Always on duty: foreign domestic helpers around the world

Working hours for domestic helpers are among the longest and most under-regulated in the world. It is difficult to monitor conditions for the increasing number of helpers on assignments abroad

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 August, 2017, 12:02pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 August, 2017, 11:01am

Low wages and a lack of privacy can inflict a high cost on the health and mental well-being of domestic helpers working overseas. As a workforce, helpers sometimes only have rudimentary education and lack formal skills. Combined with little collective representation, bargaining power or social status, these challenges mean helpers are often left vulnerable to exploitation. Here we pull together key facts and figures to paint a picture of the hardships helpers face, both in Hong Kong and around the world.

The pair-of-shoes calculation

This calculation looks at the number of hours a helper needs to work in order to buy a medium-quality pair of sports shoes in the country where she or he works.

A high percentage of overseas domestic workers are employed in high-income countries, with the Arab states, North America and developed European nations playing host to more than half of the world's foreign domestic helpers. In East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, foreign domestic workers represent approximately one-fifth of the total number of migrant workers.

Except for some parts of the Middle East, the high-income regions of the world all have rapidly ageing populations: a large, wealthy demographic in need of care and assistance. The economic opportunity this affords the labour markets from low-income countries is obvious. Many of the helpers working overseas are the main breadwinners for their families back home, and consequently the financial rewards that lure them away can exact a high toll by directly impacting on family and social structures.

Hong Kong rest day regulations

Every employer must grant their helper a rest day for a continuous period of at least 24 hours for every period of seven days. It is not set in law that these must be taken on the same day every week, but the employer must notify the helper about her or his rest days before the beginning of each month. Helpers generally prefer to take Sundays, in order to enjoy the many activites their communities organise throughout Hong Kong. Helpers are also entitled to Hong Kong's statutary holidays as rest periods.

According to the Labour Department, it is not legal to ask a helper to work on a rest day, even for an increase in pay. Instead, the employer must give the helper a substitute day off, 30 days before, or after, the original rest day.