Vanishing maids mystery: Hong Kong families shocked helpers run away during travels

Domestic helpers who travel to Britain with their Hong Kong bosses disappear after they arrive in the country; UK police say it happens a lot

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 July, 2015, 4:39am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 July, 2015, 9:32am

It was the first day of a summer holiday back in Britain, and the Hong Kong-based family had just arrived in picturesque Kent, about 30 minutes drive from London.

But hours later, Claire and her family were reeling at the shock disappearance of their domestic helper of five years, Isabel.

Their case is one of several the Sunday Morning Post investigated amid concerns that a small but growing number of domestic helpers have absconded while overseas with their employers. The names of families and helpers involved have been changed.

Few statistics are available to quantify the situation in Britain, the US and Canada, but families who have experienced it in Britain say police there report it is a common occurrence.

For Claire, the incident was a shock because Isabel, 40, from the Philippines, had been with the family for five years, playing a key role in helping to raise her baby daughter.

"We feel very betrayed," Claire said this week, about a month after Isabel's disappearance.

Claire said that the family's relationship with Isabel was good and that over the years, they had grown to trust her deeply.

When the family discovered Isabel was missing, they worried that she may have been injured. Earlier, Isabel had told Claire she was feeling ill and needed to rest so she stayed at home while the family went out. But when they returned about 90 minutes later, she was gone.

She wanted to use the toilet and she was never to be seen again

Police found CCTV footage that showed Isabel, who had rarely been outside Asia, walking towards a nearby railway station.

"We are pretty heartbroken, especially my daughter", Claire said. "She's been in tears, asking why she won't come back. That's the worst part."

Getting a visa for a domestic helper in Western countries can be difficult, amid fears they will abscond or fall prey to trafficking.

While the process varies from country to country, typically the employer must show a work contract and a significant work history, and the helper must prove strong ties to Hong Kong and their home country to allay concerns.

During the application process, consular staff also advise helpers on their rights, which can include being paid the minimum wage in the country they visit.

Claire's experience is similar to that of Helen, who was in London in 2010 for a 10-day visit when her helper ran away from their Kensington flat.

"We thought she might have gone to the supermarket but there was no note, nothing, so we were worried," Helen said.

"Then we were angry because we just didn't see it coming.

"The police weren't shocked and said this happens a lot."

In another case, Michael and his wife were caught off guard in 2009 when their helper - who was hired in Hong Kong and moved with them to Dubai - ran away from a London park.

"She wanted to use the toilet and she was never to be seen again," Michael said. Police told them such cases were common.

Advocacy groups for domestic workers in Hong Kong said they had not come across such cases, while the Immigration Department had no figures on domestic helpers absconding. But foreign consulates in the city do appear to be taking the matter seriously, as reflected in a tough approach to visa issuance.

American consular staff carry out extensive background checks and inform helpers of their rights, though the refusal rate for helpers travelling with US citizens is understood to be low.

Britain's Home Office was unable to provide figures on such cases. Canada's Border Services Agency also declined to provide figures, but said "most individuals comply with the requirements of their visas".

But Philip Kelly, director of the York Centre for Asian Research in Canada, who has studied labour migration trends for Filipino immigrants, said it was rare for helpers "to run away … simply to take advantage of greener pastures or better employment prospects".