Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong

Top Philippine diplomat in Hong Kong Antonio Morales backs calls to raise minimum wage of city’s domestic helpers

Philippine consul general in Hong Kong says he hopes officials can come up with a ‘reasonable level’ amid rising costs of living, inflation and better prospects in mainland China

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2018, 10:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 May, 2018, 2:39pm

The Philippines’ top diplomat in Hong Kong has called on the city’s government to raise the minimum monthly wage for domestic helpers amid rising costs of living, with workers asking for a pay rise of 25 per cent to HK$5,500 (US$700) to prevent an exodus to mainland China.

Their demands were prompted by Manila’s labour minister Silvestre Bello telling Dubai newspaper Gulf News that Beijing wanted Filipino domestic helpers, cooks, carers, musicians and nurses to work in China, with helpers conceding they would jump ship to the mainland if wages were higher than the current HK$4,410 a month. 

Bello made the remarks after officials from China and the Philippines last month signed a memorandum of understanding on the employment of Filipinos to teach English in China.

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Last week, Philippine consul general in Hong Kong Antonio Morales said: “[The monthly minimum wage] has to be adjusted to reflect the rising costs of living, the higher inflation rate and the like.” 

He declined to state a specific figure, but added he hoped Hong Kong officials would come up with a “reasonable” level. 

About half of Hong Kong’s 370,000 foreign domestic helpers are Filipinos and the numbers are likely to rise as the city needs more carers for its ageing population.

The Philippine consulate has regular meetings with Hong Kong officials but the issue of minimum wage was not raised at the last meeting about a month ago, Morales said.

Pressed on whether Filipino workers would cross the border for jobs, he added: “I think that sometimes you cannot fight market forces. People will go where there are better opportunities, higher pay and better working conditions.”

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While Hong Kong has opened its doors to domestic helpers from the Philippines, Indonesia and other countries for many years, it was only about two years ago that some mainland Chinese cities followed suit. 

Gulf News reported that Filipino teachers would be paid HK$11,800 a month to work in China. According to employment agencies, unauthorised domestic helpers currently in mainland China – estimated to number 300,000 – are paid about 7,000 yuan (HK$8,600) a month.

Eman Villanueva, spokesman for the Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body – which advocates domestic helpers’ rights – said the increase of 25 per cent was justified because wages had only risen by HK$550 since 1998 when the level was HK$3,680.

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Filipino workers might leave Hong Kong to work as teachers in mainland China because many of them were teachers in the Philippines before coming to the city, he added.

Eni Lestari, chairwoman of the International Migrants Alliance, another rights advocacy group, also demanded Hong Kong’s domestic helpers receive a minimum monthly wage of HK$5,500.

“With China offering better wages, Hong Kong is at stake [of losing workers],” she said. “The minimum wage needs to go up for the workers to feel happy to stay in Hong Kong. The cost of living has been rising.”

The minimum wage needs to go up for the workers to feel happy to stay in Hong Kong
Eni Lestari, International Migrants Alliance

Last year, the minimum wage went up by just 2.3 per cent from HK$4,310 to HK$4,410, sparking an uproar among workers that the government has turned a blind eye to their demands. The annual increase was announced after consultations with stakeholders, including workers’ and employers’ groups. 

A revised wage level is usually announced around September every year.

Lestari said domestic workers usually send HK$1,500 of their salaries back home every month. Those with children would send HK$2,500, leaving them with less than HK$2,000 for other expenses in the city such as meals on Sundays with their friends and phone cards to keep in touch with their family members.

But Betty Yung Ma Shan-yee, chairwoman of the Employers of Domestic Helpers Association, called on the government to freeze the wage level.

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“You need to think about the lower-income families who have domestic helpers. The employers are paying for their workers’ meal expenses even when they are on their day off,” she said.

You need to think about the lower-income families who have domestic helpers
Betty Yung, Employers of Domestic Helpers Association

Referring to a case where a domestic helper was paid about HK$10,000 a month, Yung said: “The statutory minimum wage is just a minimum level. In many cases, employers would pay their workers more than that.”

The Labour Department said the government would consider a number of factors, including the city’s general economic and labour market conditions and the need to strike a balance between the livelihood of domestic helpers and affordability for employers.

“[The government] has spared no effort in maintaining Hong Kong as an attractive place for [domestic helpers] to work. Hong Kong has been offering one of the best terms of employment and protection for [domestic helpers] in this region,” a spokesman said.

“They enjoy the same employment rights and benefits as local workers under our labour laws.”

The government would also explore opening its doors to domestic helpers from other countries to ensure a steady and continued supply of workers, he added.