Behind Closed Doors: Hong Kong’s ‘Helper’ Culture
Stepping out of my building on my first Sunday in Hong Kong over a year ago, I was greeted by a number of things; shouts from street vendors, the powerful spiced scent of frying meat, blazing sunshine. I had become accustomed to most of these sensations over the preceding days, but one thing was puzzling. Overnight, it seemed, an entirely new cast of characters had appeared in my cramped neighbourhood and were now encamped in the street. They took over benches, walkways and several sought-after patches of shade cast by the towering skyscrapers that make this city famous. These were not beggars, these were casually dressed, bright-eyed women. They sat upon ragtag pieces of cardboard or yoga mats, chatting amiably amongst themselves. They sheltered from the heat under motley umbrellas and napped idly in the afternoon sun, but where had they come from?
Sunday has long been established in many cultures as a day for rest, a day for worship and a day for family; Hong Kong is no different. Immense crowds flock to churches, trek the many hiking trails and crowd the beaches. Playgrounds and parks are particularly busy, as a young and vibrant population pushes their toddling youngsters to feel some grass beneath their feet; a rarity in this urban jungle.
Sundays also bring about a rarer and more unique phenomenon, however, and it can be startling to those who aren’t expecting it. These thousands of women that spill out into the streets each Sunday are not homeless, at least not permanently. They are Foreign Domestic Helpers, and for six days of week, they reside in the enormous skyscrapers in whose shadows they now shelter.
Foreign Domestic Helpers (‘helpers’, ‘maids’ or ‘nannies’) exist in many parts of the world, but are most prevalent in Hong Kong. They help families to take care of their children, assist the elderly, cook meals and clean homes. There are more than 324,000 helpers here, representing 4.5% of the population, and almost all are female. They arrive predominantly from the Philippines and Indonesia seeking work and an escape from the poverty of their home nations. In Hong Kong, these women are afforded an opportunity to lift not just themselves but their family out of the poverty into which they were born.
The Hong Kong dollar is a strong international currency, and even though they are paid less than minimum wage, they will earn far more than they could ever hope to at home. The work comes at a cost, however; one far greater than enduring each Sunday in the bustling streets of this Asian mecca. Potential workers will find themselves faced by a number of challenges as they attempt to make an honest wage, the first of which arises before they come within sight of Hong Kong’s skyline.
Prior to travelling to Hong Kong, each woman must register with an employment agency, who will train them, market them and match them with an employer. Although many have reported good working relationships with their agencies, some agencies are notoriously extortionate.
Hong Kong law dictates a maximum agency fee (which covers the cost of training and visa processing) of HK$401 (US$52) but helpers are routinely asked to pay much more. Amnesty International found that 85% women from Indonesia are forced to pay fees averaging HK$21,000 (US$2,709), over fifty times the limit. The average Indonesian minimum wage is just over HK$1,100 (US$146) per month. It is virtually impossible to be hired as a Foreign Domestic Helper without going through an agency, and it is often difficult to ascertain which are genuine.
Once these fees have been paid and employment has been secured, any helper attempting to leave their employer for any reason may be required to compensate the agency for breach of contract. This immediately puts these women in a very difficult position. Large sums of money need to be invested up front and even more money will be owed if things don’t work out. Considering that many helpers put themselves into debt simply to fund their transit to Hong Kong, enormous financial pressure is already exerting itself during the first steps of this intimidating journey.
The ‘Live-In’ Rule
All helpers are required to sign a minimum two-year contract with their employer. One particularly controversial clause of this contract states that the helper must reside with the family that employs them. This ‘live in’ clause coupled with the fact that most Hong Kong apartments are extremely small results in many issues. Not only are the helpers perpetually on-call, but they are often forced to live in unsuitable conditions. Many helpers are lucky to be granted a shared room with one or two of the family children. Others have reportedly been allocated kitchens, hallways and toilets to sleep in.
Some employers have attempted to circumvent these rules and allow helpers to live in their own accommodation, affording them independence and decent living conditions, but have subsequently been raided and reprimanded by Immigration Officials. Due to the “false representation” of the employment contract, offenders are liable to prosecution that is punishable by a maximum fine of HK$150,000 (US$19,350) and imprisonment for 14 years. Offenders may also be banned from hiring another helper if found guilty, and the helpers in question will be deported and blacklisted from working in Hong Kong. Even if both the family and the helper wish her to live in separate accommodation, this is not an option.
The ‘Two Week’ Rule
Another clause in the standard helper contract which has attracted much criticism is the ‘two week rule’. This states that ‘migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong must find new employment and obtain an approved work visa within two weeks of the expiration or premature termination of their employment contract. Failing that, they must leave Hong Kong.’
By mandating this tiny two-week window in which helpers must find a new employer after their contract ends or is terminated, the government has effectively made such a task impossible. Not only this, but the Immigration Department has begrudgingly stated that even those women who can find a new employer immediately are subject to a waiting period of ‘about 4 to 6 weeks’ for a new visa, once all documentation has been received.
Dismissed helpers are therefore forced to leave Hong Kong or risk permanent deportation if found to be residing illegally. One unfortunate woman who found herself in this position reported to Amnesty International that she had to ‘spend one month in Macau and when my Macau visa ran out, one week in China. In Macau, I stayed at a studio apartment with about 60 other Indonesian domestic workers — we were all from the same placement agency and all waiting for our Hong Kong work visa to be processed.’
In 2013, a UN report called on Hong Kong to ‘review and repeal the “two-week rule” and to address discrimination and abuse against migrant domestic workers as a consequence of this rule.’ As of the time of writing, no such steps have been taken.
Suffering in Silence
In addition to these ‘official’ rulings by the government which restrict freedom of movement and can cause financial paralysis, some helpers are also subject to abuse in many forms from employers and agencies. As well as the excessive and illegal agency fees, some have reported being denied a mandatory rest day, which by Hong Kong law should be granted for every seven working days. A rest day is defined as ‘‘a continuous period of not less than 24 hours during which an employee is entitled […] to abstain from working for his employer’.
Those that are lucky enough to be granted a rest day are usually given a Sunday. This is the time when parents wish to spend some quality time with their children, and helpers will congregate in the streets and parks around Hong Kong. Some, however, are not granted a rest day, and are forbidden from seeing other helpers. Many are granted leave but remain ‘on call’, and some have spoken out about being allocated administrative or secretarial work in place of rest days.
‘I was given only one rest day per month’, said one, ‘either Monday or Tuesday. My employer purposely didn’t allow me to go out on Sundays because she didn’t want me to mix with other Indonesian domestic workers. She got very angry whenever I talked to other Indonesians in the apartment complex. Also during my day off, my employer said I could only spend it at the placement agency.’
A denial of rest days (or full days, in some cases) is just the beginning. Many workers complain of a lack of food — more than a third of Indonesian migrant domestic workers interviewed by Amnesty International stated that they were not given enough to eat nor were they provided with a food allowance.
Others are banned from religious practices by employers, predominantly Muslim women from Indonesia. ‘When I first arrived, my employing family sternly told me that I would not be allowed to pray in their home. If I ever prayed or fasted, they would terminate my contract,’ recalled one.
Over 60% of women interviewed by Amnesty International reported that they had been ‘subject to physical or psychological (verbal) abuse, and/or threats. Employers threatened to terminate their contract or “send them back to Indonesia” if they didn’t “work harder”. Common psychological abuse included calling the helper “stupid”, “deaf”, “lazy”, “crazy”, “useless”, “rubbish”, “pig” and “dog”.’
It is impossible to tell how common such abuses are, and it is true that many domestic helpers are happy with their employers, the conditions of their employment and their accommodation. However, abuse has long been an issue for domestic helpers, and the recourse afforded to those suffering is minimal at best. Most are too afraid to speak out for fear of losing their only viable source of income. Others are intimidated or threatened with financial repercussions if they leave, such as having to repay over-the-top agency fees. There are a number of cases of helpers committing suicide while under financial stress, or following an accusation of wrongdoing by their employers. A few have spoken out and have subsequently been served well by the justice system, but unfortunately these cases are the exception rather than the rule.
There are a few rays of hope. Hong Kong officials have begun cracking down on some overcharging agencies, with 8 different agencies being found guilty of overcharging offences this year. An alternative to agencies is HelperChoice.com, a website that pairs potential helpers with employers and doesn’t charge helpers any referral fees whatsoever. The site is becoming more popular, and recently celebrated it’s 5,000th match.
One former domestic helper who made headlines in 2014 when she was awarded a prestigious Magnum Foundation Human Rights scholarship from New York University. Xyza Cruz Bacani received help from her employer to fund her hobby and soon gained a reputation as a stunning street photographer, resulting in her being offered the scholarship.
The introduction to her exhibition on Hong Kong states ‘I’ve always badly wanted to feel like this is my second home, but tragically I have never felt like I belong, and have recently come face to face with the reality that I’ve spent nearly a decade of my life here, living in complete isolation.’
There are also women who have spoken out against abuse and achieved some measure of justice — shining examples to scores of others who are suffering in silence. An anonymous Filipino domestic helper, known only as PN, was able to escape from her abusive employers in Vancouver to flee to a women’s refuge. Her case has since reached Canadian courts, and she has been awarded C$55,000 in back pay and damages in response to her complaint of discrimination against her employers. Her case brought the issue of Domestic Helper abuse into the spotlight, simply due to the fact that the abuse was perpetrated in Canada as well as Hong Kong.
However, it appears that very little will change in the immediate future, at least in terms of government policy. The official response to the Hong Kong government to multiple appeals for policy changes has been neutral, if not defensive. Norma Kang Muico, a representative of Amnesty International describes her difficulty in opening a dialogue with the Hong Kong government, saying ‘multiple attempts have been made to reach out to the Hong Kong authorities, in particular the Secretary for Labour and Welfare. They’ve resisted and refused to meet with us.’
Some organisations working to improve conditions for domestic helpers include the HK Helpers Campaign and HDH (Help for Domestic Helpers). Please visit their sites to learn more or donate what you can.