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Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s domestic helper groups push for 25 per cent pay rise as soaring loan charges and fees bite

Helpers spend more than one-third of their wages on average to pay back loans and fees to recruitment agencies, survey finds

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 August, 2018, 9:21pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 August, 2018, 7:09pm

Rocketing charges from recruitment agencies bringing foreign domestic helpers to Hong Kong mean the workers are spending over a third of their monthly wages to pay back loans and fees, more than double the amount five years ago, a survey shows.

And coupled with the higher cost of living in the city, this means helpers had less for remittances and savings than before – an average of HK$1,700 (US$218) a month in 2017, or 32 per cent of their income, down from 54 per cent five years ago.

The figures from concern groups Mission for Migrant Workers (MFMW) and Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants (APMM) were compiled after interviews with more than 1,000 Filipino domestic helpers last year. The study was a follow-up to one five years ago.

The findings prompted migrant workers’ groups to seek a meeting with the Labour Department on Tuesday, at which they planned to propose a 24.7 per cent pay rise, bringing helpers’ minimum monthly wage to HK$5,500 from HK$4,410, according to MFMW general manager Cynthia Abdon-Tellez.

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“Yes, foreign domestic helpers come to Hong Kong to support their families, but they end up spending most of their wages in Hong Kong, and thus contribute to the economic life of the city,” she said.

Expenses, related loans and agency fees accounted for 36 per cent of helpers’ wages in 2017, compared with 13 per cent in 2013, the groups said. Another 23 per cent went to general living costs including food, clothes and accessories, communications, transport, toiletries and donations, compared with 28.5 per cent five years ago.

About one in 10 interviewees saved some of their income for themselves, about 9 per cent of their salary on average, increasing 5 percentage points from 2013.

According to another report by MFMW in April, about half of helpers were charged between HK$5,000 and HK$10,000 by agencies to work in the city with some paying as much as HK$22,000. By law, agencies can only charge 10 per cent of a helper’s first monthly wage, but some firms get round this by making workers sign loan agreements with finance companies they are connected to. The loans are usually signed in the helpers’ home countries to avoid Hong Kong government supervision.

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“Nobody really asks why migrant workers here are borrowing money and doing illegal jobs,” Sringatin, chairwoman of the Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Union, said, adding the findings could also apply to Indonesian helpers.

“It is time for the Hong Kong government to value our work in the city, and at the same time make more effort to ensure our health and safety.”

Along with an increase in the minimum wage to HK$5,500, concern groups urged the government to raise helpers’ food allowance to HK$2,500 from HK$1,037.

Antonio Morales, the Philippine consul general in Hong Kong, backed these requests, which were first brought up by helper representatives at a meeting with the Labour Department last August.

Over the past five years, the minimum wage of domestic helpers climbed at a rate of about 2.5 per cent per year, increasing HK$100 annually from HK$4,010 in 2013 to HK$4,410 in 2017.

Asked about Tuesday’s meeting, a Labour Department spokesman said only that they would “listen to [the helpers’] opinions and advice”.

There are more than 360,000 domestic helpers working in Hong Kong, according to government statistics from last year, including 190,000 Filipinos and 154,000 Indonesians.

Edna Dela Cruz, a 37-year-old Filipino who has been working in Hong Kong for 16 years, said the minimum wage for helpers was far from enough. She said her kind employer paid her HK$7,000 a month because of the difficult situation she faced in the Philippines.

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“Almost everything in Hong Kong is at a much higher price than when I first came here,” she said.

“Also, living expenses back in the Philippines are rising too, especially for someone with lots of children to support at home,” Dela Cruz, mother of a four-year-old son, said, adding she sent half of her wages back home every month.

Saving money for her child and her mother who had lung disease, Dela Cruz said her major expense was her outdoor lunch with friends every Sunday, costing HK$80 per meal.

“I would really appreciate it if the government was willing to raise our wages,” she said. “For now, it really depends on your luck to meet an employer nice enough to pay you more than required.”

For now, it really depends on your luck to meet an employer nice enough to pay you more than required
Edna Dela Cruz, domestic helper

Joan Tsui Hiu-tung, convenor of the Support Group for Hong Kong Employers with Foreign Domestic Helpers, said it was unreasonable to ask for a pay rise as high as 25 per cent.

“An employer I spoke to was like, ‘I haven’t had a rise in salary for three years myself!” Tsui said. “We are employees too, and we already have to pay for [helpers’] living and food expenses except for Sundays. Such an increase in salary is impossible for us.”

Tsui, whose group would take part in the meeting with the department, said she planned to argue for an unchanged minimum wage.

She also urged the government to adopt stricter regulations on recruitment agencies.

“Recruitment agents are the bridge between employers and maids. Under the messy regulations now, both sides have very little guarantee of service,” she said.