Foreign Domestic Helpers Under Pandemic and Road to Recovery

Foreign domestic helpers have made significant contributions to Hong Kong society over the past few decades. According to the Immigration Department, there were about 340k foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong by the end of 2021, and most were from Philippines and Indonesia.

Why do Hong Kong people need domestic helpers? The fast-paced lifestyle is a significant reason. Hectic working schedule makes it difficult for HongKongers to take care of both family and work, and hiring domestic helpers becomes a wise choice to lessen their stress. Typical duties of domestic helpers include preparing meals, cleaning rooms, babysitting, and doing the laundry—they take care of most housework for their employers’ families.

Disrupted Sunday Gathering

Making up almost 10% of the city’s labour force, domestic helpers have become the backbone of the Hong Kong society. Being day off every Sunday, domestic helpers usually congregate in public spaces in Central and Admiralty. This is the only day that they could get out of their employers and spend time with their friends every week. Some domestic helpers will gather in Status Square on Sunday, selling clothes and groceries. While others will sit in groups to share food, play cards, and take photos to make a “fun day”.

Domestic workers’ Sunday outgoing (Video: Our Human Planet)

However, earlier this year, pandemic distancing measures prohibited group gatherings of more than two people in public places, which made domestic workers unable to enjoy even their only day off per week—with no spaces of their own, many of them had no choice but to stay in their employers’ houses. Moreover, flouting the gathering ban incurred fines for domestic helpers, which were even higher than their monthly salaries.

Foreign domestic helpers on their Sunday rest day sit under a sign on pandemic distancing measures in Hong Kong’s Central area on February 20, 2022, amid the city’s worst-ever coronavirus outbreak. (Photo by Bertha WANG / AFP)

Suffering From Complicated Travelling Rules

The ever-changing pandemic regulations in Hong Kong confused many domestic helpers, and made their life in Hong Kong much more challenging. In May, oversea travellers were required to take PCR tests on designated dates after arrival. Nevertheless, there lacked clear guidance and supervision to carry out the regulation.

Anna, a domestic helper who arrived in Hong Kong in May, was fined HK$10,000 for missing arrival PCR tests in July. She claimed that she had no idea which test she missed, and neither of her employers nor agency had informed her about this.

Anna was only one of many helpers who have been fined for more than double of their monthly salaries. Facing a language barrier, many domestic helpers could hardly understand the complicated pandemic regulations, and appealing fines to the government became almost impossible.

“It was the toughest time that I have ever experienced in Hong Kong. Every day I was afraid of being infected as I have nowhere to quarantine.”

     — Domestic helper Jane (nickname)

Hong Kong Opening Up: Opportunities and Challenges for Domestic Helpers

With the opening up of Hong Kong and the relaxation of COVID-19 rules, domestic helpers’ lives seem to get back on track. Sunday gathering has returned to normal these days, with thousands of domestic helpers hanging out in Central every week.

A contrast juxtapose of Central on Sunday and normal working day (Photos: Victoria Li, Nov 20 & 24, 2022)

In addition, in September, the government announced a raise in the Minimum Allowable Wage (MAW) of domestic helpers by 2.2%, from HK$4630 to HK$4730 per month, starting from October 1.

This new level aims to provide domestic helpers with more disposable income to live in Hong Kong, which indicates that the government took the pandemic impact on domestic helpers into consideration.

Foreign domestic workers sit in groups to meet their friends on Sunday in Central (Photo: Victoria Li, Nov 20, 2022)

However, it is questionable to conclude whether such an increase of HK$100 can help with domestic helpers’ lives. “Honestly, HK$100 cannot change anything about my life. Hong Kong is so expensive,” Eva, a Pakistani domestic helper who asked to go by her nickname, said, “I believe most domestic helpers will agree with me. Living in Hong Kong will likely cost you even more than many European and American cities.”

The road to recovery is still long, and domestic helpers are facing challenges from various aspects. Encouraged, many NGOs and institutions are offering help to those suffered from pandemic impact, and domestic helpers in Hong Kong are gaining more attention from the society.

(Feature image: Victoria Li)

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