Hong Kong land supply debate fails to make room for domestic helpers bound by live-in clause
Hong Kong has 370,000 migrant domestic workers, who make significant contributions to the city’s economy. They constitute 9.9 per cent of the labour force and 5 per cent of the population. However, the issue of their living space has been forgotten by the Task Force on Land Supply, which is conducting a five-month public engagement exercise.
The task force uses household number and size projections made by the Census and Statistics Department in 2017 as the basis for its consultation. At the Ethnic Minorities Forum meeting held by the Home Affairs Department on May 23, when asked whether migrant domestic workers had been included in the projections used by the task force, chairperson Stanley Wong Yuen-fai responded that such workers should not be included because they are not ordinarily resident.
While it is true that the government considers migrant domestic workers to be staying temporarily for two-year contracts, Hong Kong will continue to employ more of them. For the purpose of land use planning, it does not matter whether individual workers change. Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong has predicted that the city would need 600,000 migrant domestic workers by 2047.
Therefore, not only is such land use planning unreliable, it also means that Hong Kong fails to protect the rights of migrant domestic workers while reaping the fruits of their work. Domestic workers and employers are required by the government to live in the same premises. This live-in requirement is highly problematic – two autonomous individuals cannot choose to be in an employment relationship without the state interfering with their private lives.
Moreover, it raises concerns over exploitation and human trafficking. As many as 45 per cent of domestic workers surveyed by the Mission for Migrant Workers NGO reported that the live-in requirement contributed to abuse. Our own research has found that 17 per cent of migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong were in forced labour, and 14 per cent of these had been trafficked into it.
Mission for Migrant Workers also found that 43 per cent of migrant domestic workers did not have a private room and 2 per cent slept in a kitchen, toilet or warehouse.
The UN Human Rights Committee, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Committee against Torture, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination have all called upon Hong Kong to repeal the requirement. The live-in requirement is likely to draw international attention again in the Universal Periodic Review hearing on November 6, when the human rights situation in China, including Hong Kong and Macau, will be peer-reviewed by states.
A common response to calls for repealing the live-in requirement is that there is a limited supply of housing in Hong Kong. If the government is committed to protecting the rights of migrant domestic workers, the current deliberations on land supply are an important opportunity to make plans for giving them an option to live out and for improving their living conditions.
Giving adequate space for domestic workers to live is essential to their well-being and increases their productivity. It is to the benefit of both employees and the employers they care for.
Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung claims that migrant domestic workers enjoy “full protection” in Hong Kong. Giving space to live is the first step towards affording any protection.
Annie Li, research and policy officer, Justice Centre Hong Kong