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domestic-helpers-hk

Domestic helpers in Hong Kong gather on their day off

I have put off writing this blog for a long time. I have such mixed feelings about the subject: horror, outrage, acceptance, admiration.

Currently in Hong Kong, there are about 350,000 foreign domestic helpers. The majority are from the Philippines and Indonesia. These are women, often well educated in their home countries, who come to HK because they can: a) be employed, and b) earn more money than they would at home and therefore support their families more fully. They all leave families behind that include, in many cases, their own children.

So this sounds OK on the surface … women can earn money to support their families, go back home after a few years to a cushion of money and live happily ever after, right? Not really. This is Hong Kong after all, where policies protecting people are scant but policies protecting people with money reign supreme.

Domestic helpers are a cultural thing here in HK and, since at least colonial days, are employed in households of all incomes. Wealthier households might employ two or more domestic helpers. In my time here, I have met very few Chinese people who do not have helpers. Many Hong Kongers grow up with domestic helpers and cannot imagine functioning without one. From my observation, domestic helpers are somewhat less common among expat households.

The domestic helper industry is heavily regulated by the HK government. Employers and helpers must have a contract addressing wages, accommodation, days off, etc. The first contractual requirement is that domestic helpers MUST live with their employer. So with Hong Kongers already living in cramped quarters, you now add a domestic helper into the 500 sq ft apartment, possibly with a multi-generational family. I have heard of domestic helpers who live under a table, or in a fold-out cot above the stove, or in a room with the children. Even in wealthier households, helpers will rarely have a space bigger than a broom closet with a small cot, a tiny toilet, and a sink with a hand-held showerhead. All the apartments we looked at when we moved here had a maid’s room fitting this description (I looked at it as coveted storage space).

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Domestic helpers gather in public spaces on their day off, which is usually Sunday. You find large gatherings in parks, underpasses or  overhead walkways, sitting on collapsed cardboard sharing food, playing games, sometimes sleeping, sometimes dancing. They are very noisy, like flocks of birds!!

It is actually illegal to hire a part-time helper. I cannot legally hire someone to come once or twice a week to clean my apartment. There are agencies, but they tend to offer 5-day-a-week contracts and are really expensive. The system is set for the full-time, live-in deal or nothing.

Another requirement is that when a helper’s contract ends (usually after two years), they have two weeks to get another job or return to their home country. Two weeks is not a lot of time to find a new job in any industry. No matter what the circumstances—employers dismiss the helper, the helper falls sick or the helper leaves because of abuse—they are on their own with two weeks (and probably no money) to leave.

And the wages … HKD$4,310 per month (USD$555 or CAD$729). This was after a raise in 2015 of HKD$100 per month (USD$13 or CAD$17) announced by the government after “careful consideration of HK’s economic and labour markets”. (The helpers were asking for $5,000 a month.) Helpers also receive free housing (whoopee!!) and free food or a food allowance of HKD$1,037 (USD$134 or CAD$175) per month.

Some employers do pay more than the government-mandated wage and treat their helpers very well. Some pay for the helper’s children’s education and trips to and from home. I have met helpers who have been here more than 20 years, sometimes with the same employer. I know one who is here along with her two sisters, two of whom work together in a good household.

You can be sure that the live-in requirement is a problem. It definitely contributes to abuse and there is a lot of advocacy to change that rule. However, the government stands by it, saying it has to take into account the cost to employers of providing separate housing for their helpers and the pressure on housing and transport. (?!) And the two-week rule: well, that’s so that they don’t job-hop or work illegally. I find this mind-boggling, but sadly it is so typical of Hong Kong and its attitudes towards social issues. In fact, the whole legal system here is built on prevention rather than enforcement, but that’s a topic for another day.

Does the word “exploitation” come to mind? It does for me, especially when you read about the helpers who are forced to clean the outside of their employer’s high rise apartment windows (there have been four deaths from that this year), or the physical abuse, or the terrible living conditions, or the demands to work 16 hours a day cooking, cleaning, shopping, washing the car, walking the dog, minding the children and perhaps elderlies, for a salary that is far, far less than the statutory minimum wage of HKD$32.50 per hour (USD$4.19 and CAD$5.50).

The interesting thing is that there is a trickle-down effect on HK’s entire social system as a result of its reliance on domestic helpers. Having helpers is what enables both parents to work the 10- to 12-hour workdays that are so ingrained here. Helpers mean that maternity and paternity policies can remain in the dark ages (ten weeks for mothers, three DAYS for fathers!!!). Wages in the exporting countries remain abysmally low. Childcare and family welfare are nowhere on the policy radar. The caste system is alive and well in Hong Kong—protected even.

I would say that this has been one of the most surprising cultural differences I have experienced moving to HK from Canada. Many expats arrive and say “eureka!” to the cheap help, but I personally can’t imagine having someone underfoot 24/7 and living in my closet. Like I said, the jury is out on this one.