Much media attention her has been focused recently on the problems (some of it tantamount to abuse) faced by domestic helpers who come here to work from other countries in south-east Asia, especially particularly “backward” countries such as Sri Lanka and Indonesia.
While 95% of the population are Chinese, there are approximately 255,000 female foreign domestic helpers (FDH) in Hong Kong (around 7% of the workforce), the breakdown by country being as follows:
Philippines – 155,000
Indonesia – 80,000
Sri Lanka/ Thailand/Nepal – 20,000
FDH (the only group in HK subject to a minimum wage) have seen their pay cut progressively from $3,860 up until 1999, to $3,670 through 2003, and now to $3,270 (HK$1 = US$7.8). Now, even though indicators in Hong Kong, such as unemployment, salaries and inflation, signal an improvement in the economy, there are no plans to restore FDH pay level to what they were before.
It is well known that many maids, especially those from Indonesia, earn less than the minimum, and that they face deportation or abuse at the hands of their employers if they complain about underpayment. The Asian Human Rights Commission recently helped a Sri Lankan woman, who had been jailed for three months for stealing a pair of sandals from her employer. She spent nearly three weeks in jail before she was released. She then made history by successfully suing her employer.* Reflecting on this, the Commission said: ‘Many Hong Kong people treat their domestic helpers like slaves’.
The local newspaper ran an editorial recently headed ‘Government failing Indonesian maids’, pointing to the ‘disturbing gap’ between legislation and enforcement, as it quoted a recent survey that found that 42% of Indonesian FDH were paid less than the minimum wage. The paper suggests three reasons why Indonesian (invariably Moslem) maids have become so popular (just 10 years ago, there were no more than 15,000 of them): 1) they are usually taught some Cantonese as part of their training in Indonesia (this is important, as the standard of English among non-professional class Chinese in HK is very poor); 2) they are considered more submissive than women from other countries; 3) they are poorly organised in terms of unions, workers’ group, compared with, for example, Filipinas.
Do similar situations pertain in other countries?
- Taking legal action against employers is made almost impossible in normal circumstances by the fact that employers will typically take preemptive action by terminating the maid’s contract and turning her out. The fact they have nowhere to stay and no way to support themselves is actually the least of their problems. The key fact being exploited by employers is that, as their employment circumstances have changed, they only have around two weeks before their visa expires and they have to return to their homeland. Not much time to get a legal action planned and heard.
To be even-handed, it should be pointed out that some FDH are pretty canny about exploiting the areas of the law that they know to be in their favour. This shouldn’t be too surprising given the generally high education level and tight support networks of especially the Filipina community.