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Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong

Concern group urges action to protect foreign helpers in Hong Kong forced to sleep in toilets and kitchens

Mission For Migrant Workers says requirement for ‘suitable accommodation’ in their contracts is too vague and open to abuse

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 May, 2017, 9:42pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 May, 2017, 5:08pm

A concern group has urged the Hong Kong government to draw up a proper list of “suitable accommodation” for domestic helpers after a survey found many had to sleep in store rooms, balconies, kitchens and even toilets.

The Mission For Migrant Workers questioned more than 3,000 Filipino and Indonesian helpers last year and found widespread accommodation problems, which it said were also unhealthy.

It called on the government to ban the worst conditions, such as sleeping in their employers’ toilets and kitchens, in the contract for domestic workers.

“This is basic human decency. We believe currently the standard employment contract gives too much room for interpretation and misinterpretation,” said Norman Uy Carnay, programme officer at the mission and lead researcher of the report.

While employers are required to provide helpers with “suitable and furnished accommodation” and “reasonable privacy” under the ordinance, only two examples are listed as “unsuitable accommodation”. These are “made-do beds in the corridor with little privacy” and “sharing a room with an adult/teenager of the opposite sex”.

Carnay said the vagueness had made it difficult for domestic helpers forced into unacceptable accommodation to obtain legal redress as the guideline did not reflect the varied situation that was the reality.

Forty-three per cent of helpers said they were not provided with a private room. About 70 per cent had to share a bedroom with children, elderly people or co-workers, while 21 per cent slept in the living room.

Others reported having to rest in a store room, kitchen, basement, balcony, roof, cupboard and dressing room.

How Hong Kong failed its domestic helpers

“About 500 domestic helpers across Hong Kong are still sleeping in the toilet,” Carnay said.

Some 14 per cent of respondents also did not have ready access to a toilet when they needed to use it.

In one extreme case, a helper’s bed was located in a kitchen cupboard above the fridge and microwave oven. Another had a tiny room on a rooftop that was that only 1.2 metres high.

For those lucky enough to have a room, in 33 per cent of cases the space was also used for other purposes, such as hanging clothes, keeping pets and storing goods.

Carnay said they enjoyed limited privacy as employers often entered the room without their consent, and 47 per cent were not given a key.

“I feel I don’t have privacy because my employer can enter my room any time,” one respondent said in the survey’s focus group discussion.

The lack of privacy also affected their health, Carney said, as they were unable to get enough rest and many felt vulnerable as women.

Carnay said the city’s accommodation policies and conditions for domestic helpers did not measure up to international human and labour standards.

He urged policymakers to make reference to countries such as Austria and Singapore, which had clearer requirements for living conditions.

Labour Party lawmaker Dr Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung said: “The space for living in Hong Kong is small for everyone, nevertheless migrant workers should be treated as human beings.”

He welcomed the suggestion for a broader list of “unsuitable accommodation”.

The Labour Department and government had not replied to Post inquiries before publishing time.