“I worked from 6am to 12:30am or until the employer went to bed. I was not allowed to sleep unless she went to bed. She didn’t like me resting or sitting around… I didn’t have a rest day, instead on Sundays, my employer made me work at her agency cooking and selling Indonesian food” – ‘D.E’. (speaking to Amnesty International) was made to work over 18hrs a day, 7 days a week.
This case is not uncommon as Hong Kong is one of the last remaining developed economies with no maximum working hours rules for employees… Although the law does guarantee a weekly rest day, some domestic workers are prevented from taking even this… Working long and unpredictable hours, without proper rest or compensation, can impact health and well-being – yet Hong Kong has failed to ensure safe and fair working environments for domestic workers.
• Helpers ‘on call’ 24/7: Amnesty International’s November 2013 report (pg.55) on the trafficking of Indonesian domestic workers to Hong Kong found the average number of working hours per day was 17 (pg.10), although many were ‘on call’ 24 hours a day. This is a direct result of the ‘live-in’ rule whereby helpers are required to live within their employers’ home, making enforcement of mandatory rest extremely difficult.
• No regulation of hours: Hong Kong workers, across all industries, work 49 hours per week on average. The city has the fifth longest yearly working hours among a study of 72 countries. In Singapore and China, working hours are legally capped at 44 per week. In most of the EU, 48 hours is the maximum, while France limits workers to 35 hours per week.
• Helpers excluded from new law? There are no legal guidelines (for any local workers) covering maximum working hours, daily maximum hours or overtime limits and pay. Though the government has begun to debate the issue, domestic helpers fear they will be excluded from new limits, just as they were from minimum wage legislation. Hong Kong is also yet to sign up to the new ILO international standards for domestic workers which guarantee basic rights such as rest time (pg.11)
• Powerless workers: Shortly after the handover from Britain to China in 1997, Hong Kong repealed (2003, Asia Monitor Resource Centre, pg.9) laws regarding collective bargaining and anti-union discrimination, harming workers’ ability to negotiate for better working conditions.
• Signing blank contracts: Legally, working hours must be detailed as part of domestic helper contracts (Amnesty, pg.35). The contract must be signed in front of a labour affairs government official prior to a workers’ arrival in the city. However, helpers often never sign a contract, are never given a copy, and/or are not aware that employers are legally obligated to provide a contract. Some sign blank contracts (pg.38) in their home countries.
• Language barrier: Contracts are frequently presented in English, and translated copies are often not provided for workers, leading to misunderstandings about working conditions.
• Quality of life: Forcing domestic migrant workers to work long hours harms their mental and physical well-being, prohibiting them from having a life outside of work, partaking in civic life, spending time with friends and pursuing alternative interests such as education.
HK Helpers Campaign is fighting in the public sphere and in the courtroom. Through our three campaign points, we are calling on the Hong Kong government to…
- …scrap the mandatory ‘live-in’ rule and make it optional for helpers to ‘live-in’ from the outset.
- …scrap the 2-week rule and/or allow helpers to either remain employed or remain in HK whilst legal challenges are being pursued.
- …ensure helpers are not excluded from upcoming maximum working hours legislation.
- …develop an inspection and complaints mechanism to ensure fair and humane working conditions as per ILO recommendations.
- …waive visa extension costs for domestic helpers suing their employers for abuse and give them shelter, interpreters and assistance during the process.
- …properly regulate and inspect helper recruitment agencies.
- …prosecute and sanction those who violate HK law (e.g. by charging excessive fees or confiscating ID documents).
- …tighten the provision of money lender and employment agency licences, meaningfully punishing abuses.
- …increase the HK$50,000 (US$6448) penalty for overcharging placement fees to a more meaningful level.
- …extend the 6-month limit for bringing prosecutions under the Employment Ordinance.
- …tell Beijing to ratify the ILO Domestic Workers Convention, a ground-breaking international treaty adopted in 2011 establishing the first global standards for domestic work.
We call on Hong Kong’s helper employment agencies to:
- …abide by HK law and by keeping proper records and charging no more than HK$401 in placement fees to helpers.
- …stop referring helpers to money lenders.
We call on Hong Kong’s money lenders to:
- …decline applications from helpers referred by employment agencies.
- …stop contacting helper’s employers to apply pressure for repayment.
- …audio record all representations when helpers sign up for a loan.
Do you believe the current situation is unjust?
Click here to find out how you can support the HK Helpers Campaign.