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Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong

Living apart from employer is the only way this maid can truly unwind from the stresses of work

Josie, who is in her 70s and has worked in Hong Kong for over three decades, says her life is a far cry from what it was when she lived in her first employer’s cramped flat and had to work 24/7

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 February, 2018, 12:19pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 February, 2018, 12:33pm

Each workday for Josie, a foreign domestic helper in Hong Kong, begins like this: She wakes up in her room in Tai Po, watches programmes on Filipino channels GMA and TFC, and at about noon, takes the bus to her employer’s home in Ho Man Tin, where she begins her chores at 1pm.

While she used to work longer hours for her employer, she now spends about five hours a day on her duties, wrapping up by dinner time unless her employer requests otherwise.

As she lives apart from her employer, she is paid by the hour. Her employer also pays her rent and transport costs.

Josie, who did not want to give her full name to protect her bosses, is in her 70s and has spent over three decades working in Hong Kong.

Her life today is a far cry from what it was when she first landed in the city in 1984, and it is all due to her being able to live apart from her employer.

Hong Kong’s domestic workers share stories of ill-treatment, poor living conditions and rights abuses

“You can do whatever you want to do, eat whatever you want to eat,” she told the Post, saying that it was only when a helper was away from the watchful eyes of her employer that she could escape the stresses of work, unwind and relax.

These days, given her age, Josie said she usually watched TV after work, instead of spending time with friends like before.

Josie is among 30 or so maids, out of the more than 370,000 currently working in the city, who can live outside their employer’s home, even though the government rule is that all foreign domestic helpers have to live under their bosses’ roof.

This is because the helpers had already been living apart from their employers before the rule took effect in April 2003, and the government allowed them to continue with the arrangement, as long as they stayed with the same employer.

On Wednesday, the High Court ruled that the policy would stay after a Filipino helper challenged the requirement, saying it violated the rights of workers and was unconstitutional.

In Josie’s case, it was her nightmarish experience with her first employer that made her ask for a live-out arrangement with her current employer.

Why foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong must live in their employers’ home

Her first boss was a woman who lived with her young son and daughter, then 18 months old, in a two-room flat in City One, a private housing estate in Sha Tin.

Josie shared a room with the toddler, and woke up each time the baby stirred or needed something. Her employer was demanding and expected her to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For food, she got only instant noodles, eggs and choi sum, a Chinese cabbage.

Sleep-deprived and stressed, she lost weight and was only 45kg then, she said.

Josie’s breaking point came when the woman suddenly cut her long hair in the middle of the night when she was asleep.

When she complained, the woman said: “It suits you.”

That was when she called it quits, Josie said. As helpers were given more time to find another job back then, she was able to apply for two six-month visas and found a new employer the following year.

She has been working for the family since.

Live-in rule forces domestic workers to be on call 24 hours a day, court hears

But till today, the memory of her first few months in the city haunts her, especially when she thinks back of the only food she got to eat.

“They were like maggots and earthworms,” she said, recalling how she felt sick to her stomach at the thought of the soupy fix many Hongkongers turn to when they need a fast meal.

“Now when people ask me to eat noodles, I can only have it without the soup,” she added with a laugh.