The Living Landscape of Foreign Domestic Helpers in Hong Kong

Written by Kaitlyn Wells | Edited and Supervised by Jeffrey Yeung

In Hong Kong, it is common to see ethnic minorities – Southeast Asian migrant workers in particular, many of whom work as domestic helpers. We are all familiar with them, who are hired to care for children and the elderly, and to clean and housekeep. They come from places such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia, India, and Thailand. Statistically, 99% of foreign domestic helpers are female, and constitute over 4% of Hong Kong’s population at around 352,000 people. The story of a female foreign domestic helper in Hong Kong takes many shapes, and is not always kind.

Hong Kong has one of the highest densities of foreign domestic workers where approximately 1 in 8 households employ a domestic worker. The city’s strong demand for domestic labor are due to the fact that it has neither a universal childcare system nor adequate social services for the elderly. Given that child- and eldercare centres can be inaccessible, inconvenient, and unaffordable, many dual-income families would rather hire a full-time domestic helper to watch over and nurture their young children and aging parents throughout the workweek.

As the cost of living in Hong Kong increases, so does the need for more than one income to support a household. The growing level of education and availability of jobs for women have meant that many have been employed in jobs whose wages are more promising than those offered by domestic service work. Consequently, as females join the workforce, they vacate the household and find less time for domestic labor. The domestic work left behind has been marketed to foreigners from the global South to fill in, as they would gladly accept a salary that is considered low in Hong Kong, yet decent compared to what they would receive in their home country. Even as the traditional family hierarchy, which designates the male as a breadwinner and the female a housewife, is somewhat disrupted in Hong Kong, domestic work continues to be feminized and devalued. Salaries in this industry remain low for both locals and foreigners, as society is still steeped in sexist discourses that deem domestic and care work simple and undemanding – inferior.

Experts estimate that Hong Kong will require 240,000 additional domestic workers within the next three decades to support its non-productive citizens: children, the elderly, and the disabled. In a nutshell, the shortcomings of the government as well as the city’s increase in elderly population continue to fuel the import of domestic helpers.


Why do people migrate to Hong Kong in the first place?

To understand why certain Southeast Asian countries export labor in the first place, let’s study the Philippines, a former colony of Spain and then the US, as an example. When the US granted it independence in 1946, the war-ravaged country desperately lacked the finances and aid it needed to rejuvenate; therefore, it turned to the US for assistance. The US was eager to assist its former colony, because it needed the Philippines on its side as part of its Cold War geopolitical strategy. Henceforth, the US and G8-dominated organizations, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, exerted their leverage over the Philippines by offering loans under stringent conditions to restructure its economy according to the neoliberal framework that Washington encouraged.

Throughout the 70’s, not only did president-dictator Ferdinand Marcos continue the neoliberal policies that his US-backed Conservative predecessors had implemented, he also transferred massive amounts of these loans to enrich himself and his cronies, to which Washington turned a blind eye. The combination of corruption, economic mismanagement, and the failures of neoliberal policies resulted in huge debt, high unemployment and social discontent, spurring Marcos to enact the Labor Code of the Philippines that established official channels for exporting labor overseas for work.

Now, four decades later, what Marcos intended to be a temporary labor export model has become an institutionalized and significant part of the Philippine economy. The Southeast Asian women involved in Hong Kong’s domestic service industry are lucrative assets in the eyes of their native governments. A sheer 10% of the entire Filipino population, 10 million people, is employed overseas. The poorly regulated overseas employment industry and the remittances of overseas domestic workers are responsible for 10% of the country’s GDP. The Philippine government has over time incentivized overseas employment by, for instance, creating a specialized Senior High program to certify semi-skilled youth, who struggle to be employed locally, for overseas deployment. It also portrays its migrant domestic workers as economic heroes, problematically validating the feminization of domestic work.

The problem with the government’s dependence on the labor export model is that educated, skilled Filipinos who would otherwise be working in various sectors of the Philippine economy are instead being pushed into taking up domestic service work overseas. The Philippines loses out as it is deprived of many valuable citizens it has invested in educating and training. Furthermore, the government’s reliance on the labor export model as a means of keeping the economy somewhat afloat does not tackle the structural factors that perpetuate what Migrante International terms the “forced migration” of Filipinos. The Philippines has been stuck in a position in which it has to annually spend up to 30% of its revenue, as the Automatic Appropriations Law dictates, to repay its neo-colonial creditors. To repay its outstanding debts at exorbitant interest rates, every administration that succeeded Marcos had to take out new loans from the G8-dominated institutions to which they were indebted. That the government has to fulfill the loan conditions of imposing neoliberal economic policies on their domestic economy prevents the country from developing the social services and infrastructure that are necessary to prevent forced migration; rather, the country has ceded the provision of social welfare to the private sector, withdrawn protections for fledgling domestic industries, and removed regulations for labor rights – all of which benefit the country’s ruling class and foreign multinational corporations at the expense of the Philippine population’s well-being. The Philippines’ colonial and meddled-with past continues, to this day, to evolve and bear weight on its national economy.

Today, Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong have all become popular destinations for Southeast Asian domestic workers. They seek employment abroad because they can be paid multiple times more than average salary  back home. Hong Kong’s minimum wage for domestic helpers is 4410HKD per month – seductive compared to, for instance, the monthly minimum wage of around 1200HKD for full-time workers in Cambodia. Foreign domestic workers make the long and tough journey and complementary sacrifices in hope for a better standard of life that’d be made possible by the higher incomes that aren’t available in their own countries.


Life under the Law

Those who do move to Hong Kong to find jobs in domestic care may be surprised at the laws that keep them marginalised here. The government’s live-in policy has since 2003 required all foreign domestic helpers to live in the same, usually cramped, residence as their employer, and was implemented in the name of protecting local domestic workers from foreigners who, if not placed under the watchful gaze of their employers, could compete with locals for part-time jobs. The live-in policy has also been invoked by the High Court to deny migrant domestic workers the right of abode, arguing that the policy disqualifies workers from “ordinarily residing” in the city – one of the requirements, according to Article 24 of the Basic Law, for obtaining permanent residency. Legal experts have criticized the court’s deliberate interpretation of the Basic Law as a means to keep out unwanted foreigners, as it smacks of class and ethnic prejudice.

        What’s worse, the live-in policy enables employers to abuse their domestic workers. Some stories of mistreatment are extremely brutal. A 28 year-old Indonesian woman was beaten by her female employer for a period of four months, which she cleverly documented on her phone, and was forced to sleep in the bathroom and work 16 hours a day, at some points even dragged across the floor by her hair. She would be yelled at and repeatedly slapped for mistakes like forgetting to put butter on the table. Another domestic worker, a 40 year-old woman from the Philippines, was forced to drink dirty water from a mop by her employer, while being verbally degraded with “you are very stupid, you are so dirty,” all as punishment for simply wringing the mop in the sink. Without the intervention of Hong Kongers, these cases of violence against foreign domestic helpers may well be dismissed by the Hong Kong police – five thousand Hong Kongers had to hold a protest to pressure the police to investigate the mistreatment of Erwiana Sulitstyaningsih. Migrant domestic helpers have made unsuccessful lawsuits, as recent as this February, to repeal this policy on the grounds that they have to be on call 24 hours a day, and that the employer has absolute power over their living standards and work parameters.

Moreover, Hong Kong’s immigration law forces foreign domestic workers to leave Hong Kong within two weeks if they quit their job or are fired. Fourteen days! An incredibly short and stressful period of time in which they must find food and shelter while finding another employer with whom to sign a contract. Given that it takes four to six weeks for the Immigration Department to process their application for change of employer, they usually have no choice but to return home and go through the costly process of applying for overseas employment all over again.

Going through profit-maximizing recruitment agencies is a whole other story. A HKU group, Students Against Fees and Exploitation, found in 2017 that more than 70% of employment agencies, which act as brokers between migrant workers and employers in Hong Kong, take advantage of domestic workers. They break the law by overcharging the workers for their placements fees and by withholding identification documents as leverage to make them to pay their debts. Many domestic workers first arrive in Hong Kong with several months of debt to overcome. Frustrated at the government’s lacklustre efforts at curtailing the agencies’ unethical practices, some have started direct-employment agencies such as Helper Choice and Fair Agency, which advocate for transparent employment practices that uphold the rights and accommodate the needs of the workers by matching them with the right employers. Under public pressure, the government has also issued a Code of Practice for employment agencies in 2017, and has increased the penalty for agencies that overcharge.

Lastly, foreign domestic helpers are assigned a scarce number of opportunities to visit home or travel. In addition to 12 days of statutory holidays a year, they legally have 7-14 days of annual paid leave. Many choose to spend their leave in their home country. Making enormous sacrifices in order to provide for their families, domestic helpers, 64% of whom are mothers, endure separation from their spouses, parents, children, siblings, and friends. Unable to bring family members overseas with them, mothers are more likely to be closer with their employer’s children instead of their own. “I wish I could kiss [my kids] goodnight, every night”, says a Filipino helper in Joanna Bower’s documentary The Helper. It is an unimaginable sacrifice for a mother to work overseas.


Making things right

It can be tough to make friends in a new city. In Hong Kong, it is really easy to feel excluded because everyone seems to know their place and mind their own business – especially when you are socially reduced to the confines of your nationality or your language. Fortunately, the persistent, successful efforts of domestic workers to occupy public spaces, such as Chater Road, on Sunday have transformed pockets of Hong Kong into temporary, lively communal spaces in which one could join a free dance class organized by Dance the Day Off or sing in a community choir called Unsung Heroes.

        Domestic workers still deserve to be in a welcoming environment as they exit the temporary communal spaces they’ve created for themselves: instead of saying ‘my helper’ and reduce them to nameless, household necessities, everyone in Hong Kong should strive to create a welcoming and inclusive environment for them. Strengthen relationships by asking questions and by being understanding, appreciative, and receptive – as one would normally be with other people. Treat them like a family member, and establish them as such in front of anyone. This is the easiest and most genuine way anyone can deliver personal respect, as well as prove that differences can be dissolved.

In addition to personal gestures, legislative reforms are sorely needed to improve the wellbeing of foreign domestic workers. Emmanuel Villanueva, the vice chairperson of Asian Migrants Coordinating Body, has demanded that the government increase both the monthly minimum wage and food allowance so that they adjust accordingly against the increasing cost of living. And of course, migrant organizations like the AMCB and Mission for Migrant Workers, alongside local organizations like the HK Confederation of Trade Unions, have agitated for abolishment of the live-in and two-week rule.

Lastly, as activist-politician Fernando Cheung has pointed out, the Hong Kong government should stop evading responsibilities in child- and eldercare. Creating care institutions should alleviate the city’s dependence on foreign workers in the domestic service industry. These reforms should not be invalidated just because they could negatively affect the opportunities for foreign workers to work in Hong Kong. Indeed, these reforms should be viewed in conjunction with the structural changes that need to take place in Southeast Asian countries to stem the forced migration of their workers. Virtually all migrant worker organizations in Hong Kong agree that their home countries need to scrap their neoliberal policies that benefit the Global North, and exercise autonomy by increasing social spending and developing infrastructure. That way, more work opportunities for decent jobs would be created and educated citizens with valuable skill sets do not have to feel compelled to migrate. While these proposals sound far-fetched, the task of developing robust social services both in Hong Kong and labor-exporting countries deserves to be fought for.

Foreign domestic helpers work hard to create a better future for themselves and their families, reminiscent of the mythologised ‘Lion Rock Spirit’ of Hong Kong. Out of respect and decency, Hong Kong must strive to be a gracious host, free of discrimination, free of divide, and full of gratitude for the women and men whose incredible sacrifices the people of Hong Kong are beyond indebted to.

Photo from Socialist Action

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