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By: Celia Lai, Winnie Ngai, James Allen, Ellen He

Domestic helpers are an integral part in Hong Kong. Since 1973, the Hong Kong government has allowed foreign nationals to come to Hong Kong to work as domestic helpers. With over 350,000 helpers in Hong Kong, many households choose to employ foreign domestic helpers to help with a number of tasks. This is beneficial for helpers from low-income countries or regions, who can work for a higher wage than they would normally get in their home country, and send money back to help their family live more comfortably.

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Domestic helpers may perform similar roles in the household. However, Hong Kong people do have a preference towards domestic helpers. Since employers can only import helpers if they cannot recruit suitable local helpers in Hong Kong, the number of foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong reflect the labour demand in Hong Kong which can showcase their preference on the imported helpers. Looking deeper into the domestic helper population provided by the Immigration Department, trends have been identified in different ethnic minorities preferred by Hong Kong employers.

Indonesian and Filipino helpers have always been the top two priorities in Hong Kong. The population of the two tied in 2008 at about 123,000. Yet the number of Filipino helpers had been constantly increasing and finally outnumbered that of the Indonesian helpers. It has become the dominant domestic helpers in Hong Kong.

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The ideal domestic helper

To discover the reasons behind the preference towards the Filipino household helpers in Hong Kong, a street-level study was distributed to 90 Hong Kong people (from less than 18 years old to over 55) from districts with different income levels. A total of 52 of them are currently employing or have employed while 38 answered the questionnaires on sheer impression on these helpers in Hong Kong. The questionnaire answers allude to the expectations of the average Hong Konger to an ideal domestic helper when it comes to employing a foreign one.

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Through studies, trends have been noticed that identify what the ideal domestic helper would be for a Hong Kong employer. Hong Kong people especially look for those being diligent and behaved. They look for helpers who can deal with all housework more than taking care of the elderly and children. As for the language requirement, they would wish to see a bilingual helper but they are more lenient when it comes to speaking Cantonese. There are more than 64% of them expecting their helpers to be experienced and more than 66% expecting them to be able to bear criticisms.

The Result

However, based on what the labour market provides, the ideal maid does not exist. Among the five major helper exporting countries, both parties prefer those from The Philippines, accounting to nearly 60% for a number of reasons. However, they still share similar reasons for opting for the domestic from that specific country.

The both parties tend to take note of the reputation of the domestic helpers. Having better reputation rank the top of the preference reason list. Domestic helpers from The Philippines have been dominating the corresponding population since 2012. It has formed a stereotype that Hong Kong people would instantly think of them when talking about the domestic helpers in Hong Kong. It especially affects the helper employers when making a choice because they do not know the person they are hiring until he or she has arrived Hong Kong and start working. Reputation is therefore more of a leading reasons for them. The two parties also share the view of the emphasis on the helpers’ English speaking skills. There are slightly more people who have not hired a helper reckon that speaking English is more important than their reputation.

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Employers main reasons of their preference

The two parties also deem “easy to direct” as a major reasons to make the preference on the helpers among all 5 countries. However, employers take note of the culture difference more based on their current or previous experience with their helpers. Indeed culture is important especially when one has to employ a foreigner to work at home and live with them. Any cultural clashes could determine the status of the employer-employee relationship.

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General public’s main reasons of their preference

Being a maid in Hong Kong does not require higher qualification. From the survey, we can see it is especially a insignificant factors for the employers. Yet, language is a major factor when choosing a domestic helper. The survey tells us Hong Kong people want to have a English-speaking domestic helper. Given the nature of being a domestic helper in Hong Kong, one without a good understanding of either English or Chinese will have a hard time finding a welcoming home. They are less likely to be able to follow instructions and understand the needs of the employer.

There are domestic helpers in Hong Kong who are incapable of speaking English at all. Still they are able to secure a job here for a quite a period of time. Another set of questionnaire was also distributed on the street interviewing 60 domestic helpers. Surprisingly some replied with fluent Cantonese or Mandarin. It relates hugely to their past experiences in some other countries. According to the survey, most of them have the exposure in Singapore (17%), a country where they speak mostly  English and Taiwan (13%) speaking Mandarin. One of them even have worked in Taiwan for up to 12 years before coming to Hong Kong. This make them more preferable to the local since the employers put emphasis on communication especially in English.

However, some incidents in past years have caused some Hong Kong people to look upon to foreign domestic helpers less favourably. A handful of the interviewees who have no experience in employing a helper pinpointed their refusal of employing the Filipinos because of the Manila Hostage Crisis, which happened in August 2010. During the incident, the perpetrator, an ex police officer, was of Filipino nationality. Public mood shifted as a result of the crisis and the attitudes of some employers towards domestic helpers particularly of Filipino nationality was tainted with the memory of the event. Referring to the population of the domestic helper in Hong Kong in 2010, it did not soar but stay still until 2011. Yet, it kept on rising despite the start of the right of aboard case, in which the domestic helpers fought for their residency after working in Hong Kong for seven years.

The cases of domestic helpers behaving improperly or abusing the children or elderly people are not unheard of. Recently an Indonesian helper taking video and images of the children she was showering has raised the discontent of Hong Kong people on the internet. A spokesperson for the Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body claimed that showing pictures or videos of naked children showering is “not a big problem” in Indonesia. It demonstrates a cultural clash at the same time. That is why most interviewees (66%) did not choose helpers from the other four nation because they do not know these helpers very well. From this, we also learn that Hong Kong people are rather sided with information about the domestic helpers in Hong Kong which are mostly from The Philippines and Indonesia.

Apart from the dominating opinions, there are a few comments left by the interviewees that are worth to talk about. Several employers reveal that they have received bad treatment or experience from their previous helpers and thus have swapped to helper from other countries. One generalized that the helpers from Indonesia are less bright than those from The Philippines. A handful did not check the two popular boxes but opted for helpers from Nepal and Thailand whom they specified as “more friendly” and “honest”.

The Hong Kong government has strict eligibility criteria for foreign domestic helpers who wish to apply for a visa to live and work in Hong Kong. For example, criteria on minimum income, nature of the work intended and residency of HKSAR must be satisfied. The current minimum wage for a domestic helper is $4,410 per month.

More recently, thousands of Filipinos working in Hong Kong have been throwing off by the suspension of the oversea working permit of the Filipino government. The Hong Kong government had to work with the Filipino government to come up with ‘flexible solutions’ that allowed those whose visa were expiring in that time period to remain. A temporary shortage of Filipino domestic helper has triggered.

The survey asked the willingness of the employers if they would pay more on top of the minimum wage for a helper that was more proficient with their tasks, more trustworthy or took more initiative. Some employers from wealthier districts like the Kowloon district in Hong Kong were willing to pay over $2,000 above the minimum wage for a better helper. 

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Nonetheless, there is still more than 15% of employers earning between $100,000 to $150,000 per month stated that they would not pay above the minimum wage for a domestic helper that is competent in many areas of home management. This is by no means a clear indication that the wealthier employers in Hong Kong do not value their employees, but suggests there may be a disparity between earning power and compensation between the employer and the employee. Rich does not equal generous. By contrast, employers earning a mere $20,000-$35,000 a month appear to be willing to pay exceptional domestic helpers up to $2000 more a month.

Apart from the suspension of the approval of overseas work permits for Filipino domestic helpers that affect the work and arrangements of thousands of helpers, there are still some other factors that will change the demand for the helpers. The Filipino media has revealed that mainland China may import foreign domestic helpers for monthly salary at $15000. This is yet to be formed. However since June 2016, the government of the Guangdong province has practiced $7000 per month on each foreign domestic helpers for the families who come from Hong Kong, Macau or other part of the world in hopes of sustaining their life style in cities like Shenzhen and to prevent brain drain. However, they are still significantly higher than the level of the average income made in The Philippines and Indonesia.

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Source:The Hong Kong government website 2017, Taiwan Ministry of Labor 2017, Research Office of 
Hong Kong Legislative Council Secretariat 2017, Helper Choice of Singapore 2017, Exmoo News 
(Macau) 2015

Hong Kong has some interior factors on the demand for domestic helpers. The demand is expected to grow in next 30 years, according to Dr Law Chi-Kwong, the Secretary for Labour and Welfare Department. He said that up to 600,000 helpers in total may be needed because of the ageing Hong Kong population. Moreover, the open up policy in mainland China is another concern as current domestic helpers in Hong Kong may seek jobs across the border for a higher salary.

However, Teresa Liu Tsui-lan, Managing Director of Technic Employment Service Centre doubted that Hong Kong’s Filipino domestic helpers would flock to the mainland.

“It was unlikely that they would be offered two to four times their current wages,” she said.

For domestic helpers being interviewed, all of them prefer to work in Hong Kong then other places. Nearly half of them (47%) like Hong Kong for the higher salary. A total of 40% of them like Hong Kong for the weekly holiday which they are most famous for their mass gathering at the Victoria Park and Statue Square. Some do appreciate the judicial system and the open society in Hong Kong. They may choose to stay in Hong Kong over other countries.

There are two to three helpers revealing the fact that they treated Hong Kong as a stepping stone to other developments and opportunities. Hong Kong might not be as appealing to the foreign domestic helpers, especially after the Mainland negotiate a better offers for helpers. Hong Kong government has shown their interest towards importing more helpers from Myanmar. On top of the basic benefices that Hong Kong has been attracting foreign workers since 1973, Hong Kong may not face shortage despite the external and internal problems.