Foreign Domestic Helpers In Hong Kong: To Be Liberated Or A Dead End To Modern Slavery?

Immigration is a distinctive feature of life in a global world. Some choose to work abroad for personal experience or better career prospects. However, for others, immigration is not a choice but a necessity. In my previous article, I explored exploitation and discrimination issues regarding migrant workers in Taiwan. In addition to that, I conducted further research on migrant workers in Asia, particularly that of foreign domestic helpers (FDH) in Hong Kong.

FDHs are workers employed to perform household services for a family unit. Globalization has facilitated the advancement of communication and transportation, hence enhancing the standard of the global community. Equally, the convenience of employment mobility has made exploitation of workers more common. The need for FDHs arose when Hong Kong’s economy began to soar in the late 1970s, when major investments began to pour in Hong Kong. The female workforce was mobilized to satisfy the expanding demand for workers. Thereby, the need for FDHs primarily arises when a parent is employed during the day and requires assistance in caring for children and/or the elderly. In 2014, there were 330,650 FDHs underemployment in Hong Kong. The majority of FDHs are of Pilipino or Indonesian ethnic backgrounds; they attribute to approximately 97.6% of FDHs in Hong Kong.

The Standard Employment Contract for Foreign Domestic Helpers stipulates that all foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong should not be paid less than the prevailing Minimum Allowable Wage (MAW) of HK$4310 per month if their employment contracts are entered on or after the 1st October 2016. It is set by the government at a reasonable level so that it represents a proportion of income expenditure that needs to be paid to FDHs. The implementation of MAW is believed to provide an incentive for them to fulfil their responsibility in a responsible and loyal manner.

While some might think that these workers have loose moral standards, Janet, who participated in a research conducted by Hong Kong Baptist University, had confessed that she was compelled to bid farewell to her family. She had a daughter and six younger siblings, whom were still at school and required financial expense every month. After prudent consideration, she was left with no choice but to leave her family behind for the sake of their future well-being. With a reasonably high paying job in Hong Kong, she would be able to provide education for her family members and potentially enhance their quality of life. In other words, she would rather sacrifice the chance to witness the growth of her children in return for higher levels of freedom for her family. Hence, freedom comes along with a cost.

In January 2014, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih submitted a claim for physical abuse inflicted by her former employer Law Wantung. During her brief stay in Hong Kong, she was obligated to perform extravagant duties and was not allowed her weekly day off. The trial had sparked debates on global platforms which put FDH issues in Hong Kong under the world’s spotlight. Law is now serving her six-year sentence. However, Erwiana had expressed concerns that the judgment had not brought justice to all the victims who shared similar experiences. Three years have gone by since the incident, yet unreported abuses are still happening on a regular basis. This can be attributed to a lack of support and education to FDHs in events of abuses and assaults in the workplace. No workshops or information session are offered to FDHs by governmental authorities prior to the start of their contract. It makes FDHs more vulnerable to abuses and exploitation, particularly when their contracts include live-in requirements.

In 2003, the government introduced a new live-in policy, which had made domestic helpers more prone to abuse. According to Matthew Cheung, the former Secretary of Labour and Welfare, the live-in policy was to increase the practicality of the FDH sector. Housing problem has remained a major issue in the society. Moreover, medical insurance and commuting cost would burden public resources in the community. Subsequently, the HKSAR government implemented the live-in policy. The policy might act as a safety net for FDHs. As the saying goes, “There is no such thing as free lunch.” Freedom is inevitably associated with costs. The live-in policy deprives freedom from FDHs as they are not permitted to choose their location of residence in Hong Kong. However, we should not neglect the benefits of low commuting cost and house rent. The most significant measurement of the benefits could be reflected in wages. If employers had to provide accommodation for their workers, the wage rate would be factored down effectively to compensate the extra house rent. Moreover, the policy prevents FDHs from staying at cheap private properties such as cage homes and subdivided apartments. The poor sanitation and electricity setups facilitate the spread of disease and domestic accidents. The policy potentially increases FHDs’ well-being because FDHs have greater self-dominance under the protection of responsible employers. It is believed that most employers in Hong Kong are responsible and are willing to abide the law. However, we shall not neglect the fact that there may be irresponsible employers who ignore the rules.

Up until now, terms in the contracts are often not satisfied due to a lack of surveillance from the authority. This is where the government should aim to provide adequate protection to FDHs. Random home visits could be carried out to ensure that FDHs’ working conditions are up to standard. Moreover, it is essential to educate employers that FDHs work in their household under a contract. They are legal workers in Hong Kong and are protected under the Hong Kong law. Although the live-in policy increases difficulties in reporting abusive cases, it does not shield one from bearing civil liabilities. Erwiana’s case proved that modern slavery is never possible in a civilized society. However, the discussion on the rights of FDHs does not end here. Comparison of conditions for maids in Hong Kong can be made to that of other countries. Hong Kong can incorporate positive aspects from other places into its local FDH policies. It is also essential to address the gap between perception and expectations from employers and employees. FDHs undoubtedly play an unsung role in Hong Kong’s economy by enabling both parents to work while they take care of the household, it is time to show gratitude and respect to these unsung heroes in the society by fighting for their rights and safety in their workplace.