BLOG – ‘Live-in’ Rule Hurts Helpers & Employers 8

This week, 20 immigration officers visited Ma Wan village on Park Island to arrest four domestic workers, whose crime was living under a different roof than their employers.

Two employers of one of the women were also arrested and later released on bail. The male employer told the South China Morning Post: “Some employers that have a live-in nanny make them work up to 18 hours a day and some I know don’t even get a day off.”

An immigration officer reported that the four women were arrested on suspicion of making false representations to an immigration officer. Under clause three of the standard employment contract, both parties agree that the domestic worker will live at the same premises as the employer.

According to the Hong Kong Labour Department, infringing clause three is akin to making a false representation to an immigration officer, and carries a maximum punishment of $150,000 in fines and 14 years in prison. Domestic workers accused of the same could be black-listed and deported. By contrast, in the recent trial against a local Hong Kong employer for grievous bodily harm with intent, the accused faces a maximum jail time of seven years if found guilty.

In a recent consultation, the UN High Commission on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) questioned the morality of Hong Kong’s ‘live in’ rule. In response, the Hong Kong government representative committee stated:

“The employers’ affordability in providing separate accommodation to their FDHs, the additional  medical costs, insurance and other risks by allowing FDHs to live out as well as  issues such as the additional pressure on private housing and public transportation,  etc. should also be fully taken into account.” 

While it is true that some families are not able to afford to provide separate accommodation, the statement above fails to acknowledge that at the same time, providing accommodation for a live-in worker is not ideal or cost effective for every family.

Live in Rule Hong Kong



A 2013 Mission for Migrant Workers report found that 25% of domestic workers lived in kitchens, corridors, storage rooms or with their employer’s children. As indicated by the shared housing case above, cost effective solutions can be found that give workers and their employers greater privacy.

The ‘pressure’ on private housing and public transportation that would allegedly be caused by domestic workers who would chose to live out is minute in comparison to the 54 million people that visit Hong Kong each year.

Why would Hong Kong promote tourism and real estate investment to foreigners, yet discourage domestic workers from supporting these systems?

“The importation of FDHs has been allowed to meet the acute and long-standing shortage of full-time live-in domestic helpers in the local labour market. Any change to the requirement that FDHs must reside in employers’ residences (the ‘live-in’ requirement) will go against the rationale for importing FDHs and the fundamental policy that local employees should enjoy priority in employment.” (emphasis added)

Though no one is questioning the right of local people have job preference, the Hong Kong government has not explained how the live-in rule protects local employees. The statement above also seems to confuse ‘live-in’ with ‘full-time’.

A 2002 Caritas report negated this assumption, pointing out that foreign domestic workers take up more low-wage work, and that there was no direct competition between them and local workers.

Domestic workers hong kong

via Amnesty International

In the Ma Wan case above, the employer and employee negotiated an ideal arrangement that allowed her to live on her own, but still maintain full time hours– a decision denied to domestic workers, but given to other foreign workers in the city under current law.

By enforcing the live-in rule, the HKSAR is infringing on the rights of both the employer and employee to determine a working and living situation that is mutually acceptable.

The Hong Kong government also insists that requiring domestic workers to live with their employers is not abusive because domestic workers are aware of the situation before they accept employment:

“Such requirement has been made known to FDH before he/she assumes duty in the HKSAR.”

However, telling someone beforehand that you are going to infringe on their rights does not make it morally acceptable or legal under international conventions, including CEDAW.

The Hong Kong government has acknowledged that working hours and living requirements should be negotiated between employer and employee – however most arrangements are impossible to pre-determine as the negotiations are made between employment agencies and employers, with the domestic workers themselves completely left out.

It is true that the people in the SCMP’s article broke the law. However, the law is what needs to be changed and updated. Regardless of your stance on broader domestic workers rights, the ‘live-in’ rule takes away rights of both the employer and employee to determine their own living situation.

Join the fight for change at the HK Helpers Campaign Action Centre.

  • Llauren Dawn

    It is jot only the live out issue but also hours of work @ been there done that! And it is not right to work minimum of 18 hours a day 6 days a week . They should also consider the 8 hours a day work time and employers must pay overtime work . .. Most of the nanny’s are being abused.

  • Miranda Wong

    Not only do domestic helpers in HK not have a limited work day–NO ONE, by law, is guaranteed a limited work day in HK. I know PLENTY of local HK people who are working 16+ hours/day, 6 days/week for a pretty low salary (maybe $10-12K). And they don’t have their employer putting a roof over their head, feeding them and paying for their medical costs either. Yes, there is a lot of problems with the live-in situation but the reality is, there is not enough proper housing in HK to meet need–even for local people. How are they going to house the domestic helpers? It’s going to create more of a sub-divided “cage home” situation than solve any real problems. And the pictures above? While I am sure that does happen in HK, it’s hyperbole. Come take a look at our house. Our helper has her own 80 square-foot room, own bathroom and basically her own floor of our house! She works for a salary that is about 30% above market standard and works a 5-day week. She took two holidays this year (paid) totaling 50 days of paid holiday off and including her flights to and from her country. Let’s feature some of the GOOD employment situations for helpers in this city! I get sick of the pity party. There are extreme cases where helpers are mistreated–those need to be brought to light and dealt with but there are also PLENTY of situations where helpers put their employers through hell and prey upon their good graces. Let’s be more balanced!

    • Meredith

      Hi Miranda,

      That’s correct- Hong Kong does not have maximum working hour legislation for any workers. We would like to see this enforced not only for domestic workers but for all workers in Hong Kong- including your friends who work long hours. We need more people like you and your friends to tell the Labour Department that legislating working hours is a positive move for all workers, which you can do at our action centre:

      I’m happy that you treat your employee well. We are very much advocating that everyone would be better off if employers and employees had more liberty to determine living and working conditions. Most domestic workers, given the choice, would choose to live with their employer. The key here is that requiring them to do so deprives them of the freedom to determine their own living and working conditions.

      We have never once advocated that every single domestic worker is without flaws – we are all human. However the fact is that laws in Hong Kong strongly favor employers, at the detriment to these women.
      If you think the situations above are hyperbole, I would be happy to meet in person to chat about this in more detail and bring you to one of the shelters here for domestic workers so you can speak to some women in more detail about their living and working conditions here in Hong Kong. Feel free to email me at

      • Jonathan Davids

        I think a limited work day is a good idea, but how can that be regulated for domestic helpers? Wouldn’t it come down to the employer’s word against the employee’s word in the end?

        • Meredith

          Hi Jonathan – great question, and the short answer is yes- when/if a conflict escalates to the level of requiring mediation, it’s very difficult to prove either way. The ideal situation is to prevent these kinds of conflicts before they arise – which ties into our other campaign points: Indonesian women in particular often arrive with high agency fees, and are frequently told they cannot leave the job until these are paid off. The two week rule is akin to forcing the women to go home if their employment situation doesn’t work out, putting power in the hands of the employer. For other migrants like myself, I’m able to stay and search for work, subject to immigration approval, so I have more leverage to leave a job that perhaps was abusive of my working hours.

      • Rama

        This was such an amazing and graceful response. I’m honestly inspired by your attitude.

    • Art

      Miranda Wong, you say you get ‘sick of the pity party’. I find this comment extremely offensive.
      How often do we have stories in the mainstream media about maids being abused? How often do we read about employment agencies that break the law? Hardly at all, yet these things are common occurrences in Hong Kong. If you don’t believe me just go and look at some of the surveys that have been done.
      The reality is Hong Kong sweeps domestic helper problems under the carpet and does its best to deny they exist. People who support the government doing this are part of the problem.
      Hong Kong is lucky that there are people and groups who advocate helper rights.

  • Jonathan Davids

    Helpers should have the option of living out, if they can’t afford it, then they can live with their employer. I always think it’s a bullshit excuse to say that there isn’t enough landspace in HK to accomodate more housing – there are old industrial areas with millions of square metres of unused factory space that could be repurposed for homes.