Do domestic helpers in other countries have similar problems as they face in HK?

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.

Domestic helpers here in the Philippines tend to be treated very poorly also. They earn about $1 a day, plus room and board. They are expected to be on-duty around the clock, and may have a few hours off work on Sunday. The Filipino employers here (IMHO) probably treat the helpers no better or worse than they are treated in HK, but many Filipinas will prefer to go to work in HK simply due to the higher salary.
The wealthy here seem to prefer finding teen girls from the poorer and less educated areas to be their helpers. The helpers here tend to be broke and powerless, the courts would probably refuse to entertain any complaints due to the fact that those in power also have helpers, and they would not want their own helpers to demand more salary or better treatment.

US$1 = HK$7.8, of course.

An example of how FDHs are regarded here in HK is the suggestion, made every couple of years or so by one legislator or another, that they should be subject to a special tax to clear up litter they leave behind when congregating on a Sunday – as they do in certain places every week. This despite the mountains of rubbish left behind by the local populace on beaches and in country parks every weekend and especially on public holidays.

I think such mistreatment is common in the Middle East as well. One hears horror stories about domestics in Saudi Arabia, for example. In Lebanon, where I live, there are some laws to protect domestics (e.g., a domestic’s employer may not retain her passport), but these laws are seldom enforced, and so are routinely violated. Many domestics are virtually imprisoned by their employers; many are beaten; some are sexually abused. One country (I can’t remember if it was Nigeria or Ghana) semi-recently quit issuing exit visas for its citizens to come work in Lebanon as domestics, because the abuse was so bad.

I don’t know how widespread it is here in the US but abusive situations, primarily of immigrants, certainly do happen. There’ve been reports in the Washington Post of foreign diplomats, for example, who bring women in from other countries to serve as housekeepers, but then basically enslave them. One cite (I just googled “domestic worker slavery united states”) is

Is the treatment illegal? Certainly. Does it get reported very often? apparently not :frowning:

In Haiti, for example, there is a traditional sytem known as restavek (Kreyol for ‘stay with’) where poor, usually rural families send their children to wealthier households in the cities. The theory is that the children get housing, food and schooling in return for doing light domestic chores. The reality is often very different: many are not sent to school, and are exploited and abused. There are efforts to regulate this, and some charitable organisations run schools especially for ‘restavek’ children.

In the neighbouring Dominican Republic, where I live, there is a similar set-up in some households. A friend of mine, who is not at all well-off, had a teenage girl from a small town living in her house rent-free so that she could attend school in the city, in return for doing much of the housework. Although this arrangement seemed to please all parties, it is clear that there is much scope for abuse there.

Then you have the question of illegal Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic who are paid less that Dominican domestic servants, and are more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation because they live with the threat of being discovered and deported.

Marky, cheers - the one exchange rate that never changes (the HK dollar is pegged to the Us dollar) and I get it wrong!

Our first helper was very pale skinned (made even paler possibly by all the whitening products she used). There were occasions when wife, daughter and helper were in the lift together and an old person would get in and address the helper in Cantonese, thinking she was the mother!

I’ve put our current one (with us for five years now) on a bonus scheme. If her performance in certain specified areas is up to standard, we pay her up to the previous higher rate. When the first pay cut was introduced, we kept the first helper at the original rate.

The mother-in-law thinks we’re too soft (especially her daughter) and that the helper’s housework isn’t up to scratch (it isn’t), but I just say that we all of us get away with what we can in the workplace. If the helpers are smart as well, cutting corners, not taking the initiative (just like we do at work), then what would we want? A dolt? A simpleton to look after our kid?!

She takes my point.

We have a DH, but my mom’s so fussy and anal about the housework that the they never want to have their contracts renewed. This lady we currently employ has been with us for three years now - she’s from the same Indonesian city that my mom is, so there’s doubtless some amount of kinship involved, but she’s also the only one able to amiably put up with my mother’s incessant complaining about, well, everything. We pay her extra - to keep her with us and all (because dammit, the transition period between a helper who knows the apartment and family well and a new one is a bitch for the entire family), and because she’s really struggling with the finances.

From what I understand the DH agencies can be pretty exploitative. When Ya first came, she given a set of uniforms and a month of “training” for which she ended up owing some $5000.

Ya was (unfairly) fired from her last job, and to fulfill the agency’s satisfaction guarantee they replaced her for free, the cost of the entire thing falling squarely on her shoulders. I believe they still extract a few hundred dollars from her paycheck every month. (I know the math is a little suspect here, but if it’s good enough for my folks, it’s good enough for me.)

Now, Hong Kong is a rather expensive place - and it’s been put forth as an argument against raising FDH wages that “our money is worth a lot more than their money”, to paraphrase it crudely - but Bak Ya, like many other FDHs in HK (and we’ve gone through dozens, I tell you) pays out of her ass to support an entire extended family in Surabaya: a bum husband, four kids, her in-laws, mom and I think a couple of cousins as well. While we’re glad we pay enough to allow her to do this, we wonder often why she doesn’t do something about it.

The problem, IMO, is partly that the DHs’ respective governments actually allow this sort of exploitation of their people to continue. I think Arroyo was on to something when she slapped a ban on exporting more workers to Hong Kong in '03, when they decided to slash wages, but it turned out she couldn’t follow through.

I am trying not to be judgemental, Roger Thornhill and Stark Raven Mad, but do you feel at all that you are exploiting this cut rate help? I realize you are slightly more generous than the average employers from the cases you have stated. I also realize you are actually helping your immigrant housekeepers in a way, but you are also reason for and part and parcel of this exploitation game. Are there other alternatives that employ native workers at a fair wage-- are there other types of agencies? Wold they cost you more? Would you be willing to pay more?

SRM (nice name, by the way), was your mother one of the ethnic Chinese who were forced to emigrate from Indonesia as reult of the anti-Chinese sentiment under Sukarno and then Suharto?

For those not aware of ethnic relations in Indonesia, anti-Chinese sentiment has been a staple of Indonesian nationalism for decades. In fact, since its establishment, Indonesia has refused to grant automatic citizenship rights to ethnic Chinese, though some families have roots stretching back centuries.

Devilsknew, I’m a callous bastard, so I guess the answer to your question must be ‘yes’! Seriously, re your question ‘Are there other types of agencies?’, many employers don’t use agencies to hire helpers. Both of our helpers came to us through the network system that Filipinas have built up. In other words, when our baby was on the way, we told my wife’s brother’s helper (now in her 13th year with them) that we needed a helper. She arranged the interviews: our first choice turned us down because she wanted to work for a Caucasian family. We are only demi-Caucasian!

We have a domestic helper from the Philippines. In a perfect world, no one would be so poor that a middle-class family would be able to afford to hire full-time domestic help. So the situation is exploitative. However, our failing to hire Susan would not benefit her. The fact is, the economic situation in the Philippines is such that her monthly wage is quite high by the standards of her home country. We pay her somewhat above the market rate, but it is not a good idea in general for people to pay far above the market rate, because it screws up the market price for domestic help, fewer people can afford it, and Filipino women who want to work abroad as domestic helpers are denied the opportunity to do so. So we are making the best of a bad situation: we don’t demand anything unreasonable of her, we pay her a generous overtime wage for time worked in excess of 40 hours per week, we give her advance notice if we want her to work extra and the right to refuse if she has other plans (and she does sometimes refuse; it is not as though we have her cowed), etc.

Adding to what S&I says, the real problem is not with overpayment, but with the chronic problem of underpayment. That they can be underpaid with impunity is the main driver that has seen the explosion of local employers hiring Indonesian helpers.

Attitudes towards helpers can be very stone-age, to put it mildly. A large number have no room of their own, but are made to sleep on the sofa, or even the kitchen floor. Some employers forbid the women to wear make-up, even on their day-off. The majority would not countenance a request to stay out overnight, as many of the women wish to do, as they have relatives here, some of whom have married locals and have their own apartments.

Like S&I, I think it comes down to how you treat the helper. And the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Many FDHs will leave a poor employer at the first opportunity, at the end of their first 2-year contract, or even before then.

Helpers are queuing up to get into HK because they are treated better here than in most other places. The minimum wage here is much higher (at least double, IIRC) than what it is in Singapore. And they have equal legal rights to everyone else, on paper anyway, which they certainly don’t in the Middle East. If they get the right advice here, they can sue their employers - and some do. Ever hear of that in Saudi?

The Indonesians put up with below-legal pay because it’s still big money to them. IE, they’d be paid less in SIN. Market forces.

I am happy to screw up the market by paying well over the odds for a hyper-efficient and experienced (25 yrs in HK) maid. If that makes life hard for people who pay rock bottom and want their car cleaned at 4am every morning and granny’s backside wiped at 11pm - too bad. It’s a pleasure!

The Singaporean government is capable of great dickery - we know this (I’m sure at least some of us have heard about the blog incident). As far as I know there isn’t even a minimum wage for FDHs over there.

Roger, my mother’s from Surabaya, where ethnic relations are a lot less tense than anywhere else in the country. She moved to Hong Kong for work.

Yes, we are part of the exploitation. But as S&I points out, what we’re paying her is enough to support ten of her relatives back home. We need the help, and she needs the money - it’s not indentured servitude or anything. I’ve mentioned that several DHs we’ve had have left before their contracts were over, and every time that’s happened they’ve opted to hang around Hong Kong for the couple more weeks they could in hopes of finding new employment. I don’t remember how my folks did it way back then, but in recent memory we’ve always offered free board and meals to a leaving DH to save them the trouble and cost of some lousy motel in Wanchai. I’m not trying to impress with our generosity here - I just don’t want people getting the impression that we’re mistreating our DHs. The ones who hang around long enough very much become part of the family. Ya eats with us and watches 殘酷一叮 (I understand that the HK posters here are expats, so you might not be able to read that - it’s the American Idol parody show with the bad soap actor and the guest celebrities as judges and the bell that goes, “Ding!”) when she gets her stuff done early that night. A couple of my local friends were surprised when they found out about this. One of their helpers didn’t even share cutlery with the rest of the family.

To answer your question, S&I - yes, there are local alternatives - amahs, they’re called. Generally very expensive and fussy, and get just about nothing done except a whole lot of complaining. They can cook though, goddamn, can they cook. We’d employed two at one point, but there is only so much complaining a man’s ear can take (I have told you about my mother, yes?) and my dad decided to hell with them and replaced them one sunny Sunday morning.

Did she find it hard to adjust to the Hong Kong Chinese? I work with several expats from Malaysia and Singapore, and they still find the HK ethos difficult to adjust to, even though they are fluent in Cantonese. More difficulties in adjusting in many ways than we European expats, although that may have something to do with how long one has lived here.

I’m fighting a losing battle to wean my 9 year-old off this drivel. Only a marginal improvement on 繼續無敵掌門人 - a show guaranteed to make you braindead…or your money back.

The most oft-heard complaint in our household (even now, a good seven years after our move) is how rude Hong Kong is. All the shoving and being considered a mainlander - my mother considers this an insult. We got back at Hong Kong during SARS, though, by making sure to loudly cough or sneeze upon entering and leaving any elevator.

It might just be Good Ol’ Days Syndrome, but the 掌門人 I watched as a kid wasn’t all that bad. Even then I’d known that they’d basically copied the entire structure and even some of the games from Taiwanese variety shows, but I distinctly remember Eric Tsang as having been somewhat funny.

(You tried that other cable service? They’ve got Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel and all that. It’s at least a little healthier than TVB programming.)

It would no doubt come as a surprise to many people that for a Chinese person to be referred to by a Hong Kong Chinese person as a ‘Mainlander’ is a put-down, with its associations of backwardness, dirtiness and general gaucheness. Hence, all the debate about whether to include discrimination against Mainlanders in the proposed racial discrimination legislation. Of course, it won’t happen (politically uber-sensitive), but the very fact that print and TV media are talking about it shows how deeply-held such (mis)perceptions are.

A letter from a foreign domestic helper has been published in today’s South China Morning Post. Reiterating that the main problem is the collusion between local employers and employment agencies, she draws particular attention to the practice of agencies giving advice to employers on the mechanics of underpayment. (And presumably on how to avoid being prosecuted - actually the main way to avoid that is simply to hire a compliant helper, which are of course just the type of women being targeted for recruitment “in the field” in Indonesia.)

Since the agencies are in cahoots with the employers, they are no good, to put it mildly, in terms of mediating on behalf of the helpers, or, say, reporting their mistreatment to the government.

Her diagnosis of the treatment of many Indonesian women is indeed bleak: “Helpers rae being abused physically and mentally, and on top of that they do not get paid the minimum wage.”

She’s worked in Hong Kong since 1999.

Does the States have any similar problems with the foreign maids employed by many (well-to-do) families?

In Singapore, maids are usually paid in the range of S$250 to S$300, with 1 Singapore dollar about 1.6 US dollars. There have been cases of ill-treatment, and times and times again employers do get charged, either to pay fine or to serve jail time for abusing maids.

The relatives and friends I know who have maid, they do give the maid her own room, but she is much expected to take care of everything in the house.

There is defintely ill-treatment going on. But how bad, I have no idea.