Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong

Manila’s top envoy to Beijing hails landmark deal opening up China to influx of 500,000 migrant workers – but Hong Kong may pay the price

Agreement would provide 300,000 with legal employment status, as rights group calls for amnesty for 200,000 working illegally in China

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 May, 2018, 10:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 May, 2018, 11:04am

A top-level Philippine envoy to Beijing on Wednesday revealed that the two countries were close to a deal which would see the number of Filipino migrants employed in China swell to 500,000 – more than double the estimated current total.

The landmark agreement would grant legal employment status to 300,000 Philippine nationals and was expected to be signed by the end of this year, William J Lima, Manila’s special envoy to China, said.

“Relations between the Philippines and China are particularly good at the moment and I expect this deal can be concluded before the end of this year,” Lima said on the sidelines of a forum in Hong Kong.

The special envoy, appointed by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to deal with Beijing on a range of key economic and trade issues, estimated that “around 200,000” Filipinos were working illegally in China, most of them domestic workers. 

“With the 300,000 we expect to be permitted to work legally in mainland China under the deal, added to the 200,000 black market workers we estimate are already working there, that would make the total number close to half a million,” he said.

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He did not make it clear if the deal to create 300,000 legally permitted positions related only to domestic workers, or to other types of employment too. The Gulf News quoted the Philippine Secretary of Labour and Employment Silvestre Bello as saying last month that the Chinese authorities wanted Filipino cooks, carers, domestic workers, musicians and nurses to work in China.

The special envoy also did not say if the unauthorised Filipino workers in China would be granted amnesty, though the concern group Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body suggested separately this should be done. 

Lima added that there were still some small issues to be ironed out, for example the differences in employment-related health service provisions available in China and the Philippines.

“For instance, China offers a range of traditional medicine that Filipino workers might not be used to,” he said. “This is something we are still talking about. 

“However, things are going well generally and I expect we can conclude fairly soon.”

Last month, senior Chinese and Philippine officials signed a memorandum of understanding on the employment of Filipinos to teach English in China, following a meeting between President Xi Jinping and his counterpart Duterte in Hainan province for the Boao Forum.

China’s foreign ministry said in a written reply on Wednesday night that both sides have since been working on allowing English teachers from the Philippines to work in China, as was agreed upon in the memorandum. The ministry added that such cooperation would bring “concrete benefits” to citizens of both countries.

Foreign domestic workers are facing issues in getting fair treatment in Hong Kong, even with a robust legal system
Allan Bell, Hong Kong Domestic Workers Roundtable chairman

“The relationship between China and the Philippines is being continuously enhanced. Cooperation on all aspects are being expanded,” the ministry stated, though it did not say if China had plans to allow Filipinos to take up other employment apart from teaching jobs.

The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration was still processing a request for comment on Wednesday night.

While the Hong Kong government has held open the door to maids from the Philippines, Indonesia and other countries for many years, the mainland has had a different policy.

It was only about two years ago that some mainland cities started to allow foreign maids to work. 

Eman Villanueva, spokesman for the Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body, warned that Filipino domestic workers may leave Hong Kong for teaching jobs on the mainland because many of them were teachers in the Philippines before coming to the city.

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“They could be maths or science teachers in the Philippines, but because the main language in the country is English, they will be capable of becoming English teachers in China,” he said.

Gulf News reported that Filipino teachers who work in China would be paid HK$11,800 (US$1,500) a month. The monthly minimum wage for domestic workers in Hong Kong is HK$4,410. Employment agency bosses have said unauthorised maids in the mainland are paid 6,000 to 7,000 yuan (US$940 to US$1,100) a month.

Allan Bell, chairman of the concern group Hong Kong Domestic Workers Roundtable, said Filipinos keen to work on the mainland needed to be careful about “bogus contracts”– where they are promised a teacher’s job, but end up with another, lower-paid, job.

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“Foreign domestic workers are facing issues in getting fair treatment in Hong Kong even with a robust legal system and professional law enforcement. The situation in China may be very different,” he said. 

“Will there be a labour tribunal to manage disputes between employees and employers? Will there be a problem with corruption? Language will also be an issue, since English can be used in Hong Kong and translators are made available, what will happen in China?”