Unions Ramping Up Pressure for Respecting Rights of Hong Kong’s Foreign Domestic Workers

More than 300,000 foreign domestic workers are vital to sustaining Hong Kong society, yet their existence is almost invisible, their voices marginalised, and concerns sidelined. We spoke to FADWU about their campaigns to protect domestic workers’ rights.

Editor’s Note:

The over 300,000 foreign domestic workers, in a city of 7 million people, are vital to sustaining the Hong Kong society and economy by taking care of the families, children and the elderly. Yet their existence is almost invisible except for Sundays, their only days off in the week, when they rest and meet with friends in public spaces. Their voices are marginalised, and concerns sidelined. 

However, stories of employers’ abusive behaviours, especially physical and sexual assaults punctuate the news from time to time. Advocates for foreign domestic workers’ rights argue that the specific work arrangement and deep power imbalance between the employers and workers are key factors, but the Hong Kong government too contributes to such conditions by restricting the physical and job mobilities of workers.

ALR recently spoke to An An, the organising secretary at the Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions (FADWU) in Hong Kong. FADWU, a union federation composed of local and migrant domestic workers unions of different nationalities, has been assisting domestic worker organizing and advocating for policy changes.

Following the release of a report, Fit for Purpose, assessing recruitment agencies’ lack of compliance on Code of Practice and continuing campaigns for a decent living wage and against discriminatory policies on “job-hopping“,  we talked about some of the biggest issues for domestic workers, and why it has been difficult to change practices policies, and the challenges to organize workers.

ALR: Let’s start with the consultation meeting you have just participated (days before this interview) at Hong Kong’s Labour Department. What was the purpose of the meeting, and what did you hope to convey in the meeting?

FADWU: We meet with the Labour Department every year. They send requests to migrant domestic workers unions and NGOs to meet to review the minimum wage for migrant domestic workers. There were about 20 people from various organisations at the meeting. We raised our demand for a reasonable minimum wage, but the Labour Department will only say they have received our advice and will consider it and consult also with the employers. As far as I know, they only meet with migrant domestic workers once a year, but they would meet more than once with the employers. Then at the end of September or beginning of October, they will issue a press release, announcing whether they will raise or not raise the minimum wage.

ALR: I would like to focus on the wage demand. In your press release, the demand is to have the minimum wage increase to HKD 6,100 and food allowance to HKD 2,500. What goes into your calculation of what a living wage should be for migrant domestic workers?

FADWU: Our calculation is based on Oxfam Hong Kong’s 2018 report on the living wage in Hong Kong. Their proposal is that the living wage per hour should be HKD 54.7 (or USD 6.9). We multiply it by 8 hours per day and 26.5 days per month, minus the rent of HKD 5,000 and food of HKD 2,500 because usually rent and food are covered by the employers. The final number is HKD 5,800. That was our demand in 2019. Since 2019, the minimum wage has been frozen. This year we include the 5% inflation rate from 2019 to 2022. So our demand this year is HKD 6,100 (or USD 777).

ALR: For those who don’t know, what is the average monthly wage for migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong?

FADWU: It is about HKD 4,600 (or USD 586). We need to also look at the fact that household incomes (for the local Hong Kong residents) in Hong Kong have been increasing, Hong Kong’s economy has been growing, inflation is also going up – everything is going up except for the wages of migrant domestic workers. So actually it leads to a decrease in their real wage.

ALR: The average monthly household income in Hong Kong is HKD 25,000 to 30,000 a month but in in comparison migrant domestic workers are earning below HKD 5,000. What about food allowance?

FADWU: There is currently a food allowance of HKD 1,173 per month. This is much lower than the actual cost of food in Hong Kong. In the Hong Kong government’s statistics, for a one-person household, the monthly cost for food is HKD 4,000. Somehow they think the migrant workers can eat with only HKD 1,000. Today (at the Labour Department meeting), I actually asked the officials how we are going to buy a whole day’s food for HKD $39, while a normal meal in a Hong Kong restaurant costs HKD $50 to 60. But the government officials didn’t answer.

ALR: Do they normally give a response to your demands at the meeting?

FADWU: In this meeting, we do not only discuss the minimum wage, but bring up all sorts of issues faced by migrant workers. Because there are so many participants in the room, so after every participant raised their concerns, it’s already past an hour, and the Labour Department only have an hour for the meeting.

ALR: That’s certainly not enough time for the meeting.

FADWU: They answer our questions only in very general terms.

ALR: For those who are not familiar with the situation of migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong, you know there are over 370,000 domestic workers in Hong Kong mostly from countries in Southeast Asia. It is about 9% of the whole Hong Kong working population.

FADWU: The number is much less because of Hong Kong’s travel restrictions during COVID-19. It is less than 340,000 by the end of 2021.

ALR: Why does Hong Kong recruit so many foreign domestic workers?

FADWU: Foreign workers are getting cheaper and cheaper. The minimum household income requirement for hiring a migrant domestic worker, which is HKD 15,000, hasn’t changed since the 1970s, which is insane compared to the economic growth over the past half century.

The Hong Kong government has never had a holistic plan to provide enough care services for old people or young children, so families have to solve the problem by themselves. The easier solution is to hire someone from another country who will accept a much lower wage than the minimum wage in Hong Kong.

ALR: What is the role and responsibility of the Hong Kong government in helping to facilitate the recruitment and the migration process?

The government is supposed to monitor labour issues and protect the rights of migrant domestic workers. But there is a systematic discrimination against them by the government. Hong Kong society also in general discriminates against people with darker skin color.

When migrant domestic workers face abuse, they can’t make a claim easily with the Labour Department, because they only have one day off per week on Sunday, but the Labour Department is not open on Sundays. We have requested the Labour Department for many years now to open a complaint desk on Sundays but they refused.

If migrant domestic workers get terminated from their jobs, or if they face abuse and want to terminate the contract, they will have a visa issue with the Immigration Department because they can only stay for two weeks after they terminate contracts. So if you have a labour claim, what should you do? You can extend your visa by changing it to a visitor visa but you cannot work. If you cannot work, how can you afford to stay in Hong Kong and pursue a case which will take a half year or a whole year to go through the whole process without income?

All the departments are on the employer side, especially the Immigration Department which has arbitrarily rejected workers’ visa applications without giving any reason. There are many cases where when a worker terminated their contract due to abuse and applied for a new visa, they got rejected by the Immigrant Department without any valid reason. They also cannot change their occupation from domestic work to, say, work in a restaurant, and you can’t get permanent residency in Hong Kong.

ALR: I was reading the news about the challenges facing a migrant domestic worker filing a lawsuit against her employer for sexual harassment after she has returned to her home country. We read about such stories from time to time where foreign domestic workers were beaten up, physically assaulted and sexually assaulted by the employers. I suppose the actual occurrence is much higher than the extreme cases reported in the media. Why do we see so much abuse like this? How can we address that issue?

FADWU: I think it’s because of the working environment of the migrant domestic workers. They work inside the house of the employers, behind the closed doors. Hong Kong doesn’t have labour inspection for domestic workers. So there’s no monitoring. This is because of Hong Kong’s live-in policy which was imposed in 2003 where workers cannot live outside.

Many would consider living outside as a better choice for them, because they will have clarity and boundary about when to finish work for the day. But with the live-in arrangement, it means you have to work 24 hours. And if the employers confiscate your passport and your phones and don’t allow you to go outside, you basically become their slave.

Fundamentally, migrant domestic workers are not treated as real workers. Even the government uses the “foreign domestic helper” to describe them. They think the workers are just helpers and they’re not doing a real job.

ALR: That’s quite an important point. If the government doesn’t see them as workers, this means that they don’t have many of the basic workers’ rights.

FADWU: Migrant domestic workers are not covered by minimum wage ordinance and social welfare schemes in Hong Kong.

ALR: When abuse happens, what can migrant workers do? How do they report the cases? When they do report those cases, are their complaints being taken seriously?

FADWU: In theory, if it’s a sexual or physical assault, they can report to the police. If it’s a dispute with the employer or employment agencies, they can report to the Labour Department. They can report to the Equal Opportunity Committee for violating discrimination ordinances.

However, very often the complaint mechanisms in Hong Kong are abused by the employers who will call the police and say that workers have stolen things when they didn’t. I have seen many cases where workers suffer abuse or ill treatment, and they want to terminate the contract, the employers get very angry and report them to the Immigration Department, and make sure they are blacklisted by Immigration Department so they cannot no longer apply for work visa.

Most of the cases are filed when workers quit the job, because they literally don’t have time to deal with the legal processes during their working days, and also because they’re afraid of the retaliation from the employer that they will simply fire them.

The assistance the government provide is very limited. For example, the Labour Department set up a hotline designated for domestic migrant workers with many language options, but the problem is that the hotline is outsourced to an interpretation company.

We tried to call but the operator was not able to answer our labour enquiry and suggested us to call the Labour Department instead. That was quite hilarious because we are calling the Labour Department hotline!

ALR: I want to move on to the question of recruitment agency which is the subject of a recent report by FADWU. What are the main issues you seek to highlight in this report?

FADWU: The most important issue is the overcharging of recruitment fees. According to the laws in Hong Kong, recruitment agency can only charge 10% of the workers’ first month salary (approximately HKD 460) as the recruitment fee. But in the fact, according to our survey, workers pay over HKD 10,000. This is all illegal. They also charge workers for getting a Hong Kong Identity Card which is free.

The second issue is the confiscation of passport and Hong Kong Identity Card, which is clearly illegal. The employment agency will themselves confiscate the documents because they want to control the workers before they fully pay the agency. They will tell the employers to also confiscate workers’ passports, saying that if the worker keeps the visa they will borrow money from loan sharks, which is ironic because it is the agencies who set workers up in loan bondage to charge illegal agency fees.

ALR: The report mentioned the Code of Practice to regulate the conducts of the recruitment agency which came into existence in 2017. Based on your investigation, how much impact has the code of practice had on the on the practices of the recruitment agencies?

FADWU: I think it’s zero. Not only workers but even the employers said they think it’s useless. It’s widely criticised because it doesn’t do much. It’s not a law. It doesn’t carry any legal weight. It’s all voluntary.

The Labour Department always says we expect the employment agencies to follow the recommendations. They say they do inspections but I don’t see much action taken against the agencies.

Over the last three years, the number of the employment agency being rejected of the certification of practice only adds up to 10 out of a total of 1,500 agencies. But we find that 100 per cent of the employment agency is not fully compliant with the Code of Practice.

ALR: It’s impossible only 10 are in violation. What are the report’s recommendations?

FADWU: We have a long list of recommendations in the report. We really want to see a legislation passed that makes it illegal for any party to confiscate the Identity Card and passport. We think it is a very easy and basic issue that we can easily tackle. But even on such the basic issues, the government is unwilling to take action. It will also be useful to have joint international investigation and campaign on the issue of recruitment agency fees.

The loans (that workers borrow to pay for the fees) are usually taken in Indonesia or Philippines (where migrant domestic workers come from), and when they come to Hong Kong they pay the fees in Hong Kong. So the Labour Department won’t even take the case back and asks workers to go to their own government because it falls out of their jurisdiction. And, workers face a 12-month time limit to sue the recruitment agency, but many people don’t even know they have such rights.

ALR: It is about pushing away the problems. I also want to ask about how migrant domestic workers fared under COVID-19. I know there were many issues that domestic migrant workers were facing, but one of the issues was obviously because they live 24 hours a day with the employers, and often don’t have their own room.

FADWU: How workers are treated entirely depends on the employers. In some cases, the employers would blame the workers for bringing the virus home. But actually it’s the employers who go outside every day and take public transportations, meet with people and expose themselves to more risks than the domestic workers. But when workers got sick, they were terminated and left homeless or forced into quarantine at unsuitable places such as a car.

Many serious forms of discrimination that migrant workers face during COVID-19 are caused by the government: call by the Secretary for Labour and Welfare to not allow migrant domestics to go out on Sundays which was de facto telling employers to deprive their right to day-offs; sudden imposition of mandatory swab test and vaccination on May 1, 2021; several high-profile, massive joint actions sweeping parks and places where migrant domestic workers congregate on Sundays, fining them who are caught non-wearing of masks; designated quarantine hotels for domestic workers separating from all other passengers (suddenly enforced in 2021 and aborted for no clear reason in 2022). There is a government-created, prevail sense that the migrant domestic workers are carriers of the virus.

Finally, the government does not provide information to migrant domestic workers in their native languages. As many workers didn’t know the constant changing compulsory testing requirements, they were fined for $10,000. Some of them were afraid of being arrested so they paid the fine even they didn’t have money and got wage deducted by their employers. Some appeal to the government but their appeals were never answered.

ALR: I also want to ask about migrant worker organizations. There are domestic workers unions in Hong Kong, some of which are affiliated with FADWU. What is the situation with their organising now? How many migrant domestic workers are in these unions?

FADWU: FADWU, which was established in 2010, has six union affiliates organised by nationality, including Filipino, Indonesian, Thai, Nepali and locals. In total there are more than 600 migrant domestic workers’ union members organized by FADWU, not much in light of the total number of migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong.

But many workers join other organisations such as church-based and other community organisations. And, under Covid-19, many workers didn’t have their Sunday off so it’s very hard for us to organise workers. The social distancing rules made it even harder.

ALR: I am wondering why it is so difficult to organise workers into unions.

FADWU: When we do the outreach and introduce them to what a union is and what benefits it will bring, some are interested, then we will further introduce them or keep their contacts until they decide to join. Some also come to us for help but they don’t necessarily want to join the union since there is money involved. Members have to pay a membership fee, which is HKD 5 to 10 per month depending on the specific union. Some are cautious about paying money.

ALR: Going forward, what would you be focusing on in the next few months?

FADWU: We will continue pushing the government to review the Code of Practice and regulate agencies. There will be a public consultation early next year. We are also focusing on addressing job-hopping accusation. On Aug 7 we conducted a press release rebutting the so-called “job-hopping” accusation from the public and Immigration Department.

In the long term, we will continue to carry out advocacy around the two-week rule and live-in policy. It has been there for so many years, and it seems very hard to touch. But we are committed to tackling these issues.