsuen Wan and Kwun Tong.
Given that it is a struggle for many of our 370,000 helpers to survive on the minimum wage, the overall results of the survey are mildly encouraging. For the second consecutive year, the average wage offered increased at a faster rate than the minimum, which was raised by 2.3 per cent in October last year, and stood at HK$4,799, a 5.5 per cent increase, or HK$254, on the 2016-17 survey.
Sadly, however, many helpers are in a worse net position because rocketing – and illegally excessive – fees charged by recruitment agencies mean they are spending more than a third of their wages on paying off loans and fees, compared with 13 per cent five years ago, according to a survey by the Mission for Migrant Workers. To assist both helpers and employers steer clear of unscrupulous agencies, the government plans to publish a blacklist of those caught and punished for overcharging or licensing breaches.
For such a register to be effective, policing and enforcement need to be rigorous and diligent, otherwise most offenders will slip through the net. There is another reason. The government says the legal minimum wage strikes a balance between the livelihood of domestic helpers and affordability for poor employers. That implies a moral imperative to crack down on those who prey on helpers’ earnings and on the minority of employers responsible for abuses of regulated working and living conditions.