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Ageing society

Is Hong Kong ready for return of domestic helpers from Myanmar?

City’s ageing population will need plenty of care in the future and Myanmar might be the place to find that help

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 March, 2018, 8:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 March, 2018, 11:32am

More than three years after Myanmar stopped its citizens from working as domestic helpers in Hong Kong, a local lawmaker is paving the way for their return – but this time as nursing carers looking after the city’s growing elderly population.

The drive, initiated by Liberal Party lawmaker Felix Chung Kwok-pan, is seen as the latest effort in getting the city prepared for what some have called the “silver tsunami”. 

By 2036, almost one in three Hongkongers will be 65 years old and above, and many of those will be living alone.

“There is a shortage of domestic helpers with nursing qualifications in Hong Kong,” Chung told the Post ahead of his trip to Yangon on Friday, where he is expected to meet officials from the Labour Ministry. 

“We aimed at importing Myanmese nursing carers who could look after those elders living alone, who are either healthy, or have motor disabilities.”

Chung, previously involved in the building of a “garment industrial park” in Myanmar, is confident the country will back the plan as he has already discussed it with government officials from both sides.

Hong Kong will need 600,000 domestic helpers in next 30 years amid demand for elderly care, labour chief says

Domestic helpers from the southeast Asian country started arriving in Hong Kong in early 2014, but little more than six months later the Myanmar government banned its women from working as maids in the city, and in Singapore, because of concerns over abuse and exploitation.

In particular, Myanmar officials at the time cited concerns over the treatment of Indonesian maid Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, who was tortured by her Hong Kong employer Law Wan-tung. Law was jailed for six years and ordered to pay Sulistyaningsih HK$809,430 in damages.

It would offer Hongkongers another choice
Felix Chung, lawmaker

About one in five of the first 90 helpers to arrive in the city from Myanmar had gone home six months after their arrival as they could not get used to life in their new environment.

“Myanmar might be reluctant to export its labour as domestic helpers, but they would be more willing to offer a green light if they are hired as nursing carers – a profession – who do not just handle household chores,” Chung said. 

“It would offer Hongkongers another choice; as the Philippines and Indonesia have once hinted they might suspend the exportation of labour as domestic helpers at some point.”

Chung believes well-off families will pay a premium for carers from Myanmar to look after their seniors, and has suggested a monthly salary of US$800 (HK$6,278) would not be unreasonable ­– that would also make the jobs highly attractive to Myanmese.

In 2016, some 152,536 elderly residents were reported to be living alone in Hong Kong – that is 13.1 per cent of the overall population of seniors. The proportion of seniors living with children had dropped from 53.4 per cent in 2006 to 48.5 per cent two years ago.

In an interview with the Post last year, Dr Law Chi-kwong, the Secretary for Labour and Welfare, revealed the Hong Kong government was considering a plan to grant elderly residents living alone in public rental flats a subsidy to hire domestic helpers to try to help them “age in place”.

Teresa Liu Tsui-lan, managing director of Technic Employment Service Centre, noted the city’s increasing demand for foreign domestic helpers with a nursing background amid the ageing population. Some 40 per cent of helpers hired through her agency were to look after the seniors, she added.

However, she expressed reservations as to whether the local market would opt for Myanmese nursing carers, as opposed to those from other countries.

“After all, it is really important that the carer can communicate well with the senior,” Liu said. “The elders might prefer Indonesians, who tend to speak better Cantonese, while they may favour Filipinos if they speak English.”

Liu said she planned to recruit nurses from Indonesian hospitals on a large scale once the government presses ahead with its proposed subsidy for elderly singles to hire helpers.

The Myanmar consulate in Hong Kong did not responded to questions from the Post by press time.