Helping Hands: Compulsory Live-in Rule
Foreign domestic workers are an essential part of many Hongkongers’ lives. But are they welcomed by the city? Adrienne Chum investigates the compulsory live-in rule.
“The house of my previous employer was 4,000 square feet, with four stories. I slept in a kitchen cupboard. My madam didn’t allow me to use the maid’s quarters.” – Arlene
A compulsory live-in rule, introduced in 2003, decrees that FDWs must live in the same dwelling as their employers.
Why’s it happening?
The compulsory live-in rule was put in place to prevent workers from taking a second job: Working for more than one family is illegal. The standard employment contract for FDWs states that the employer must provide “suitable accommodation with reasonable privacy.”
Although employers generally give their helpers a small room to live in, many other helpers are forced to sleep in corridors, kitchens and bathrooms. In Arlene’s case, she tried to talk to her then-employer: “I said ‘madam, I cannot sleep here.’ She scolded me. I called my agency but they didn’t do anything to help.” After terminating her contract, Arlene brought the issue of her living conditions to court, but her case was denied. “They told me that I don’t have enough evidence,” says Arlene. “They said living in the kitchen is ‘decent’ and ‘clean’.”
Eni Lestari of the Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body recalls her own housing issues. “I had to share a room with a 14-year-old-boy. I could not talk to other people. The agency kept telling me that it was the arrangement for newcomers, and I thought it was legal because a lot of Indonesians had the same arrangement as me. I stayed until I sought help because I could not take it anymore. I ran away.”
“The live-in arrangement was difficult to adjust to. For the first year, they did not give me a key to the house, and I felt like a prisoner. My curfew was at 9pm on Sundays. It was suffocating; I had no social life.” – Victoria Cabantac, 62, Mission for Migrant Workers
Lestari says that the introduction of the live-in rule has been detrimental to the relationship between employer and employee. “Why did they force us to live in? Before, it was about 2 percent of helpers who lived out,” says Lestari. “[But] the decision to live together is no longer mutual.” Now, the Labour Department only allows helpers to live out for health reasons.
Often, all it leads to is mutual discomfort. Employers have to find room for their helper, which is hard in small Hong Kong flats. There can be a lack of privacy for both parties, especially in homes with children. Living together also introduces a conflict of cultures. Many Indonesian helpers are Muslim and do not eat pork. Hongkongers, of course, use liberal amounts of pork in their meals. “Sometimes helpers tell me that their employers want them to eat what they cook,” says Lestari, “but they do not want to eat the pork and they do not want to offend the madam. They don’t know what to do.”
Lestari says that the five main issues that drive helpers to seek new employment are abuse, difficult sleeping conditions, absurdly long hours, too many demands and limitations on their designated time off. These issues stem from the compulsory live-in rule. If an employer does not have an extra bed for the helper to sleep in, the helper may have to sleep on the floor. Forcing the helper to live in the employer’s home also puts them on call at all hours of the day, leading to more demands from the employer due to their easy availability. And because the helper lives with the employer, the employer can coerce the helper into taking a shorter holiday and enforcing a curfew by threatening to fire her.
Lestari suggests that health issues, including anemia, back pain and hypertension, are partly caused by the stress of always being on call. Then there’s the fact that when you live with your employer, a compulsory day off essentially means that you have to head outdoors—come rain, come shine.
What You Can Do
Ensure that the accomodation you provide to a domestic helper is a space that you would be willing to stay in. By law FDWs are entitled to a full 24-hour rest day, so don’t cut it short. Discuss your expectations with your helper to create a reasonable, balanced workload.
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