HK must brace for a new era of fewer domestic helpers

February 23, 2015 18:45
The case of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, an Indonesian maid who was abused by her Hong Kong employer, has prompted Jakarta to speed up plans to curb the export of domestic workers. Photo: Reuters

Hong Kong's longstanding strategy of relying on low-cost foreign domestic helpers to meet the needs of the city's wealthier residents may need to be revisited soon as the economies of southeast Asian nations are improving, encouraging more people in those countries to stay back home.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has said that his nation may in a few years stop sending women abroad to work as maids. Prompting that decision is the case of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, an Indonesian maid who was abused and treated like a slave by her Hong Kong employer.

The Erwiana case has drawn attention to the plight of Indonesian women and the national policy of letting women go overseas to work as housemaids.

Indonesia is one of the top two exporting nations of domestic helpers. Currently, there are around 500,000 Indonesian women working overseas as domestic helpers. 

However, as the economy has taken off in recent years, there have been growing calls to stop the export of female workers, with activists arguing that the practice doesn't do anything good for the nation's dignity.

Given such calls, President Widodo has pledged to stop providing domestic helpers to other countries within five years. The timetable may have been pushed forward by the Erwiana case. Indonesia's labor minister has confirmed to media that the nation could stop sending women helpers abroad by 2017.

Meanwhile, Philippines, another major exporter of housemaids, has also said that it will gradually reduce the number of domestic workers overseas, and possibly put a stop to the practice in 2017.

This means that both Indonesian and Filipino housemaids could stop coming to Hong Kong within two years. Currently, there are 320,000 foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong. Of those, 51 percent are from the Philippines and 46 percent from Indonesia.

The moves to curb the flow of female workers overseas has come against the backdrop of faster economic growth in the southeast Asian nations and the reduced reliance on remittances by such workers.

Some observers had expected that the Philippines economy would suffer from a feared boycott by Hong Kong people after the Manila hostage crisis in 2010. However, the nation's manufacturing and garment sectors have witnessed remarkable growth in recent years, and the country has become less dependent on foreign exchange sent by housemaids working overseas.

Meanwhile, it's also becoming difficult to find housemaids from other nations like Vietnam, Nepal or Bangladesh to fill the gap. 

Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore are the top three destinations for foreign housemaids. All three regions, incidentally, have a predominant Chinese culture.

Foreign maids have played a big role in boosting Hong Kong's economy by freeing up local women to do other more productive work. But local households have to brace for a new era when they can no longer depend on low-cost foreign maids.

Given this scenario, smart home appliances will have a bigger market in the coming years. That said, robots may not be able to look after the elderly and babies. So, there will be more opportunities for businesses such as nursing and child care services.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 23.

Translation by Julie Zhu

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist