By Sophie Pu
Foreign domestic workers, or “helpers” as they are more commonly known, are ubiquitous among the households of the middle to upper classes across South East Asia. In Hong Kong, it is estimated that more than 350,000 foreign domestic helpers work in the city, a number that is poised to increase as demand rises as a result of an aging population. However, in spite of this burgeoning number, Hong Kong’s laws nonetheless offer little protection to these workers, an issue that has belatedly becoming a pressing concern for some (but not many).
The growing prevalence of foreign domestic workers began in Hong Kong during the late 1970s to early 1980s, a rise that coincided with improving economic conditions among citizens. During this time, helpers predominantly came from the Philippines, although today, the numbers of workers from Philippines and Indonesia are approximately the same. The overwhelming majority of these workers are women who take up the responsibilities of housework, cooking, grocery shopping, taking care of children, and cleaning. Male foreign domestic workers are far less common, and typically act as drivers.
The list of laws that are inadequate in protecting domestic helpers’ rights is substantial. Not only are migrant workers prevented from gaining permanent residency (as determined by the 1997 Immigration Ordinance Cap. 115), they are also subjugated to second class citizenship. Foreign domestic workers are not included in the Hong Kong Census that measures population, family consumption and the labor force, thus preventing the government from properly structuring policies around their needs. Other insufficiencies include the minute quantity and poor enforcement of rest days (migrant workers are only granted one rest day per week in addition to 12 official public holidays recognized by the government), compulsory live-in laws and exclusion from Hong Kong’s minimum wage law. These three in particular will be discussed at greater length further on, but it is clear that the judicial protection afforded to foreign domestic helpers is minimal at best.
Until recently, Hong Kong’s middle and upper classes lived in utopic ignorance regarding the welfare of foreign domestic helpers as the issue of worker rights for helpers was rarely discussed and/or reported. However, news articles exposing the systematic abuse of foreign domestic workers published in recent years have opened Pandora’s Box. HK Helpers Campaign revealed that, while most countries’ legal maximum weekly work hours rest between 40-48, helpers in Hong Kong work on average 17 hours a day. This translates to an outrageous 102 hour work week, which is a result of the ‘live-in rule’; that is, a law that requires foreign domestic workers to live with their employer and work six days a week. The live-in law makes enforcement of mandatory rest extremely difficult, and most helpers are considered ‘on-call’ 24 hours a day. Furthermore, Hong Kong’s immigration laws allow helpers only two weeks to find a new contact if they are fired or quit; this law compounds the difficulty for helpers to report abusive households.
As such, a 2012 Mission for Migrant Workers survey of 3000 helpers found that 58% experience verbal abuse, 18% have been physically abused and 6% sexually abused. These alarming statistics set the backdrop for the numerous news articles reporting specific cases of abuse. One case details the story of a 28-year old Indonesian woman, Maryane. Maryane was slapped and yelled at by her employer to “jump off the building and kill [herself]” for forgetting to put butter on the breakfast table. She was beaten over a period of four months, was forced to sleep in the bathroom and, when her employer was particularly incensed, was dragged across the floor by her hair. Another helper, Rutchel from the Philippines, was punished for rinsing a dirty mop in the sink by being forced to drink the dirty water wrung from it. Esther, another Filipino helper was beaten with an iron for getting lost with the employer’s child five days after she moved to Hong Kong, and 27-year old Mona was forced to stand in the kitchen for two nights without sleep and had bleach poured on her by the employer because the employer’s husband was nice to her.
These stories, chilling as they are, are only a few out of more than 300 testimonies collected at the Bethune House shelter by a Hong Kong Polytechnic University professor. Unfortunately, cases such as these, while transiently popular in the media, are often ignored by judicial authorities. A common narrative is that helpers are lying or exaggerating; as such, unless the media catches wind of the story, many cases of abuse are buried under bureaucracy and ignorance.
However, physical and verbal abuse are not the only troubles facing foreign domestic workers. Although their minimum monthly wage increased by 2.3% in September 2017 to a total of HKD4410 a month (if the employer provides meals), their income is still startlingly low compared to other minimum wages in Hong Kong and the US. Based on the 102 hour work week average as calculated by the HK Helpers Campaign, this puts workers’ hourly minimum wage at approximately HKD10.8 (~USD1.39 an hour). Comparatively, the American minimum wage is USD7.28 an hour. While the American minimum wage certainly does not include free housing, the diminutive wages are nothing short of absurd, particularly given that many domestic helpers are subjugated to living in tiny quarters (or in Maryane’s case, a bathroom) and the labor-intensive nature of their jobs. Furthermore, to compare their wages domestically, Hong Kong’s Minimum Allowable Wage is HKD34.5 an hour as of 1 May, 2017. The gaping chasm between the minimum wage afforded to foreign domestic workers and Hong Kong citizens is deplorable and inhumane, much like the other unequal policies facing these workers.
While in recent years, more concern has been directed towards the living and working conditions of foreign domestic help, the cleavage in equality facing helpers is still prevalent and vast. Although Hong Kong’s growing income gap certainly is troubling for domestic citizens, often, helpers’ rights are abandoned in this search for greater equality.
Sophie Pu is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania where she studies International Relations.