Rights and Obligations

More Thoughts on Domestic Helpers in Hong Kong

Don't Speak, by Birta Rán, with Creative Commons licenceSometimes the most difficult problems are the least often mentioned. They play on minds but escape public attention because they’re too complex to grasp sufficiently. In a recent post on myopic perceptions of poverty I outlined some of the wage constraints placed on domestic helpers in Hong Kong. In other countries they’d be called the working poor – here they’re expected to be happy. But the problem runs deeper than money alone, with a lack of employee rights and an insufficient understanding of employer obligations marring Hong Kong’s participation in the international market for migrant labour.

The litany of abuses against domestic helpers in this city is long, with much of the evidence anecdotal and not entirely reliable. But in my building alone there are two cases of continual underpayment and one recent case of termination without any reason given. The employer not only failed to tell the helper why she was sacked, but also left the appropriate section blank on the termination notice submitted to the Immigration Department. When asked for a reference from an employment agency, the employer replied “no comment”.

James Rice, local academic and author of Take Your Rights Seriously, a legal handbook for domestic helpers, tells me that this practice is both common and within the law. Employers only need to give sufficient notice, with no reason for termination necessary.

So the stage is always set for the most capricious behaviour, and in raising underpayment and termination I’ve ignored cases of physical abuse, verbal intimidation (again, I know of a case in my building, and my sister-in-law suffers from it) and lack of sufficient food provided by the employer – that’s the experience of one woman across the street and another in the far north of the city, who is employed by an Immigration Department officer. There are also many inhumane living conditions. When my family moved into our apartment the old “maid’s quarters” had just been demolished. It was a two metre by one metre partition at the end of the kitchen, next to the stove. Welcome to Hong Kong.

Because these sorts of abuses quite literally happen behind closed doors they’re difficult to prove, and they’re spoken of in the language of urban legend – as things everyone ‘knows’ but few are sure about. Yet people do raise them in public occasionally. Apart from the tireless efforts of migrant worker support groups, titbits sometimes surface in the newspapers.

Today’s print edition of the South China Morning Post carried a letter to the editor from D.R. Patterson, pointing to the need for legal reform to make working conditions for domestic helpers more humane. I should point out that not all employers mistreat their helpers, but many do, so the comment is almost like a clarion call in a largely indifferent city. It would necessarily lead to enhanced rights for domestic helpers. Currently they have almost none.

No right turn, by Nicobobinus, with Creative Commons licenceForeign domestic helper contracts here run for two years, with compulsory repatriation to the country of origin at the end of that period, even if the employer wants to renew the contract. After a short period the helper can return, but that break means she – and most of the time it is a woman, mainly from the Philippines or Indonesia – can never claim the right of abode in Hong Kong. In other words, she can’t become a permanent resident and enjoy appropriate long-stay rights. And as her presence is monitored by the Immigration Department in a city lacking democracy, her legal status is always determined at the whim of the Director of Immigration.

Given that background, it is fairly easy to understand why domestic helpers in Hong Kong often suffer abuse silently. And there is often little value in returning home to long-term unemployment, so the scenario plays out evermore.

But there’s also a dynamic within many helper-employer relationships which might just work to change that situation. I’ve been extremely critical of the South China Morning Post at times recently, but the organisation excelled itself today in publishing not only the letter I just mentioned, but also an article on domestic helpers and their employers by freelance writer Andrea Li. Unfortunately, no link is available.

Now, I have a confession to make – I know Andrea and have worked with her on copy-writing projects. After reading the article I rang her to offer my congratulations. It’s important to encourage people who see things a little differently, and I’m glad she does.

The main thrust of Andrea’s article is that Hong Kong employers expect too much of their helpers. Her focus is on childhood development and how parents need to set guidelines for how their children should be raised. All too often the helper is expected to be a stand-in parent without true parental authority. Speak to most domestic helpers in Hong Kong and they’ll tell you that the boundaries of their responsibility change so frequently without notice that they’re afraid to impose too much on the children for whom they care. The result is bratty kids without personal responsibility, bullies who expect their maids to do everything for them.

This focus on children is obviously not my main concern, but the notion of boundaries certainly is. Andrea concludes her article with a quote from Vicky Tam, a local professor of education:

Parents need to understand that domestic helpers aren’t a cheap solution to everything in the family.

So we return to the reality of low wages, now combined with the need, in Vicky Tam’s words, “to provide clear guidelines” on what helpers are expected to do. Andrea offers some very good examples of just that, but I want to add a further suggestion. Those guidelines need to be presented as a set of mutual rights and obligations, much like a long-term tenancy agreement.

Failing any proper legal status for domestic helpers, the least the Immigration and Labour Departments could do would be to institute a labour contract flexible enough to include individualised child-care requirements, lists of possible duties and clearly defined areas where domestic helpers should not be expected to work. The current employment contract and its brief set of guidelines barely touch on these areas, and are very much open to interpretation.

Within any set of provisions would be have to be the right to full wages every month, backed by compulsory, traceable payments into bank accounts and periodic government audits. Another important measure would be the right to reasonable grounds for termination stated clearly in writing and provided to the employee. These are the sorts of things that modern labour markets provide. But, sadly, they would add to the ‘expense’ of hiring a helper in the eyes of many employers here.

Born to Live and Love - 1, by carf, with Creative Commons licenceThe flip side of that callousness is the often quoted and very obvious love many domestic helpers have for their charges. When I married my wife, leaving the young boy she had cared for since birth was heart wrenching, even though she had two older children of her own.

That is the human face of labour migration. Rights and clearly defined obligations would be a small concession in exchange.

Addendum: The standard employment contract for domestic helpers in Hong Kong does provide a very general list of tasks that should make up a major portion of duties performed by the helper. It also includes an entry entitled others, with space for specific tasks. But that space is rarely filled and the terminology used implies that a range of other tasks may be allowable (few are specifically prohibited on the contract), without having to inform the helper in advance of what they could be.

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