21 March 2019
Changes in both demand and supply have led to a general shortage of domestic helpers in Hong Kong. Photo: China Daily
Changes in both demand and supply have led to a general shortage of domestic helpers in Hong Kong. Photo: China Daily

Hong Kong’s domestic helper system should be revamped

A domestic helper lost Hong Kong’s first judicial review of its “live-in” rule on Wednesday, but the reality is that given the exorbitant property prices, providing a separate room for foreign domestic helpers can easily cost several million Hong Kong dollars.

Hong Kong started to import foreign domestic helpers in 1960s, and the Employment Ordinance has included regulations concerning foreign domestic helpers since 1973.

However, both internal and external circumstances have changed dramatically since then.

Foreign domestic helpers were not common in the past. But now Taiwan, Russia, the Middle East and mainland China, in particular, all have great demand for foreign domestic helpers.

On the supply side, the Philippines and Indonesia, traditional sources of foreign domestic helpers, have been posting robust economic growth in recent years, and as such, residents there have less motivation to work overseas as maids.

Such changes in demand and supply have led to a general shortage of domestic helpers.

Meanwhile, families in Hong Kong have generally become much smaller.

In the past, a typical middle-class family might have five or more members, including parents, grandparents and several children. Now, the common size is a family of three.

Also, most Hong Kong households are living in tiny apartments. Hiring a maid would mean squeezing both the already limited living space and the tight family budget.

Given these changes, an hourly worker system might be more suitable for Hong Kong nowadays.

Thus, it would be good for the Hong Kong government to review some of the rules under the Employment Ordinance to allow “live-out” helpers on top of the existing “live-in” model.

For example, agents can provide board and lodging for foreign domestic helpers, who will work in one or more families as hourly workers. That would lower the costs for accessing their services.

On the other hand, foreign domestic helpers could enjoy full freedom after work as well as more flexible work hours.

A rating system like the one used by Uber for its driver-partners can be considered. Employers can rate each part-time domestic helper based on their job performance. Helpers who get the highest scores will get more job opportunities and can ask for higher wages. Likewise, helpers can also rate their employers.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 15

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist

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