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Maid in Hong Kong: Protecting Foreign Domestic Workers

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Maid in Hong Kong: Protecting Foreign Domestic Workers

A group of migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong protest the "live in" and "two week" rules at a demonstration. (Photo: International Domestic Workers Federation)

Hong Kong’s more than 340,000 foreign domestic workers, who comprise 5 percent of total population in the territory and can be found in one of every seven households, are uniquely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, notwithstanding provisions put in place to protect their basic rights.

A prosperous trade hub, Hong Kong became a desirable destination for foreign domestic workers starting in the mid-1970s, as several Southeast Asian countries began rapidly exporting female labor to more developed economies. Today the foreign domestic workforce in Hong Kong, which is overwhelmingly female, comes chiefly from the Philippines and Indonesia, with small numbers from Thailand, India, and Sri Lanka.

Abuse of domestic workers—one of the most exploited populations—is not unique to Hong Kong, but instead is widespread across other countries with significant numbers of foreign domestic workers, such as those in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Singapore. Although Hong Kong has in place certain provisions to protect the basic rights of foreign domestic workers, advocacy groups criticize these policies for leaving migrants susceptible to abuse by their employers. They argue that institutional policies further perpetuate a cycle of labor exploitation, including the exclusion of foreign domestic workers from Hong Kong’s statutory minimum wage law and prohibition on permanent residency. The government maintains its regulations offer adequate protection.

This article examines conditions at origin and destination that propel the migration of domestic workers to Hong Kong, and discusses the many challenges facing this population as well as policies that have been implemented or proposed to protect their rights.

Labor Outflow from the Philippines and Indonesia

Each year, hundreds of thousands of labor migrants leave the Philippines and Indonesia to seek work abroad, heading primarily to other countries in Southeast and East Asia and the Middle East. Poverty, lack of employment opportunities, and significant income disparities between their homelands and destinations are the main incentives for them to leave.

In the Philippines, this trend began in earnest in 1974 when the government began to actively encourage and facilitate labor emigration as a tool of economic development in response to high unemployment and poor economic conditions. In the years since, the Philippines has provided an abundant, relatively cheap labor supply to countries in the region and beyond. More than 10 million Filipinos lived abroad as of the start of 2014, nearly half of whom were temporary workers. Hong Kong was the sixth most popular international destination for temporary workers overall from the Philippines, after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Kuwait, and Qatar.

Underlying economic conditions in Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, have also fueled migration. High unemployment and low wages have motivated its citizens to seek jobs overseas. Moreover, facing a massive labor surplus, the Indonesian government in 1979 adopted a targeted labor export policy. This program initially focused on the Middle East, Malaysia, and Singapore, and was eventually expanded to Hong Kong in the 1990s.

In 2014, approximately 430,000 Indonesian workers entered the overseas labor market, nearly one-third as domestic workers and another 11percent as caregivers. Hong Kong was the fourth most popular destination for domestic workers from Indonesia, behind Malaysia, Taiwan, and Saudi Arabia.

Overview of Migrant Labor in Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s status as an economic powerhouse has contributed to its popularity as a destination for migrant workers from around the region. Ranked the fourth most densely populated territory or country in the world, Hong Kong is home to more than 7 million people. A deeply homogenous society, with residents of Chinese ethnicity constituting 93.5 percent of the population in 2011, Hong Kong’s small ethnic minority population is largely comprised of foreign domestic workers (57 percent).

From the 1930s to the 1950s, Hong Kong, then under British Crown rule, received a large refugee influx due to wars in mainland China. This exodus continued with the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Between 1931 and 1974, Hong Kong’s population quadrupled to almost 4,250,000. Plentiful low-skilled labor, particularly for manufacturing, and other resources supplied by immigrants contributed to the territory’s economic boom in the mid-20th century.

This boom, combined with growing numbers of women in the job market as labor laws were changed, led to rapid growth in dual-income families. As a result, demand increased for domestic workers to assist with household chores and caregiving. In an attempt to meet this demand, in 1973—coincidentally one year before the Philippines adopted a policy to facilitate labor migration—Hong Kong adopted a law introducing foreign labor in domestic work. Between 1973 and 2014, the number of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong grew to 330,650.

The Plight of Foreign Domestic Workers

Overall, immigration policy in Hong Kong plays a vital role in attracting foreign professionals and investors. Many laws put in place to protect foreign workers and attract high-skilled immigrants, however, specifically exclude domestic workers, leaving them particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

Although foreign professionals are eligible to apply for permanent residency after a seven-year stay, the law excludes foreign domestic workers from eligibility and does not allow them to bring their dependents with them. Domestic workers are obliged to leave Hong Kong at the end of their two-year employment contract to renew their work visa.

Foreign domestic workers are also explicitly excluded from statutory minimum wage provisions in Hong Kong, set at HK $32.5 (US $4.19) per hour. Instead, domestic workers get less than half the statutory minimum wage, earning an average HK $15.10 (US $1.95) hourly.

The “Live-In” Requirement and “Two-Week” Rule

Typically, foreign domestic workers work overtime because of a blurred boundary between life and work. The “live-in” requirement enforced by the government, which makes it compulsory for foreign domestic workers to live in the home of their employer, contributes to this. The result, migrant advocates say, is an adverse effect on privacy, working hours, and accommodations. Domestic workers work an average of 11.9 hours per day, six days a week, according to Justice Centre, a nonprofit migrant-rights organization. Meanwhile, high housing costs coupled with crowded conditions make it difficult for domestic workers to have private space. In a 2016 report that surveyed 1,049 domestic workers, Justice Centre found 39 percent did not have their own bedroom, 35 percent shared a room with a child or elderly individual, and 2 percent slept in a kitchen or another communal living space.

Hong Kong has one of the least affordable housing markets in the world. It is common for families of four to live within a space of about 50 square meters (540 square feet). An apartment of this size typically fetches around HK $4.5 million (US $580,121). A single room of roughly 5 square meters usually rents for more than HK $4,000 (US $516) per month, whereas the minimum monthly wage for domestic workers is HK $4,310 (US $556). So abolition of the live-in policy, absent a significant increase in wages, could lead to problems for domestic workers.

Beyond cramped housing conditions, isolation of domestic workers means that abuses by employers often go unreported. A 2013 survey conducted by another Hong Kong-based group, Mission for Migrant Workers, found that 58 percent of the more than 3,000 workers surveyed experienced verbal abuse in the home, 18 percent physical abuse, and 6 percent sexual abuse.

Another policy, the “two-week rule,” mandates that once foreign domestic workers quit or are let go, they must depart Hong Kong within two weeks. This policy, critics say, discourages domestic workers from seeking justice, for fear they could lose their jobs. It also makes finding a new employer difficult, as this process can take from four to six weeks. Moreover, a visa extension, the length of which varies by case, costs HK $190 (US $24), and during the extension application period migrants cannot work and must pay for their housing and food. Many domestic workers, therefore, choose to stay silent about abuses.

The Hong Kong government, which describes domestic worker migration as necessary to meet local labor market shortages, has rebuffed criticism of its domestic worker policies. Government officials argue it is essential to maintain the two-week rule for the sake of effective immigration control and to prevent foreign workers from changing jobs frequently or working illegally. The Immigration Department also emphasizes that its live-in policy prioritizes employment of local domestic workers who have their own accommodation over that of migrants, and the main purpose of the two-week rule is to offer migrants sufficient time to prepare for departure rather than to find a new employer.

Unfavorable Conditions at Destination and Origin

Long-term institutional exclusion and precarious economic conditions have deepened the social isolation of foreign domestic workers. When ethnic Chinese were surveyed about acceptance of minority groups in their neighborhood, Africans, South Asians, and Southeast Asians fared the worst, according to a 2012 survey by Hong Kong Unison, an advocacy group.

Although unfavorable conditions for migrants in receiving countries tend to draw the most public scrutiny, foreign domestic workers often face challenges before even setting out. Recruitment agencies profit from migrants to varying degrees, and countries including the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Indonesia have sought, with varying degrees of success, to regulate the recruitment process. The Philippines, for example, has regulations to protect migrant workers from excessive recruitment-related charges, including bans on charging placement fees, although enforcement is lax.

Many migrants who view a job overseas as the only recourse to sustain their families have no alternative but to borrow money at high interest rates from recruitment agencies or private lenders to pay for recruitment costs that are often excessively high. Usually, domestic workers pay back the loan in installments, which results in debt bondage by monthly wage deduction. This debt often takes several months to pay off, making newcomers even more vulnerable to exploitation by employers: now, they need work not only to support families left behind, but also to cover the debt.

Domestic workers also are prone to confiscation of their passport and work contract by recruitment agencies upon arrival, and are often denied receipts verifying their payments. Meanwhile, weak enforcement of recruitment agencies and others along the labor migration continuum leaves room for bad actors to operate. According to Hong Kong’s Labour Department, the maximum penalty that can be levied against employment agencies that overcharge clients or operate without a valid license is HK $50,000 (US $6,446). In 2015, a company was fined HK $4,000 (US $516) for operating without a license, while another was fined HK $8,000 (US $1,031) for overcharging workers—fines that some may see as the cost of doing business.

Protecting Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong

The Hong Kong Immigration Department provides a Guidebook for the Employment of Domestic Helpers from Abroad and a standard employment contract for both domestic workers and employers. The guidebook, in accordance with employment law, stipulates the employer must have a minimum monthly household income of no less than HK $15,000 (US $1,934). It also sets the monthly minimum wage for foreign domestic workers (HK $4,310, or US $556) and requirement for the provision of free food (or a monthly food allowance of no less than HK $1,037, or US $134), suitable accommodation with reasonable privacy, free medical treatment, statutory holidays, a weekly rest day (no less than 24 hours), and paid annual leave. After reviewing economic and employment conditions in Hong Kong and amid pressures from worker advocates, the government in September 2016 slightly raised the monthly minimum wage (from HK $4,210 to $4,310, an increase of US $13), and also increased the monthly food allowance from HK $990 to $1,037 (a boost of US $6), which apply to contracts signed from October 1, 2016 onward. Employers who pay less than the minimum wage can face fines up to HK $350,000 (US $45,121) and imprisonment for up to three years.

Domestic workers routinely face overtime work. Hong Kong has no policy on standard working hours, and does not cap maximum hours. In 2015, employees overall in Hong Kong worked 50.1 hours per week on average, according to a UBS Wealth Management study.

Sending-Country Response

Aware of the conditions their nationals face abroad, the Philippines and Indonesia have been taking steps to develop strategies to further protect labor migrants. In 2003, the Philippines imposed a temporary ban on domestic worker migration to Hong Kong. It was soon lifted, but caused a notable reduction in the number of Filipino domestic workers deployed there. The ban resulted from Hong Kong’s decision to impose a monthly levy of HK $400 (US $52) on employers of domestic workers—imposed to raise revenue in the wake of the SARS epidemic—which was passed along to the domestic workers by means of an equivalent cut in their minimum wage. Although still in place, the levy has not applied to foreign domestic workers since 2008.

Compared to the Philippines, which has a much longer history of labor migration and has developed a significant infrastructure that governs the deployment of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) and protection of their basic rights, Indonesia has been heavily criticized for not responding to human-rights violations against its migrant workers, particularly domestic workers. In 2003 Indonesia instituted a ban (which remains in place) on the deployment of domestic workers to the United Arab Emirates due to reports of exploitation; it had little impact, however, on the outflow of Indonesian domestic workers, who began to migrate via informal channels.

In recent years, Indonesia has become more proactive. The country set a goal of ending domestic worker emigration by 2017, amid worries about widespread mistreatment. The ban will first be applied to the Middle East, and then to other top destinations, including Hong Kong. Meanwhile, Indonesia is focused on establishing effective training programs for more highly skilled professionals, and hopes to move toward sending more highly skilled migrants abroad.

Lack of cooperation and differing policies between sending and receiving countries mean that mechanisms put in place to protect labor migrants sometimes come into conflict with other laws. For example, employers in Hong Kong can use licensed employment agencies to hire domestic workers, or can find them through personal ads; the Indonesian government, meanwhile, requires its nationals to be placed by an employment agency for a job overseas. Moreover, under a 2008 decree, the placement fee for Indonesian domestic workers heading to Hong Kong is Rp.15, 550,000 (about US $1,163). In 2015, Hong Kong urged the Indonesian government to reduce the fee, but the rate has not been changed.

Criticism from Nongovernmental Organizations

Recognizing the marginalized status of foreign domestic workers and the widespread abuse and often illegal treatment they face, myriad local groups in Hong Kong have emerged to advocate for and provide services to this population. Established in 1989 by a few lawyers, Helpers for Domestic Workers has provided free legal counseling to thousands of distressed foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, helping them understand their legal rights and learn the best way to protect those rights. To tackle excessive placement fees and work-related debt, Fair Employment Agency, a social enterprise founded in 2014, places domestic workers without charging them fees while levying standard service fees on employers. HK Helpers Campaign is engaged in lobbying and public awareness campaigns to scrap the two-week rule, enforce maximum working hours, and end illegal agency fees.

Meanwhile, international bodies, such as the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights have criticized the two-week rule and live-in requirement, and urged Hong Kong to adjust its policies to better protect domestic workers. And Amnesty International, in a 2013 report, accused the Indonesian and Hong Kong governments of failure to properly monitor, investigate, and sanction human-rights violators.

Looking Ahead

Against the backdrop of debate over the treatment of foreign domestic workers, Hong Kong is confronting the reality of an aging population. The territory has the world’s longest average life expectancy, spanning nearly 84 years. Government statistics estimate that the share of the population ages 65 and older will double by 2036. This greying of the population will have a substantial impact on the workforce. On one hand, the demand for public facilities, hospitals, and caregiving service is increasing; on the other, the shrinking workforce means fewer taxpayers and less public revenue.

Still, the government has expressed reluctance to relax immigration restrictions on foreign domestic workers, and continues to view them as temporary workers who fill a specific, short-term need. Concerns over greater demands on the educational system, other resources, and housing in an already overpopulated area all factor into the government’s stance.

Due to Hong Kong’s comparatively restrictive immigration policies toward domestic workers, North America is becoming a more popular destination. More domestic workers are choosing to go to Canada under the Live-In Caregiver Program, which allows migrant caregivers to apply to become permanent residents after 24 months (or 3,900 hours) of authorized full-time, live-in employment. While Canada and other destinations become more attractive for experienced foreign domestic workers with good command of English, such as those from the Philippines, Hong Kong remains hungry for domestic workers. The result is that the foreign domestic worker stream to Hong Kong is becoming more diverse, with a growing number of Bengalis, for example.

Hong Kong has much to gain from migration, as do the Philippines, Indonesia, and other sending countries, which benefit economically from remittances sent by their nationals abroad. Given what has already been accomplished, stakeholders at all levels of the foreign domestic worker migration chain can, through continued dialogue and collaboration, work to remedy abuses, fill critical policy gaps, and remove practical obstacles to protecting the interests of governments, employers, and domestic workers alike.

Research for this article was supported in part by the Open Society Internship for Rights and Governance, which is funded and administered by the Open Society Institute (OSI). The views are the author’s own.

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