Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong

Philippines envoy urges Hong Kong government to open city up to more skilled workers

Consul general Antonio A Morales discusses domestic workers, illegal fees, abuse shelters, and the threat of Hong Kong losing out to the mainland in first in-depth interview

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 July, 2018, 10:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 July, 2018, 9:34pm

The Philippine consul general in Hong Kong wants the local government to follow in the footsteps of neighbouring regions and open up the market to qualified professionals from his country.

Six months after arriving in a city that is home to more than 200,000 Filipinos, Antonio A Morales also called for more prosecutions and convictions of employment agents who charge illegal fees, as he promised to open another shelter for domestic workers who are victims of abuse.

Singapore, for instance, has welcomed Filipino nurses, engineers, technicians, but here that does not happen much,” Manila’s top envoy to the city said, in his first in-depth interview since he took over the post.

“I think we can contribute more if they can open up their labour market. It would be a win-win solution for Hong Kong and the Philippines.”

Morales, who was previously an ambassador to Singapore, pointed to the fact that many of the women working in Hong Kong as domestic helpers hold degrees in nursing and teaching.

“That’s an issue we have informally raised with officials, but we hope to raise in the next meetings and during visits of high officials,” he said.

Hong Kong – a city that heavily relies on migrant workers – has about 226,000 Filipinos, and about 206,000 of those are domestic workers. The number is only expected to increase – with the second largest group of domestic workers coming from Indonesia.

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Government officials have predicted that Hong Kong is expected to need about 600,000 domestic helpers in the next 30 years to look after the city’s ageing population.

Commenting on the top concerns among domestic workers in the city, Morales said he hoped employment agencies were under greater scrutiny. His comments came after a report again highlighted the unscrupulous employment and placement agencies charging excessive fees to workers.

The diplomat welcomed the amendment of the Employment Ordinance introduced in February, in which fines for overcharging workers and operating an employment agency without a licence increased from HK$50,000 to HK$350,000 (US$44,600) and three years’ imprisonment.

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Domestic workers and employers also now have more time to bring legal claims against agencies, with the statutory time limit for prosecution of abuses extended from six months to 12 months.

“The amendment is only recent. If we see more prosecutions and convictions, we are confident that the number [of cases] will go down,” Morales said.

According to officials statistics obtained by the Post, the number of inspections has increased over time. Last year, 1,846 inspections took place, whereas from January to May this year authorities conducted 1,213.

The Labour Department successfully prosecuted 11 employment agencies in 2017, and six licences were revoked. In the first five months of this year, only three were prosecuted, while four lost their licences. The highest fine imposed on an agency last year was $HK16,000.

Separately, from January to April, the consulate received about 400 complaints – half of them related to excessive fees. The other main reasons of concern among workers were harassment and pressure by employers, as well as verbal abuse.

“Another priority of mine is to establish more shelters – we hope to establish one within this year,” Morales said.

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The consulate runs one shelter with the capacity to hold 12 people, and is looking for a new location with similar capacity near the consulate.

Analysing the job market in Hong Kong, Morales said there should be a distinction between a domestic worker and a carer.

China is opening up and this is all governed by economics
Antonio Morales, Philippine consul general

“That’s another kind of work that requires a different set of skills. They should be treated separately,” he said. “I expect a gradual and steady increase of both domestic workers and carers in Hong Kong.”

However, the envoy also noted: “China is opening up and this is all governed by economics and not policies. People go to where there are better opportunities and better pay.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced in April that his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, had agreed to welcome more Filipino workers, with an initial plan of hiring 2,000 English-language teachers this year. Other professions are also expected to be part of the Chinese market’s liberalisation.

Morales said that to continue attracting workers from the Philippines, Hong Kong needed to consider “an adjustment in terms of pay”, “maintain its rule of law” and address workers’ concerns about living quarters.

Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong are required to live in their employer’s house – with many having to share a room or even being forced to sleep on balconies or in kitchens, studies have shown.

Their minimum salary is HK$4,410 a month, and the 2.3 per cent increase they received last year fell short from the workers’ expectations of a 25 per cent raise to HK$5,500.