26 February 2020
There are about 390,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, the bulk of them coming from the Philippines and Indonesia. Photo: Bloomberg
There are about 390,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, the bulk of them coming from the Philippines and Indonesia. Photo: Bloomberg

HK to feel impact as China opens up to foreign domestic workers

Since the 1970s, Hong Kong has adopted a more liberal policy than the mainland when it comes to hiring foreign domestic workers: citizens are allowed to hire imported labor if they are unable to recruit suitable workers in the city.

There are about 390,000 foreign domestic workers (FDWs) in Hong Kong. They are mainly of Southeast Asian and South Asian heritage, with the bulk coming from the Philippines and Indonesia. According to government data, more than 180,000 Filipino nationals live in the city, most of them working as domestics.

The mainland, on the other hand, has been relying mainly on internal migrant workers to take up domestic duties for those who are relatively well-off. This despite a reported shortage of 7 million domestics in the country.

In recent years, however, the mainland has been relaxing its policy toward foreign labor, allowing foreigners and permanent residents of Hong Kong and Macau to hire FDWs in some Chinese cities, including Shanghai and Guangdong.

It appears that the central government is testing the waters before fully opening the country to an influx of FDWs in order to fill the gap.

The recruitment of Filipino FDWs is becoming a very appealing proposition in the mainland due to the country’s economic growth, the women’s growing independence, and the Filipino nationals’ competitive English proficiency, among other reasons.

Secretary for Labour and Welfare Dr. Law Chi-kwong warned that such a policy could have a substantially adverse impact on Hong Kong’s long-term economic development.

If the mainland could offer FDWs wages that are double the level they are currently receiving in the city, Law predicted that half of the Filipino FDWs in Hong Kong would leave for jobs across the border.

Currently, FDWs in the mainland earn as much as 6,000 to 7,000 yuan (US$864.73 to US$1,008.85) per month, far exceeding what their counterparts are receiving in Hong Kong, which is HK$5,205 (US$669.63) including food allowance. Despite the yearly review of the FDW wage level in the city, the increases in their earnings have often been below their expectations.

It is urgent for the Hong Kong government, in the short term, to adjust the FDW’s minimum wage yearly based on the inflation rate, in order to maintain their basic financial wellbeing. In the long term, the government should consider further raising their wage level and food allowance.

This will minimize their need to take on other informal and illegal jobs in the city, which could lead to their being fined or even deported.  Raising their wages would also help retain their services and deter them from seeking job opportunities elsewhere.

By 2050, It is estimated that Hong Kong will need 240,000 additional FDWs. Raising their remuneration can help attract more foreign nationals to fill the widening gap between FDW supply and demand in the city.

It is also necessary for the Hong Kong government to improve FDWs’ overall job satisfaction. A major issue that has to be addressed is the mandatory live-in requirement for FDWs. This policy has made domestics particularly vulnerable to abusive employers.

Only by improving FDWs’ overall job satisfaction can Hong Kong enjoy an edge over neighboring countries and regions in the recruitment of quality domestic helpers.

– Contact us at [email protected]


The author is a visiting researcher at Stanford University, a Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) fellow at Clinton Foundation and a young leader at Pacific Forum.