How Hong Kong’s Maid Trade is Making Life Worse for Domestic Workers Throughout Asia


Lily Kuo writes:  Every few years, the city of Hong Kong is rocked by news that another foreign domestic worker has been badly abused by her employer. Last month, 23-year-old Erwiana Sulistyaningsih told authorities that she had been beaten daily, hit with mops, rulers, and clothes hangers until she could no longer walk.

But Hong Kong’s treatment of the thousands of women who are known here as “helpers” has ramifications beyond a case of physical abuse. The city’s double standard for foreign domestic wages and its increasingly strict policies are making conditions worse for hundreds of thousands of women across the entire region, where almost half of the world’s domestic workers are employed.

Hong Kong's Domestic Help System Under Scrutiny Following Recent Cases Of Abuse

Globally there are 53 million domestic workers, mostly women, according to a conservative estimate by the International Labor Organization (ILO)—that’s an increase of almost 60% since the mid-1990s, and the ILO says the true figure may be closer to 100 million (pdf, p. 19). Some 41% of them are working in the Asia Pacific region, where keeping hired help has long been a tradition from the lower middle class to the wealthiest of families.

Domestic workers from poorer countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar pour into Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and Malaysia. This is Asia’s “maid trade,” a serpentine industry that involves hundreds of recruitment agencies, money lendersdebt collectors, and large government bureaucracies—not to mention about 21 million mostly uneducated women who work as housekeepers, nannies, and caretakers.

Estimates of the world’s distribution of domestic workers as of 2010. International Labour Organization

Hong Kong opened its doors to these maids and caretakers in the mid-1970s and now has one of the highest densities of domestic workers in the world. One in every eight households, and one in every three households with children, employs a housekeeper, usually a foreigner. These “helpers” make up about 10% of the working population, and 4.4% of the overall population.


The city has become a home away from home for many workers, in particular those from the Philippines—expats often refer to their housekeeper generically as “my Filipina”—and Indonesia. On Sundays, their day off, women toting blankets and cardboard crowd the city’s parks, underpasses, as well an open plaza at the bottom of HSBC’s Hong Kong headquarters. They share snacks and McDonald’s sundaes and play music on their phones. Some dance or play sports. “The people are kind here,” says Ann, 28, a domestic worker from Indonesia, sitting on a concrete ledge overlooking a basketball court at Victoria Park in central Hong Kong. She is wearing a sparkly light blue blouse, wedges and hazel-colored contact lenses—on her days off, she likes to dress up.

Domestic workers below the HSBC building in Hong Kong. Getty Images/Jessica Hromas

Overworked and underpaid

As one of the wealthiest locales in East Asia, Hong Kong has traditionally been the most sought-after destination for foreign domestic workers. It offers nominal protections such as paid annual leave, one day off a week, and legal channels through which to report complaints.

But for years the city has been keeping those wages artificially low with a two-tiered structure: HK$4,010 (US$515) a month for foreign domestic workers, and between HK$5,760 and HK$6,240 a month for everyone else, based on a 48-hour work week.

“The wage of the migrant domestic workers [in Hong Kong] has actually decreased,” said Fish Ip, managing direct of International Domestic Workers Federation. Taking into account inflation and the value of the Hong Kong dollar against other currencies, many foreign domestic workers are making less than they would have 16 years ago. Moreover, as Hong Kong’s median monthly income rose over 15% between 1998 and 2012, to HK$20,700 a month, the minimum wage for foreign domestic helpers has only risen 3.9%, or HK$150 (paywall).

Here’s how the minimum wage for foreign domestic workers (FDWs) has compared to average wages for workers in Hong Kong over the past decade:


Migrant domestic workers typically earn enough to send half of their salaries home—and that’s after the six months to a year they can spend paying off charges from recruitment and employment agencies. In Sulistyaningsih’s case, she owed aboutfour months of wages to a recruitment agency.

Hong Kong’s minimum wage for domestic workers also means little when there’s no limit on working hours. According to a report (pdf) by Amnesty International, a third of women surveyed said they worked 17 hours a day. Most only take one day off a week, which means many are working over 100 hours a week, making Hong Kong’s domestic workers some of the most overworked in the world. ”Objectively speaking, domestic workers are probably the most undervalued workers to work in Hong Kong,” says human rights lawyer Rob Connelly.


Wages are based on the most recent data available. International Labour Organization

Low wages throughout Asia

Hong Kong’s low minimum wage also sets a low bar for other countries that recruit or send domestic workers, contributing to lower wages throughout the region.

In Taiwan, typical domestic worker wages are close to Hong Kong’s, or about NT$15,840 a month ($510). In Singapore, workers earn on average betweenS$400 and S$600 ($316-$475) a month. In Malaysia, where the cost of living is much lower than in Hong Kong, monthly pay for domestic workers is between 400 ringgit to 600 ringgit (between $121 and $181).

“An increase or decrease of foreign domestic worker wages in Hong Kong may impact wages for workers in some other destinations,” said Reiko Harima, managing director of the regional nonprofit Asian Migrant Centre. “Other countries may experience a shortage of foreign domestic workers if the wage is much higher in Hong Kong and the majority of workers prefer to migrate to Hong Kong, and [other countries] thus have to increase wage standards.”

Countries are also taking a cue from Hong Kong. Last year when Malaysia implemented a new minimum wage for all of the country’s workers, it followed Hong Kong’s model and excluded domestic helpers, the ILO has noted (pdf, p. 80).

Hong Kong's Domestic Help System Under Scrutiny Following Recent Cases Of Abuse

Domestic workers relaxing on a Sunday in central Hong Kong. Getty Images

“They do dirty jobs. That means they can be treated badly.”

Within Hong Kong, increasingly draconian policies in the city-state are exposing more migrant domestic workers to abuses like those suffered by Sulistyangsih. A local couple was arrested last year for burning their Indonesian maid with an iron and beating her with a bike chain. Earlier this month, a Hong Kong woman was arrested for hitting and pulling the hair of her Bangladeshi housekeeper.

This year, the government began implementing a rule that bars helpers from renewing their visas if they have changed employers more than three times in a year, a rule that’s meant to prevent “job hopping” but makes it more difficult to leave bad employers, said Sringatin, head of the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union. Ever since 2003, Hong Kong has required that foreign domestic workers live with their employers, a rule that exposes workers to unlimited working hours and gives them few avenues for escape if their employers become abusive…

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