Foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong

Foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong

Foreign domestic helpers (zh-t|t=外籍家庭傭工) in Hong Kong are domestic workers who work in Hong Kong but are from outside of Hong Kong. They make up approximately 3% of the population of Hong Kong and an overwhelming majority of them are women. In 2005, there were 223,394 foreign domestic helpers in the city; 53.11% were from the Philippines, 43.15% from Indonesia, and 2.05% from Thailand. [cite web|url=|title=Entry of Foreign Domestic Helpers|month=November|year=2006|publisher=Hong Kong SAR Government Information Centre|accessdate=2007-03-18|format=PDF] They usually live in their employer's place of residence and perform various household duties, such as cooking, cleaning, and child-minding.

Since October 2003, the employment of helpers has been subject to the Employees' Retraining Levy totalling $9,600 for the duration of a two-year contract. It is unpopular with employers and helpers alike and there have been repeated calls for its abolition. Controversy resulted from "official muddle and civil-service clumsiness" of a two-year waiver of the levy announced by Chief Executive Donald Tsang on 16 July 2008. The administrative errors were denounced by the newspaper editorials of all allegiances.cite news
title= HK needs better leadership, Mr Tsang
author= Chris Yeung |Pages= A10
publisher= "South China Morning Post"|date= 3 August 2008

Common terms

accessdate=2007-03-18|pages=24-26|format=PDF] This derogatory term loosely translates as "Filipino girl" or "Filipino maid". Both terms refer to Filipinas because when the term was coined, most foreign domestic helpers came from the Philippines.

In Chinese-language government documentation, foreign domestic helpers are referred to as 家庭傭工, translated as "domestic workers", that are either "of foreign nationalities" or "recruited from abroad", as in 外籍家庭傭工 [cite web|url=|title=輸入勞工: 外籍家庭傭工|publisher=Labour Department of HKSAR|language=Traditional Chinese|date=2007-01-05|accessdate=2007-03-18] or 外地區聘用家庭傭工, [cite web|url=|title=從香港以外地區聘用家庭傭工的僱傭合約|publisher=Immigration Department of HKSAR|language=Traditional Chinese|date=14 February 2007|accessdate=2007-03-18] respectively. The government uses wording with the same meanings in English-language documentation, but it specifically uses the term "domestic "helper" instead of "domestic "worker".cite web|url=|title=Importation of Labour: Foreign Domestic Helpers|publisher=Labour Department of HKSAR|date=5 June 2007|accessdate=2007-06-26] cite web|url=|title=Employment Contract for a Domestic Helper Recruited from Outside Hong Kong|publisher=Immigration Department of HKSAR|date=14 February 2007|accessdate=2007-03-18]


Faced with a poor performing economy in the 1970s, the President of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos implemented the Labor Code of 1974, beginning the Philippines' export of labour in the form of Overseas Filipino Workers. The Philippine government promoted and encouraged labour export as a way to combat rising unemployment rates and to finance its coffers with overseas workers' remittances home. [cite journal|url=|title=Overseas Filipino Workers, Labor Circulation in Southeast Asia, and the (Mis)management of Overseas Migration Programs|author=Odine de Guzman|journal=Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia|issue=No 4| month=October|year=2003|accessdate=2007-03-18] In the following years, the economy of the Philippines became increasingly dependent on labour export, and in 1978, recruiting agencies for labour export were privatised, making it a cornerstone of the Philippine national development strategy. [cite web|url=|title=Transnational labour networks in female labour migration: mediating between Southeast Asian women workers and international labour markets|author=Vivienne Wee, Amy Sim|publisher=City University of Hong Kong|month=August|year=2003|accessdate=2007-03-18|format=PDF]

This trend of increasing labour export in the Philippines was to coincide with the economic rise of Hong Kong in the late 1970s and early 1980s. When the People's Republic of China implemented wide-reaching economic reforms in the late 1970s and initiated trade with other countries, [cite web|url=|title=The Chinese Economic Reform and Chinese Entrepreneurship|author=Vicky Hu|month=May|year=2005|accessdate=2007-03-18|format=PDF] Hong Kong became mainland China's biggest investor.cite journal|title=A Relationship Denied: Foreign Domestic Helpers and Human Rights in Hong Kong|author=Neetu Sakhrani |publisher=Civic Exchange|month=December|year=2002|format=DOC] Dead link|date=August 2008 Labour intensive industries in Hong Kong moved to the mainland, and high profit service industries such as design, marketing, and finance in the city expanded dramatically. To deal with the resulting labour shortage and increase in labour costs, the female labour force was mobilised. Consequently, families with two incomes sought help to manage their households, creating demand for domestic workers. Hong Kong families began hiring foreign domestic helpers from the Philippines, with the number of them hired steadily increasing through the 1980s and the 1990s.

Until the 1990s, foreign domestic helpers mostly came from the Philippines. Since then, they have also come from other countries, notably Indonesia and Thailand. In the 1990s, Indonesia and Thailand followed the Philippines' model of labour export in order to deal with an increasing economic crisis and Hong Kong families began hiring foreign domestic helpers from these two countries as well.

Employment regulations

The Hong Kong government has drawn up rules and regulations specifically regarding the employment, labour, and condition of stay of foreign domestic helpers. An employer and an employee are required to enter into a two year standard contract specifically for the employment of foreign domestic helpers. A few notable regulations regarding the employment of foreign domestic helpers include:cite web|url=|title=Quick Guide for the Employment of Domestic Helpers from Abroad (ID 989)|publisher=Immigration Department of HKSAR|date= revised 25 April 2008|accessdate=2007-03-18] ;Employers' requirements and obligations:
* a household income of at least HK$15,000 per month for each foreign domestic helper employed;
* a levy of HK$9,600 for employing a foreign domestic helper, for the duration of a 2-year contract;
* provide free medical treatment for the foreign domestic helper;
* payment of a monthly salary of no less than the minimum allowable wage set by the government.;Helpers' rights and obligations:
* required to only perform the domestic duties outlined in the employment contract.
* not allowed or required to take up any other employment with any other employer during the effective period of the contract;
* required to work and live in the employer's place of residence, and to be provided with suitable living accommodation with reasonable privacy;
* entitled to one "rest day" every week, with the rest day being a continuous period of not less than 24 hours.

Minimum allowable wage

Foreign domestic helpers' wages are subject to a statutory minimum, the breach of which is sanctionable under the Employment Ordinance. An employer convicted of paying below the "minimum allowable wage" is liable to a maximum fine of $350,000 and three years' imprisonment.cite press release|title= Minimum wage increased for foreign domestic helpers |url= |publisher= Hong Kong Government| date= 9 July 2008|accessdate=2008-08-01]

Helpers' minimum wages are inflation-adjusted annually for contracts about to be signed, and apply for the duration of the contract. Notably, they were reduced by $190 (5%) in 1999.cite web|url=|title=HK maids march against pay cuts|publisher=BBC News|date=23 February 2003|accessdate=2007-03-18] Again in April 2003, in a deflationary environment, the Government announced a $400 reduction in pay, to $3,270, "due to the steady drop in a basket of economic indicators since 1999."cite press release|title= Foreign domestic helper levy in effect from Oct |url= |publisher= Hong Kong Government| date= 29 August 2003|accessdate=2008-08-01] The minimum allowable wage was raised by $80 to HK$3,480 per month for contracts signed on or after 6 June 2007.cite press release|title= Adjustment of minimum allowable wage for foreign domestic helpers |url= |publisher= Hong Kong Government| date= 5 June 2007|accessdate=2008-08-01] Another $100 cost of living adjustment took effect for all employment contracts signed on or after 10 July 2008, increasing the minimum wage to $3,580 per month.

Employees' Retraining Levy

In October 2003, the Hong Kong government imposed a HK$400 monthly Employees' Retraining Levy for hiring a foreign domestic helper under the Employees Retraining Ordinance when the economy was in a recession. The levy was initiated by the Liberal Party in 2002 as one means of tackling the fiscal deficit.cite web
title= Challenge to pay cuts |author= Daniel Hilken |publisher= "The Standard" |date= 08 September 2004 |accessdate= 2008-08-01
] It was unveiled by Donald Tsang while he was Chief Secretary for Administration as part of population policy. [cite press release|date= 26 February 2003
title= Population policy - "Donald Tsang unveils population report"
] Tsang declared on one hand that foreign and local domestic workers were two distinct markets, yet he declared that "employers of foreign domestic helpers should play a role in helping Hong Kong in... upgrading the local workforce."cite news
title= Walking smack into the maid levy fiasco
author= Frank Ching
publisher= "Observer", "South China Morning Post"|date= 26 July 2008
] The measure was expected to bring in $150 million annually into government coffers. Government Policy Support & Strategic Planning said the levy would be used for the training and retraining of the local workforce, to enhance their employment opportunities. Earlier that year, the minimum wage for foreign domestic helpers was lowered by the same amount, although the government said the reduction in the minimum wage and imposition of the levy at the same time were "unrelated". Lawyers representing the government said that the moves were an "unfortunate coincidence". The measure was expected to bring in $150 million annually into government coffers. Government Policy Support & Strategic Planning said the levy would be used for the training and retraining of the local workforce, to enhance their employment opportunities.

Thousands of helpers protested against measures, who feared the financial burden would be passed on to helpers. The government defended the measures as necessary to adjust to Hong Kong's economic woes, and stated that even with the measures, foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong were still better paid than foreign domestic helpers working in other Asian countries. James Tien said the monthly wage of Filipina maids in Singapore was about HK$1,400, in Malaysia it was HK$1,130.

In 2004, a legal challenge was mounted asserting that the levy imposed on employers was unlawful and constituted a discriminatory tax. In January 2005, High Court Justice Michael Hartmann ruled that since the levy was instituted under a statutory scheme, it was not a tax but a fee charged for the privilege of employing non-local workers who would not otherwise have permission to work in Hong Kong.cite web
title= Wage cut for maids ruled lawful |author= Jonathan Li & Sylvia Hui |publisher= "The Standard" |date= 05 January 2005 |accessdate= 2008-08-01
] In 2007, the Liberal Party urged the government to abolish the employees retraining levy as a part of its District Councils election platform, saying that the $3.26 billion fund should be used as originally intended: in other words, to train and retrain employees. [cite web
title= Liberal Party to field 60 in district polls |author= Staff reporter |publisher= "The Standard" |date= 08 October 2007 |accessdate= 2008-08-01

In August 2008, regular "SCMP" columnist Chris Yeung noted that the case for retaining the levy over the years has become increasingly weak morally and financially: "Middle class people feel a sense of injustice about the levy." Regina Ip agreed that the levy had lost its "raison d'être".cite web
title= Street protester Regina says scrap the levy|author= Beatrice Siu
publisher= "The Standard"|date= 04 August 2008|accessdate= 2008-08-07

Employees' Retraining Levy waiver controversy

As part of the "extraordinary measures for extraordinary times" totalling HK$11 billion announced by Donald Tsang on 16 July 2008, the levy would be temporarily waived, [cite web
title= $11b on table to ease inflation pain |author= Bonnie Chen |publisher= "The Standard" |date= 17 July 2008 |accessdate= 2008-08-01
] at an estimated cost of $HK2 billion. The measures were mockingly referred to in the chinese press as 派糖—giving out candy. [cite web
title= 港府拟"派糖"近50亿纾民困 部分周内或通过拨款 zh icon|author=
publisher= "China News"|date= 16 July 2008|accessdate= 2008-08-07

It was announced that the levy would be waived for a two-year period on all helpers' employment contracts signed on or after 1 September 2008, and would not apply to ongoing contracts. The Immigration Department said it would not reimburse levies, which are prepaid half-yearly. The announcement resulted in chaos and confusion, and uncertainty for the helpers. [cite web
title= Waiver leaves maids in limbo |author= Beatrice Siu |publisher= "The Standard"
date= 18 July 2008 |accessdate= 2008-07-31
] Chris Yeung said that the exemption was a "gimmick dressed up as an economic relief initiative, designed to boost the administration's popularity" in advance of Tsang's forthcoming policy address, in October.

Maids' representatives said that when the waiver was announced, the guidelines were unclear and had no implementation date. Employers deferred contracts or had dismissed helpers pending confirmation of the effective date, leaving helpers in limbo. They protested about the uncertainty, and also demanded an increase in their minimum wage to $4,000.cite web
title= Maids in legal threat over levy|author= Beatrice Siu
publisher= "The Standard"|date= 23 July 2008|accessdate= 2008-07-31
] Employers had reportedly started terminating their helpers' contracts, sparking fears of mass-terminations. On 20 July, Secretary for Labour and Welfare Matthew Cheung announced the waiver commencement date would be brought forward by one month. The Immigration Department had also temporary relaxed its 14-day re-employment requirement for helpers whose contracts expired.cite web
title= New hope for maids
author= Beatrice Siu |publisher= "The Standard"|date= 21 July 2008|accessdate= 2008-07-31

On 30 July, the Executive Council approved the suspension of the levy for two years from 1 August 2008 to 31 July 2010. After widespread criticism of the situation, the government said maids having advanced renewal of contract would not be required to leave Hong Kong through the discretion exercised by the Director of Immigration, and employers would benefit from the waiver simply by renewing the contract within the two-year period. The government also admitted that some employers could benefit from the waiver for up to 4 years. [cite web
title= Maids can stay put|author= Bonnie Chen & Beatrice Siu
publisher= "The Standard"|date= 31 July 2008|accessdate= 2008-07-31
] This effect of turning a 2 year moratorium into 4 year suspension potentially doubles the estimated give-away, and was denounced by the newspaper editorials of all allegiances. The levy was criticised as "farcical" in an editorial in the "South China Morning Post". [cite news |title= Time to end farcical levy on domestic helpers |author= Editorial|pages= A14 |publisher= "South China Morning Post" |date=31 July 2008] Stephen Vines wrote that "the plan for a two-year suspension of the levy... provides an almost perfect example of government dysfunction and arrogance," [cite news
title= Tsang shows again how to rule with a ham fist
author= op-ed: Stephen Vines
publisher= "South China Morning Post"|date= 25 July 2008
] while Albert Cheng said the controversy exposed "worst side of our government bureaucracy" [cite news
title= The levy has burst
author= op-ed: Albert Cheng
publisher= "South China Morning Post"|date= 26 July 2008
] Columnist Frank Ching criticised senior officials for living in their ivory towers, and said that there would have been no disruption if the government had suspended payment immediately and refunded those who had prepaid. Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor called for the levy's permanent abolition, saying that the temporary two-year waiver was discriminatory. It criticised the confusion and inconvenience caused to employers and the Immigration Department because the policy had not been thought through properly. [cite web
title= Maids aim to breach levy|author= Beatrice Siu
publisher= "The Standard"|date= 8 October 2008


On the morning of 1 August, the Immigration Department gave out 2,180 passes to helpers and agents to collect their visas and submit applications to work in Hong Kong, and undertook to handle all applications submitted. Offices opened one hour earlier than usual, added staff and extended its office hours, to guarantee all 2,180 cases would be processed. [cite web
title= Immigration Department gives out 2,180 passes|author= Staff reporter
publisher= "The Standard"|date= 1 August 2008|accessdate= 2008-08-01
] Similarly, the Philippine consulate expected to cope with a huge workload as a result of the rehiring provisions.cite news
title= Regina Ip takes flak over Article 23 role
author= Eva Wu & Mary Ann Benitez
publisher= "South China Morning Post"|date= 4 August 2008
] Chinese newspapers published articles calculating how households could maximise their benefits under the waiver rules. There were street protests on 3 August decrying the waiver's unfairness and its administrative burden on the Immigration Department. One protester said that the waiver would only teach households how to use legal loopholes.

The West Kowloon Immigration office in Yau Ma Tei processed 5,000 advance contract renewals, in addition to 7,400 contract renewals during the month of August 2008. Despite the availability of online booking for slots at its 5 branch offices, the daily quota imposed on the number of applications being processed have resulted in daily overnight queues. Touts in Yau Ma Tei have been illegally selling positions in the waiting line for up to HK$120. [cite news
title= Freeze of maid levy spells profits for illegal queue touts
author= Mary Ann Benitez & Austin Chiu
publisher= "South China Morning Post"| page= C3|date= 30 August 2008


Foreign domestic helpers and their supporters, including activists and employers alike, periodically stage protests about what they view as discriminatory treatment by the Hong Kong government. Major grievances include discrimination, minimum wage, and the two-week stay limit at the end of their employment contracts. [cite web|url=|title=Hundreds of maids march in HK for better rules|publisher=The China Post|date=13 November 2006|accessdate=2007-03-18] Dead link|date=August 2008 According to the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor (HKHRM), foreign domestic helpers face discrimination from both the Hong Kong government and their employers.cite web|url=|title=Shadow Report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination Regarding the Report of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China|publisher=Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor|month=July|year=2001|accessdate=2007-03-18|format=RTF]

Immigration Ordinance

The government requires a foreign domestic helper to leave Hong Kong within two weeks of the termination of her employment contract unless she finds employment with another employer. The HKHRM claimed that this is a form of discrimination against foreign domestic helpers, who are almost all Southeast Asian, as the same limitation is not enforced for other foreign workers. This two-week rule has been condemned by two United Nations Committees: the Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination, and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.cite news| author= Mary Ann Benitez |title=Rough justice|publisher="South China Morning Post"|date= 20 August 2007 |pages= A14]

Under the Immigration Ordinance, a foreigner may be eligible to apply for permanent residency after having "ordinarily resided" in Hong Kong for seven continuous years. [cite web|url=|title=Topical Issues: Who can enjoy the Right of Abode in the HKSAR?|publisher=Immigration Department of HKSAR|date=14 February 2007|accessdate=2007-03-18] However, the definition of "ordinary residency" excludes, amongst other groups, those who had resided in the city as foreign domestic helpers, [cite web|url=|title=Topical Issues: Right of Abode and other related terms|publisher=Immigration Department of HKSAR|date=14 February 2007|accessdate=2007-03-18] thus effectively denying them the rights of permanent residents, including the right to vote, even if they had resided in Hong Kong for many years.

Abuse by employers

The possibility of deportation may prevent foreign domestic helpers from reporting violations of their rights or instances of discrimination against them, and the two-week period may not be enough time for them to find new employment. Those who do are deterred by the length of the legal process - cases take up to 15 months to reach the district court or Labour Tribunal during which time they are not allowed to work. The HKHRM also reports that helpers had been mistreated by their employers: out of 2,500 interviewed, at least 25% had claimed to have experienced violations of their contract, including being paid under the minimum allowable wage amount, not being allowed their mandatory weekly day of rest, and not being allowed to take their statutory holidays. Also, more than 25% had experienced physical and verbal abuse, including a "significant incidence" of sexual abuses. Caritas said that their Asian Migrant Worker Social Service Project helpline received over four thousand calls from helpers, of which 53 were given assistance to stay in Hong Kong to pursue their claims.

Philippine government policy

Filipino foreign domestic helpers have also protested against policies of the Philippine government that targeted Overseas Filipino Workers. In particular, one protest in 1982 was held in opposition of Executive Order No. 857 (EO-857), implemented Ferdinand Marcos. EO-857 stipulated that overseas contract workers must remit 50% to 70% of their total earnings, and remittances were only allowed to be transferred through authorised government channels. [cite web|url=|title=A Primer for the United Filipinos in Hong Kong (UNIFIL-HK)|publisher=United Filipinos in Hong Kong (UNIFIL-HK)|accessdate=2007-03-18]

As recently as February 2007, Filipino foreign domestic helpers have protested against a proposal by the Philippine government that they be required to undergo a "competency training and assessment program" that would cost them P10,000 to P15,000 (US$215 to $320), whereas their monthly salary is typically about US$450. The Philippine Department of Labor and Employment defended the proposal, stating that the policy would help protect domestic overseas workers from abuse by their employers. [cite web|url=|title=HK maids protest new Philippine labor law|publisher=The Manila Times|date=5 February 2007|accessdate=2007-03-18]

ee also

*Indonesians in Hong Kong
*Filipinos in Hong Kong
*Thais in Hong Kong
*Southeast Asian Hongkongers


External links

* [ United Filipinos in Hong Kong (UNIFIL-HK)]
* [ "Where Filipinas Hold Up Half the Colony"] , Philippine News, 3 January 2007, Retrieved on 2008-08-01.

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