City Weekend

Window-cleaning ban for Hong Kong’s domestic helpers will not keep them safe, campaigners say

Support groups call for greater contractual regulations as shocking photograph emerges of domestic helper cleaning Mid-Levels apartment window

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 November, 2016, 12:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 December, 2016, 7:35pm

A recent ban on cleaning high-rise windows is not sufficient to protect Hong Kong’s domestic workers from exploitation, campaigners argue after a shocking photograph recently emerged of a helper cleaning a window at an apartment in the Mid-Levels.

The government this week revealed details of a new clause to be added to all domestic helper employment contracts, prohibiting them from cleaning external windows above the ground floor unless the window is fitted with a secure grille.

The ban, proposed by the Philippines Consulate, was initially delayed for one month to allow Hong Kong lawmakers more time to establish the specific wording of the new clause.

But it will not come into force until January 1 next year, leaving the majority of Hong Kong’s 330,000 domestic helpers, most of whom originate from the Philippines and Indonesia, at risk of exploitation.

Even with the ban, employers will not face criminal prosecution if they ignore the new regulations, and campaigners estimate that it could take two years for the clause to be included in all domestic helper contracts, as it requires employers to renew the contracts of their current helpers.

Even while they welcome the ban, campaign groups said it did not go far enough in protecting helpers’ rights.

H ong Kong and Philippine officials stop short of ‘total ban’ on domestic workers cleaning exterior of windows

The government’s announcement came just a few weeks after a domestic helper was seen cleaning windows while balancing precariously on a ledge at the Silvercrest building in MacDonnell Road, Mid-Levels, an area popular with expatriate families. The photographer, who asked not to be identified, shared the image with campaign group Helpers for Domestic Helpers in a bid to raise awareness of the ongoing exploitation faced by migrant workers.

Holly Allan, the charity’s manager, said helpers were still vulnerable to exploitation because of their unspecified duties and unrestricted working hours.

“Any tasks or activities that pose risks to the safety of any worker should be regulated and the government must develop strict measures to minimise those risks,” she said.

“While it is reasonable to maintain a balance between the safety of workers and the needs of employers, workers’ safety should always be the priority.

“It is laudable the Philippine Consulate has sought to protect Filipino domestic workers by banning external window cleaning.”

Philippines to bring in ban on Hong Kong domestic helpers cleaning windows

Puja Kapai, director of the Centre for Comparative and Public Law at the University of Hong Kong, agreed that the ban did not properly address the lack of restrictions on a domestic helper’s duties and working hours. “It is a band-aid approach,” she said.

Lenlen Mesina, from non-governmental organisation Enrich, also called for domestic helpers to “enjoy equal rights” as other Hong Kong workers. “Our take on the ban on window-cleaning very much reflects our position on the importance of safety and security of migrants in their workplaces and other spaces,” she said.

“As with other employees, they must enjoy equal rights and protection in safe environments. The ban on window-cleaning will offer protection and prevent tragic accidents from happening which, in turn, will protect the families they work for and families back home dependent on them.”

There have been several instances of domestic helpers falling from apartment blocks while cleaning windows this year.

In August, a 35-year-old Filipino helper plunged to her death from the Phase III building of Lohas Park in Tseung Kwan O. A 47-year-old Filipino helper died after falling from a block in the same residential estate on March 18 this year.

The pair were among five domestic workers in the city to die from a work mishap or suicide since January, according to news reports.

Speaking on local radio this week, Support Group for Hong Kong Employers with Foreign Domestic Helpers convenor Joan Tsui Hiu-tung said the ban could serve as an excuse for domestic helpers to leave their job.

Stop forcing domestic workers to clean windows, Philippine government insists after series of high-rise deaths

Domestic helpers who claim their employers have violated the clause can report them to the Labour Department or Labour Tribunal and request that their contract be terminated.

But Scott Stiles from the Fair Employment Agency said the ban would “benefit both employers and workers”.

“It’s exciting to see the Hong Kong government working with the consulates to create safer working conditions to benefit both employers and workers,” he said. “With a few small changes like this, Hong Kong can really set the example in how it treats migrant domestic workers.”


* This article has been corrected from the original which stated that the domestic helper was cleaning the window on the 15th floor.