Hong Kong’s Foreign Domestic Helpers: Modern Day Slavery?

Hong Kong, despite being the richest city in the world, has one of the highest wealth gaps in the world. A sub-group of this? Foreign domestic workers, or ‘helpers’, the majority of whom come from The Philippines or Indonesia, who are tasked with everyday household chores, such as cleaning, cooking, and doing the laundry. Though this seems innocuous enough, many draw parallels between helpers and modern-day slaves.

Hong Kong laws dictate that, among other things, “the employer shall provide the Helper with suitable accommodation with reasonable privacy.” This means that no matter what, a domestic worker must live with the people they work for, essentially leaving them on call at all times, constantly being monitored. In situations where employers are exploitative or demeaning to workers, contract hours can easily be breached, meaning that helpers can be forced to work up to 21 hours at a time without a break. In addition to this, the Hong Kong property market is incredibly expensive – most families would be unable or unwilling to afford a property with an extra bedroom for a helper. In luxurious instances, helpers are assigned a wetroom with space for a small mattress on the floor, though many sleep in cupboards or storage rooms. Some do not even get a ‘room’ for themselves, having to sleep in kitchens or living rooms. A large number of domestic workers share rooms with the children of the house. In dire instances, helpers are forced to sleep in corridors between bedrooms or in bathrooms. No matter where they sleep, however, very few domestic workers are able to have a comfortable space that they call their own.

In addition to lack of privacy, many domestic workers are paid very little for the long hours that they undertake. Workers that are paid legally earn 4010HKD a month, or roughly €455. There is no limit on working hours. The average helper works 17 hours a day, meaning that the average hourly rate is approximately €1.13. Employers should also provide food for workers, or give them a monthly food allowance of 300 HKD (€34). This is not much to live off in the most expensive city in the world. 

The above paragraphs all explain what life is like for a domestic worker if their employer follows the law. A large number of them do not. Many take advantage of the simplistic laws surrounding the treatment of domestic workers, and some outrightly ignore them. Given that helpers are forced to live with their employers, it is very difficult to escape if a situation turns sour. Employers also take documents such as passports and birth certificates from their helpers, meaning that even if an opportunity to escape did present itself, they would be unable to go far without documentation. 

Some employers restrict freedoms, not allowing domestic workers any privacy or rest time. Law states that helpers must be given 24 hours of uninterrupted leave a week, though this is often ignored. This is immoral in itself, but others take the abuse one step further. Verbal abuse is common in households with domestic workers – employers often see helpers as beneath them, so address them with derogatory terms such as ‘dog’, ‘stupid’, and ‘disgusting’. Many refer to their employee as their nationality, using ‘my Indonesian’ or ‘my Filipino’ when referring to them. 

Physical abuse is also rampant in this industry – sexual assault and beatings are all too commonplace for domestic workers. Amnesty International tells of helpers being groped and raped by their employers, as well as being beaten as punishment for what their employers decide is inadequate work. There are stories of women being beaten with hangers, stabbed with kitchen knives, and scalded by boiling water for doing so little as cutting vegetables improperly. South China Morning Post adds being doused in bleach and beaten with irons to this list. 

The story of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih gained international attention in 2014, after she was physically abused for 8 months by her employer, leaving her unable to work. She was forced to work 21 hours a day without pay, and suffered frequent beatings, leaving her bruised and with open wounds that were left untreated. The wounds got infected, and Erwiana grew weaker, eventually unable to work at all. Her employer, fearful of the repercussions of this, abandoned her at Hong Kong International Airport unable to walk, or board her flight. Once discovered, authorities got involved, rushing Erwiana to hospital and arresting her former employer, who attempted to flee to Thailand. Erwiana eventually recovered, and has inspired many to join the fight against domestic worker abuse. She was also one of Time’s 100 Most Powerful People in 2014. 

Though the plight of domestic workers is now not entirely unknown, the fight for fundamental human rights is incredibly difficult, and not aided by Hong Kong law. Helpers are often unable to escape the conditions they find themselves in due to live-in laws, and get little pay for their work, often having their documents taken away from them. One can hope that with increased attention and international pressure, the Hong Kong government can take a step in the direction to help domestic workers, but with so much on its plate right now, this hope is all too improbable.