Hong Kong foreign domestic helpers face “big insult” after meagre $140 wage increase

The Hong Kong government announced that the minimum wage for foreign domestic helpers (FDHs) will be increased from $4,730 to $4,870 Hong Kong dollars (HKD) per month following an annual review on September 30.  

It was increased by only 2.95 percent from the previous year despite being frozen in 2020 and 2021, with the government citing the impact of COVID-19 on the economy. 

A government spokesperson said the adjustments were made after a careful assessment of several factors. This included Hong Kong’s general economic and labour market conditions over the year, the affordability for employers and the livelihoods of FDHs. 

The announcement comes as a disappointment to several domestic worker unions in Hong Kong, who previously urged authorities to increase the wage to more than $6,000 HKD ahead of the annual review, a figure based upon Oxfam’s Living Wage report in 2018. 

Foreign domestic helpers and staff at FADWU pose for a picture while holding signs protesting their demands in August 2023. (Source: FADWU Facebook page)

A separate press release by the Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Union (FADWU) complained about real wage losses for a decade due to inflation. It also demanded other amendments, such as the disclosure of the method to calculate the Minimum Allowable Wage (MAW), the stipulation of working hours in the employment contract and free shelters for terminated domestic helpers. 

Since their arrival in the 1970s, Hong Kong’s 390,000 FDHs have faced difficulties due to low wages, weak labour laws that create legal loopholes, and lax prosecution of abuse by employers. Although FDHs play a crucial role in Hong Kong’s economy and daily life by allowing women to return to the workforce, their own rights are largely neglected. 

Most FDHs arrive in Hong Kong via recruitment agencies, which are notorious for illegally overcharging and exploiting them. 

While the law states that agencies may only charge job-seeking FDHs 10 percent of their first month’s salary, the FADWU found that in cases related to workers being overcharged by agencies last year, the average fee charged was around $19,000 HKD, 56 percent higher than the $12,000 average overcharge in 2021. 

Moreover, there are no laws regarding standardised working practices and living conditions. Live-in laws and the absence of maximum working hours also create a lack of work-life separation and can increase the chances of overworking. Cramped living spaces in Hong Kong may lead to substandard living conditions and little privacy for FDHs, such as sleeping in living rooms or bathrooms. 

Julie, a 60-year-old Filipina domestic helper, sleeps in a room roughly 3 meters long and 1 meter wide, just enough for a bed and a small cabinet. “It is really hot in there during the summer (as there is no air conditioning), but at least I have some privacy,” she said. 

A picture showing Julie’s “bedroom” at her employer’s house. (Source: Julie)

With such working conditions and dismal pay, these migrant women are put in unequal and vulnerable positions, placing them at higher risk of exploitation and abuse. This has been reflected in reports conducted by various groups. 

Findings from a report by the EOC published in 2014 showed that in 2013, the EOC handled a total of 282 employment-related complaints, with 40 percent pertaining to sexual harassment, showing an increasing trend from previous years.

Conditions have worsened since the COVID-19 outbreak. A 2021 survey found that reports of sexual abuse and harassment suffered by FDHs tripled during the previous year, while another found that 40,000 workers were not given any rest days during the pandemic.

Hong Kong law stipulates that every maid is entitled to a 24-hour day off every week, apart from statutory holidays and paid annual leave. 

Three domestic helpers sit on the ground at a park in North Point, Hong Kong on their day off on Sunday. (Source: Catherine Chan)

“(Even if I am not treated well), I can’t leave. My four children need me to graduate high school and have a good life,” said Esel, a 42-year-old domestic helper from the Philippines.

She also added that she had originally planned to become a teacher in the Philippines, but the salary was not enough to support her family. This prompted her to seek a job as an FDH in Hong Kong instead. 

If Hong Kong aims to become a more progressive and fair society, practices surrounding the recruitment and treatment of FDHs must first be tackled. Perceptions towards FDHs being “third-class citizens” must change. Employers must treat their workers with not just common decency, but also empathy and kindness. It is crucial that the government reviews existing laws and puts into place cohesive plans to better protect domestic helpers. 

Singapore has a mandatory 1-day orientation program for new FDHs to educate them about safety precautions and living in Singapore. FDHs are not allowed to start work until they have completed the orientation. Moreover, potential employers must fulfil several criteria and be assessed on a case-by-case basis by the Ministry of Manpower before becoming eligible. 

In comparison, Hong Kong only requires the employer to be a permanent Hong Kong resident and to have a monthly household income of $15,000, a figure which has not been amended in decades.

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