Why domestic workers should be allowed to live out

May 12, 2016 12:11
An anonymous survey of domestic workers found that they were most concerned about living in their employer's apartment. Photo: HKEJ

Alisha stands apart from the other domestic helpers enjoying a Sunday afternoon in the park.

She says she has been in Hong Kong for a few months and has not made many friends.

She continually slides her thumb across the phone screen to check whether her sister is online so she can see her 17-month-old son back home in the Philippines.

''My sister takes care of my son. If I have free time, I immediately call him," she says.

"My biggest concern is when I go back home, my son will not recognize me and it hurts." 

Alisha, 40, wants to be known only by her first name.

She must return to her employers’ home by 8:30 p.m. to make dinner and do chores until midnight.

The normal workday lasts 17 hours made longer by the rude attitude of her employers.

The grandmother is the hardest on her.

“She is always telling me I am lazy, I am useless, and when it finally hurts me and I can't keep my temper I say 'tell this to your daughter and let me go home,' I don't care, I don't want to come back to Hong Kong again,'' Alisha says.

Alisha’s plight is familiar to Hongkongers.

As the Justice Center reported in March, one in six of the 336,000 domestic workers registered in Hong Kong has been exploited.

Yet, the buzz generated from the report died after a day or two, just like the press attention given to sensational cases of domestic helper abuse eventually fades.

What will it take for Hong Kong to change its laws to better protect domestic workers?

Many Hongkongers justify the legal regime by claiming it's superior to laws in other countries that host many foreign domestic workers.

That may be true but it’s a low bar for measuring fairness.

Hong Kong should take the lead and reform its system.

Domestic helpers are required by law to live in with their employers but the law leads to the exploitation of domestic workers.

To protect their rights, the Hong Kong government must abolish the ''live-in'' requirement, granting them a chance to live separately from their employees.

The government must require employers to provide their helpers with a housing allowance.

According to the law on domestic workers, employers must provide their domestic workers with food or give them an allowance of at least HK$995 per month, in addition to their monthly average salary of HK$4,210.

The workers have a right to a mandatory day off a week and a separate room.

But regulations on paper do not guarantee those are applied in practice.

An anonymous survey of domestic workers -- the only way they agreed to speak fearing further inquiry by their employers later -- found that they were most concerned about living in their employer's apartment.

''If you live with them, you are on the duty for 24 hours.''

''We would have privacy living separately, but it is impossible as the rent is very high.''

''I share the bedroom with the kids but I don't complain about it as it will not solve the problem. I'm used to it.''

In reply to media inquiries, the Hong Kong government released an announcement emphasizing that "importation of live-in FDHs to Hong Kong has been allowed primarily to meet the acute and long-standing shortage of full-time live-in domestic helpers in the local labor market. We do not have a serious shortage in the live-out domestic helper market locally".

Julie Ham, associate professor of criminology in the University of Hong Kong, supports efforts to terminate the ''live-in'' requirement.

Ham thinks scrapping the arrangement would give "greater flexibility and greater choice to both workers and employers''.

Ham says domestic worker rights organizations should be involved in the process.

''Domestic workers and their activist networks have a keen sense of the most urgent changes that are required. It is crucial for them to be involved in any discussions about regulation,'' Ham says.

Kelley Loper, director of the human rights program in the faculty of law of the University of Hong Kong, thinks that domestic helpers' working hours should be limited.

Loper adds that living with the employer can increase opportunities of ''exploitation, sub-standard working and living conditions''.

''International human rights bodies have repeatedly called on the Hong Kong government to change their policies in this regard. If Hong Kong agreed to establish an independent human rights commission, it could take up this issue,'' Loper says.

Being a migrant domestic worker in Hong Kong is like playing the lottery.

Some win, some regret ''playing'' based on the kindness of the employer.

Alisha -- and many like her -- obviously failed as the regulations often do not work.

To really help domestic workers escape exploitation and abuse by employers, the government must let them live out.

One in six domestic workers in HK in forced labor: study (March 15, 2016)

Govt rejects calls to scrap live-in rule for domestic workers (March 16, 2016)

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EJ Insight contributor