Hong Kong’s domestic workers, worn down by Covid, call time on poor pay

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Out of her HK$5,200 monthly salary, Melissa, a 33-year-old domestic helper in Hong Kong, supports several family members in the Philippines, including her 13-year-old son. Her income, above the minimum helpers’ wage of HK$4,730 “should be enough for me to live and sustain my son’s future,” she said. But “aside from being a single mom, I am also supporting my siblings and my father back in the Philippines”.

Hong Kong’s 350,000 foreign domestic helpers, mostly women from the Philippines and Indonesia, keep the global city of 7.5mn people going, often for relatively little money. They bring up babies, care for the elderly, walk dogs, cook and clean. But as Hong Kong emerges from pandemic travel restrictions that left helpers cut off from their own families, many argue a pay rise is long overdue. 

“The Hong Kong government has been relying on migrant domestic workers to take care of the city’s population,” said the Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers last month. Migrant domestic workers work “extremely long hours” for “extremely low wages”, the Federation added. While the minimum wage for regular Hongkongers increased by 6.7 per cent, domestic helpers’ wages rose just 2.2 per cent, Fadwu said. It calls for a wage rise of almost one-third to $6,228. The Labour department says it reviews helpers’ wages regularly and that these live-in staff are exempted from regular minimum wage rules.

“Nobody can deny [helpers] are super important to Hong Kong and really vital to our day-to-day lives,” said Manisha Wijesinghe, executive director of Help for Domestic Workers, a charity. On top of their salary, helpers are entitled to a food allowance if meals are not provided, accommodation with their employer, flights to Hong Kong from their home country and healthcare. 

For helpers who support their families back home, meeting all the demands placed on them is hard, even more so during the pandemic. “Most of the time when you go abroad, you are the breadwinner,” said Katrina Eeyan Villamarin, assistant programme manager at Enrich, a charity that organises financial training for helpers. “They come in with debts already,” she said, adding that even if the employer pays the flight, there are often agency fees (estimated at about HK $15,000) to factor in.

The emotional burden for migrants is also a heavy one — some leave children at just a few months old and work in Hong Kong for ten to 15 years. “There is a lot of guilt associated with coming to Hong Kong, family relationships are strained, family members wrongfully assume they are living the high life in this fancy metropolitan city,” explains Wijesinghe. 

Ultimately their visa and existence in Hong Kong is tied to their employer and a lot depends on that relationship. “A lot of domestic workers come to HK, have great experiences, build up their lives and . . . there is a lot of love between all of them,” she says. But when things go wrong, working relations can sour very quickly. Charities say many workers suffered poor mental health during the pandemic, not least because they were under pressure to send more money home as relatives lost their jobs elsewhere.

On Sunday, their one day off, helpers tend to gravitate to green spaces such as Victoria Park near Causeway Bay. They share food and on occasion, sing karaoke — a rare freedom from the workplace that is also their home. 

Jane, 39, from the Philippines, saved 60,000 pesos from her work as a teacher so she could relocate to Hong Kong six years ago. She says the hardest thing was moving in with a family she didn’t know, and adjusting to a different culture. “I wanted to get my freedom after work, I wanted to go for a walk, I talked to my employers to give me a few minutes to breathe outside the house. They said, yes,” she remembers. 

For now, she is funding her 18-year-old daughter through college in the Philippines. Will she become a helper? “I won’t allow her,” Jane says. Being a helper “can be a good way to live abroad and make money . . . [but] we are living in a world of technology. There are other ways to make money.”



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