What is the HK Helpers Campaign?
We are a small, independent, diverse group of volunteer activists working closely with helpers and Hong Kong NGOs to promote the rights of local Foreign Domestic Workers. Our objective is to amplify the voices of workers by linking them, and relevant NGOs, with those in the media, law, politics and academia. We aim to apply pressure to successfully achieve our three basic campaign points… To (1) scrap the ‘two-week’ law, (2) to enforce maximum working hours and (3) to end illegal agency fees. The live-in law and two-week rule discourage helpers from escaping abusive situations, whilst illegal agency fees can leave newly arrived maids indebted for months on end. For more on who we are and how we hope to achieve these aims, please click here.
With regards to scrapping the ‘live-in’ law – Hong Kong has a housing crisis. How can it accommodate over 300,000 foreign domestic workers if they were to ‘live out’?
As a human rights matter, it is important that Hong Kong complies with basic international employment standards. This is separate to HK’s housing issues, which affect everyone, but nevertheless, most NGOs and this campaign are calling for ‘living in’ to be optional. As our dedicated page on this issue reveals, only around a third (35%) would actually choose to ‘live out’ (Mission for Migrant Workers survey pg.17). Helpers must be given the choice on this matter, as the current law enables abusive situations and is an affront to the dignity and independence of migrant workers.
Foreign domestic workers earn a meagre income – if they were to ‘live out’, wouldn’t they have to live in ‘cage homes’ and sub-divided flats?
Current domestic helpers who risk ‘living out’ tend to share dormitory-style accommodation with fellow helpers in affordable areas of Hong Kong. Most NGOs are also fighting for a rise in the minimum wage for foreign domestic workers. Salaries need to rise and track inflation in order for Hong Kong to comply fully with international pressure to drop the ‘live in’ rule.
How exactly do foreign domestic workers benefit Hong Kong society and its economy?
Helpers are arguably the backbone of HK’s middle class and the engine of its economy. Over 300,000 workers leave their loved ones to care for our children, the elderly and run our homes – allowing Hong Kong families to earn double incomes. Since the introduction of foreign domestic workers in the 1970s, they have added immeasurable value to the local economy by helping the city to mobilise its female workforce.
Won’t relaxing the ‘two week law’ encourage ‘job-hopping’ as foreign domestic workers will be freed to ‘shop around’ employers?
There is little evidence of any trend whereby helpers repeatedly change employer to receive severance benefits. In late 2013, the Immigration Department made it even more difficult for helpers to switch employers in response to lobby groups such as the HK Employers of Domestic Helpers Association. However, local NGOs insist such a high-risk ‘scam’ makes no sense for helpers, who are hit with high fees when changing contracts and are effectively homeless when not employed. A 2006 HKU study (pg.24) found, in fact, that the ‘two-week’ law “encouraged employers to violate the standard form contract and to ‘maid hop’… putting a ‘menace of penalty’ in the hands of every employment agent and employer“.
What are agencies charging for?
In Indonesia, agencies tend charge excessive amounts for ‘training’ – i.e. Cantonese language lessons, how to use a washing machine etc… However, many helpers feel scammed and question how much they are learning at what are often considered sub-standard ‘maid boot camps’. In the Philippines, charges are for a variety of ‘costs’, as direct commissions and placement fees are illegal. Some agencies, for instance, have been known to charge for compulsory t-shirts or jackets to be worn on the flight to Hong Kong.
Why has no-one thought of opening an ethical agency? Can you recommend an agency?
We do not know of any such agencies abroad and cannot endorse any company. However, Maid for You in Hong Kong claims to be ethical.
Aren’t there worse people off in Hong Kong like refugees and ‘cage people’? Aren’t helpers worse off in the Middle East?
These are fallacies of relative privation. The plight of some marginalised groups within the HK community (such as refugees and ‘cage’ people) are finally gaining some spotlight and momentum in the media and in the courts. But there has been little progress for domestic helpers. Our campaign aims to change this. Also, whilst conditions are worse for helpers elsewhere, we believe HK can set the standard for employment practices and needn’t look to other countries to justify a ‘race to the bottom’ in defining what is acceptable treatment.
I am just one person – how can I help?