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Asia Section: Exploitation of Foreign Domestic Helpers

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To afford the skyrocketing living costs in Hong Kong, parents in many households have to work long hours and need helpers to take care of their children and aging parents. This growing demand for helpers has made Hong Kong a desirable destination to a large number of foreign domestic helpers (“FDH”) from Southeast Asia over the decade. Among other foreign workers, these 340,000 domestic helpers are exceptionally vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. While the current debate is whether there is sufficient protection of the rights of FDH, their vulnerability mainly results from the discriminatory immigration policies.


Recent protests by FDH have demonstrated the serious problem of physical abuse on many FDH. A recent Mission for Migrant Workers survey indicates that more than 50% of FDH have suffered verbal abuse and almost 20% have been physically abused. In 2014, the criminal arrest and imprisonment of the employer of Erwiana, an Indonesian FDH, brought world-wide attention to this grave issue, as Erwiana suffered from grievous bodily harm as a result of being beaten up by her employer. Their plight is further worsened by the “live-in rule” implemented by the Immigration Department. As per Clause 3 of the standard employment contract (ID 407) provided by the Immigration Department, FDH are obliged to reside in the home of their employers, except for Sundays, their only full day-off of the week. This live-in rule has given FDH no other choices but to continue staying with that household even in abusive and deteriorating conditions. Besides, another research by HKU pointed out that many FDH suffer from heavy debts due to excessive agency fees. To gain a higher commission, more than 70% of employment agencies in Hong Kong charge excessive fees on the salaries of FDH. These agencies are however breaching Part XII of the Employment Ordinance (Cap. 57), which expressly states that the maximum commission employment agencies in Hong Kong can charge cannot exceed the 10% of the FDH first month’s wages. In fact, it is apparent that physical abuse and charging excessive agency fees are illegal and there are legislations protecting FDH. Yet, why do so many FDH still tolerate these illegal activities?


The main reason lies in the discriminatory immigration policy: “two-week rule”, which discourages FDH from seeking protection and justice under the law. Under the visa policy for FDH, the two-week rule states that FDH will have to find employment within the two weeks after leaving the job or have to leave the city. If they continue to stay in the city without a job after two weeks, they commit a criminal offence and are subject to heavy fines or imprisonment. Under exceptional circumstances, they may apply for a special visitor visa to stay in Hong Kong, although this is at the discretion of the Immigration Officer and is rarely exercised. It is important to note that the discriminatory nature of this policy as it applies exclusively to FDH, not other foreign workers in Hong Kong. Since complaints to the Labour Tribunal takes over two weeks to be processed and it is difficult to find a new job within that timeframe, many FDH do not file complaints. This “unique” rule imposed on FDH significantly discourages them to seek justice, leaving them in a more vulnerable state.


The crux of this issue is not the protective measures on the FDH. Even with stronger and more protective legislation, it is not feasible for them to file a complaint without being expatriated under the two-week rule. It is a matter of viability that public debate should focus on. Only if the two-week rule is lifted can there be more discussion on better protection for FDH employment and human rights.


Serena Chan

Asia Section Feature Writer

19 December 2018



 


Ordinance

Employment Ordinance 1968 (Cap. 57)


Secondary sources

Chenyu Liang, ‘Maid in Hong Kong: Protecting Foreign Domestic Workers’ (Migration Policy Institute, 20 October 2016) < https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/maid-hong-kong-protecting-foreign-domestic-workers>


Jennifer Creery, ‘Job insecurity, discrimination, abuse: Hong Kong’s domestic workers demand better working conditions’ (Hong Kong FP, 15 June 2018) < https://www.hongkongfp.com/2018/06/15/job-insecurity-discrimination-abuse-hong-kongs-domestic-workers-demand-better-working-conditions/>


Labour Department, Practical Guide for Employment of Foreign Domestic Helpers

Raquel Carvalho, ‘Study finds Hong Kong domestic helpers subjected to employment terms abuse by more than 70 per cent of agencies’ (SCMP, 11 May 2017) < https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/law-crime/article/2093836/study-finds-hong-kong-domestic-helpers-subjected-employment>


Tom Grundy, ‘Scrap The 2-Week Rule’ (Hong Kong Helpers Campaign) < http://hkhelperscampaign.com/en/scrap-the-2-week-rule/>



Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are listed in the bibliography above.

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