Hong Kong is home to more than
340,000 foreign domestic workers.
They compose nearly five percent of the territory’s population and 10 percent of the working population.
The clear majority of domestic workers are women from the Philippines and Indonesia, with a small percentage also coming from Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Madagascar. Most leave to work abroad due to a lack of job opportunities at home. Significant income disparities exist between their countries of origin and Hong Kong. Through domestic work overseas, they can earn a far higher salary than what they would earn at home.
Foreign domestic workers are an indispensable part of Hong Kong’s contemporary social fabric. Despite being one of the world’s most affluent places (as measured by GDP per capita), the territory is short on accessible child care and elder care services. Employers of domestic workers often depend on domestic workers to manage the household and look after children and elders, which allows employers to engage in income-generating activities that can lead to a better quality of life for all. In recent decades, the rapid growth of the territory’s foreign domestic worker population has enabled Hong Kong women to enter the workforce. With Hong Kong’s population expected to age considerably in the coming decades, the demand for caregiving services will likely further increase.
The Challenges for Hong Kong’s Domestic Workers
Foreign domestic workers routinely experience exploitative working conditions. Employers often deny them adequate rest periods and accommodations. Pervasive overcharging by employment agencies and fraudulent recruitment practices render many foreign domestic workers heavily debt burdened. Various legal requirements further compound foreign domestic workers’ vulnerability to human rights abuses and restrict their access to remedy. Extreme forms of labour exploitation, namely forced labour and human trafficking, are becoming increasingly more common.
Domestic workers here face both circumstances and restrictive laws that make living and working in accordance with international human rights standards challenging.
Foreign domestic workers are frequently charged extortionate and illegal placement fees by employment agencies to obtain a job in Hong Kong. Hong Kong law bars agencies from charging commission fees that exceed 10 percent of a job applicant’s first month’s wages. Filipino law, meanwhile, prohibits employment agencies from charging placement fees to overseas workers altogether, and Indonesian law limits these fees to IDR 14,780,400 (about HK$8,420). Yet these regulations are poorly enforced, and unscrupulous agencies employ a variety of tactics to circumvent them.
Some agencies collude with lending companies to facilitate the collection of excessive recruitment fees masked as fictitious loan repayments. Others prey on foreign domestic worker’s lack of financial literacy to demand steep payments without issuing receipts in return, thereby making it difficult for foreign domestic workers to prove their cases in court. Many promise non-existent jobs in third countries, such as Canada and the United Kingdom in exchange for payments. In extreme cases, agencies confiscate foreign domestic workers’ passports and/or retain a significant portion of their monthly wages as a means of coercion.
Research conducted by Justice Centre Hong Kong in 2016 suggests that more than 35 percent of foreign domestic workers have debt burdens equal or greater than 30 percent of their annual income. Those shouldering such excessive recruitment debts, Justice Centre found, are six times more likely to be in forced labour than migrant workers without high debt. These debts discourage many foreign domestic workers from leaving their employers voluntarily, even if they are in an exploitative or abusive employment relationship. On average, Justice Centre’s research revealed, domestic workers who secure a job while in their home country will need to work for seven months in Hong Kong in order to pay off debt.
Hong Kong law requires employers to provide domestic workers with “suitable accommodation and reasonable privacy.” As the Standard Employment Contract for domestic workers recruited from abroad notes, examples of unsuitable accommodation include “[domestic workers] having to sleep on made-do beds in the corridor with little privacy and sharing a room with an adult/teenager of the opposite sex.” Recent research conducted by Justice Centre Hong Kong suggests that 35.2 percent of domestic workers are required to share a room with a child or elder, and 2 percent sleep in a kitchen or a communal living space. Currently no labour inspection method exists to check that employers provide foreign domestic workers with the living quarters described in their contracts.
Under Hong Kong law, foreign domestic workers lack the opportunity to opt out of their employer-provided accommodations and live out, while receiving an appropriate housing allowance or a salary commensurate with the territory’s high cost of living. HELP and other local civil society organisations firmly believe that this live-in requirement creates various forms of dependency on employers, blurring the line between foreign domestic workers’ work and non-work lives. The requirement often leads foreign domestic workers to work around the clock, with insufficient rest and little influence over their working time arrangements. Further, it serves to discourage domestic workers from turning down an employer’s request to perform various chores on rest days, or—in extreme cases—leaving an abusive employer.
Hong Kong also requires employers to provide their foreign domestic workers with food in-kind or a food allowance. For foreign domestic workers’ contracts signed on or after 1 October 2016, the Minimum Allowable Food Allowance (MFA) is set at not less than HK$1,037 per month, up from a previous MFA of HK$995. Yet domestic workers surveyed routinely receive sub-minimum allowances; in 2016, Justice Centre Hong Kong found that 57.7 percent of domestic workers were provided with less than the set MFA. Additionally, domestic workers often report receiving stale food or paltry portions of their employer’s leftovers.
Recent high-profile cases of abuses have shed light on foreign domestic workers’ vulnerability to violence, coercion and exploitation. The stories of women such as Kartika Puspitasari and Elis Kurniasih have garnered international media attention, throwing the most egregious experiences of Hong Kong’s foreign domestic worker population into sharp relief. And still, foreign domestic workers experience a wide range of abuses, from physical violence—and threats thereof—to sexual and verbal abuse. Some employers unlawfully deprive of food, water, sleep, bathroom access and other necessary resources, sometimes as punishment for minor or non-existent mistakes. Other employers and agencies coerce workers by making threats, which often relate to their recruitment debts, wage payments and immigration status, or restricting their freedom of movement.
Abuses are pervasive. in 2013 Mission for Migrant Workers found that 58 percent of foreign domestic workers experienced verbal abuse, 18 percent experienced physical abuse and 6 percent experienced sexual abuse. Likewise, a survey conducted in 2014 by the Employment Opportunities Commission found that 6.5 percent of foreign domestic workers had experienced sexual harassment during the previous year. More recently, some 7.7 percent of foreign domestic workers surveyed by Justice Centre in 2016 reported being threatened by their employers in some way, with threats ranging from the seizure of cell phones to wage deductions.
Various Hong Kong laws exacerbate foreign domestic workers’ vulnerability to abuse, including the live-in requirement and the two-week rule, which mandates that foreign domestic workers whose contracts are completed or terminated leave Hong Kong within two weeks. Rules such as these deter victims of abuse from seeking justice during or after their employment due to their housing arrangements and immigration status.
Many foreign domestic workers work excessive hours with little opportunity for rest. Hong Kong does not stipulate maximum weekly working hours for employees, though the law requires that domestic workers receive, at the bare minimum, a 24-hour rest period each week. A 2016 survey conducted by Justice Centre Hong Kong found that domestic workers work on average 11.9 hours per day, six days per week. More than one third of domestic workers, moreover, informed Justice Centre that they regularly worked for some portion of their rest day. Certain nationalities may be more likely to endure exploitative hours. In 2013, Amnesty International interviewed 93 Indonesian domestic workers employed in Hong Kong who worked on average 17 hours a day. Many domestic workers reported being “on call 24 hours” per day, sometimes being roused from their sleep to perform tasks for their employers.
Foreign domestic workers face numerous barriers to accessing legal remedy for wrongs suffered during recruitment and/or employment. Employers and agencies often fail to provide domestic workers with valid receipts or later amend their records to conceal wage theft and excessive recruitment fee charging. Domestic workers often have difficulty obtaining documentary proof to support their claims of underpayment, denial of termination benefits, agency fraud and other grievances.
Many foreign domestic workers fear speaking out about abuses while employed lest they jeopardize their employment status and thus their ability to send remittances home to their families. Wage theft, moreover, often occurs in the context of termination. Employers sometimes threaten to accuse their domestic workers of theft as a means of coercing workers not to pursue claims for unpaid termination entitlements with Hong Kong’s relevant tribunals. HELP has also observed a recent uptick of theft charges brought against domestic workers only after they lodged employment claims against their former employers.
When domestic workers remain in Hong Kong to pursue their claims after being terminated, they cannot legally work. Instead, they must draw on meagre savings or borrow from friends and, all too frequently, loan sharks simply to cover their living expenses. The process of bringing a complaint against an abusive employer or agency can last for months or even years due to court backlogs. In some instances, a lack of available interpreters for less spoken languages, such as Malagasy, compounds these delays. Despite being out of work, foreign domestic workers must regularly pay HK$190 to extend their visas. Further, they no longer can access low-cost treatment at public hospitals, even while they remain in Hong Kong to pursue justice after being unlawfully terminated while ill or pregnant. This system discourages domestic workers from reporting abuses and encourages them to settle their cases out of court, often for far less than they are rightly owed.
Hong Kong does not have specific laws criminalizing human trafficking and forced labour. The territory, furthermore, is not party to the UN Palermo Protocol, a landmark treaty that defined trafficking in persons and committed states to combating the crime and aiding trafficking victims. The Hong Kong government argues that existing laws adequately protect domestic workers against human trafficking. The absence of a holistic approach, notably the lack of training of government personnel to include judges and police officers, results in human rights violations of human trafficking, leaving forced labour to go unrecognized, promoting impunity and need for a remedy to foreign domestic workers.
Despite their contributions to Hong Kong’s economy, foreign domestic workers remain underpaid and underappreciated. Foreign domestic workers often receive less than the monthly wages agreed upon in their contracts. Indonesians are particularly vulnerable to underpayment. A survey conducted by the Indonesian Migrant Workers Unions in 2013 reported that 28 percent of Indonesians said they had been underpaid. Often, cases of underpayment are linked to abusive recruitment practices; an employer may deduct regular instalments from his or her worker’s wages and send this money to an agency charging excessive fees or claiming repayments on non-existent loans. Clients frequently come to HELP after being terminated by their employers, who have refused to pay them various statutory entitlements, such as severance payments, long-service payments and wages in lieu of notice.
Foreign domestic workers earn less than half of Hong Kong’s statutory minimum wage. The Minimum Wage Ordinance excludes foreign domestic workers. Whereas the statutory minimum wage is HK$32.50 per hour, the Minimum Allowable Wage (MAW) for foreign domestic workers is set at HK$4,310 (for contracts signed on or after 1 October 2016) which works out to an hourly rate of only HK$13.70. Rather than regard the MAW as a baseline, most employers treat it as a standard. In 2016, Justice Centre Hong Kong recently found that only 6.1 percent of employers paid their domestic workers higher salaries commensurate with the high cost of living in Hong Kong. Although the Hong Kong government has raised the MAW in the past two decades, the statutory minimum wage for non-domestic workers rose at a five-fold faster rate during the same period, according to the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body.
A vast power imbalance exists between domestic workers and their employers. Due to the live-in requirement, employers control domestic workers’ access to food, shelter and other necessary resources, as well as their wages. Domestic workers’ temporary immigration status makes them vulnerable to exploitation. Abuses committed in the privacy of a home cannot easily be reported and proven to relevant authorities. The two-week rule exacerbates this vulnerability. Language, educational, and ethnic barriers, among others, also contribute to such power inequalities.
Families sometimes compel their domestic employees to work outside of their homes in family-run businesses or to work for multiple households. Although such duties violate Hong Kong’s employment laws, foreign domestic workers cannot easily complain or refuse to do what is being asked of them for fear of losing their jobs. Language barriers and widespread lack of awareness about Hong Kong’s laws mean that some domestic workers do not know that the territory forbids them from performing such duties. And if they do complain or leave and claim constructive dismissal they themselves may be prosecuted for breach of conditions of stay despite having raised the issue initially.
A family earning merely HK$15,000 per month may apply to hire a foreign domestic worker. After paying at least HK$4,310 to their domestic worker, the family will be left with only HK$10,690 per month for other living expenses, a meagre sum given Hong Kong’s high cost of living. In extreme cases, this can lead to employers defaulting on loans from their domestic workers, failing to provide their workers with proper food and accommodations, or expecting them to pay for the household’s food.
Domestic workers are in a vulnerable position, dependent upon their employers for food, shelter and wages. Government policy contributes to this sense of vulnerability, which makes it impossible for domestic workers to assert their rights without fear of termination.
Here to HELP
We open our doors to foreign domestic workers irrespective of race, ethnicity, creed, gender or sexual orientation.
There are over 340,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, most of whom come from poor countries in Asia where there are limited job opportunities. This forces them to leave their families behind in order to earn a living abroad and support their dependants at home.
When things go wrong, HELP provides its services thanks to our dedicated staff and volunteers with various professional backgrounds, including a number of lawyers. Learn more about our organisation.