The live-in rule for domestic workers, introduced in 2003, makes it mandatory for the employee to live in the residence of their employer. Criticizers of the policy say it can foster situations where workers are subjected to abuse, physical or otherwise.

We spoke to Manisha Wijesinghe, Executive Director of local NGO HELP for Domestic Workers, about how the practical impact of the reside-and-work policy and the Employment Ordinance, which dictates all the rights of Hong Kong employees including domestic workers, is failing domestic workers.

#1 – What are the primary difficulties that migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong face?

Migrant domestic workers, which make up around 98% of Hong Kong’s domestic worker population, are particularly vulnerable because they’re in a different country, not speaking the language or understanding the different processes and cultural perspectives. This adds a different element of vulnerability.

Migrant domestic workers usually go to any different country because they are supporting their families. A lot of the migrant families that we see depend primarily on the domestic worker. Either their family members are unable to earn sufficiently in their home countries or they don’t have any job opportunities. We’ve seen cases of one migrant domestic worker supporting 10 to 12 family members. If they’re unable to continue their job, it means others in their family are going hungry, as well.

The live-in policy […] puts the domestic worker at the mercy of whoever they get as their employer.

When it comes to Hong Kong in particular, these challenges become more complicated. One of the major talking points is the live-in rule, where domestic workers are required to live and work in the employer’s residence. In and of itself, the government’s rationale for the live-in rule has sound reasoning. But the problem is when it comes to the practical impact.

What the live-in policy does is put the domestic worker at the mercy of whoever they get as their employer. If you get somebody who’s not a great employer, then you’re stuck living and working 24 hours a day with somebody who may be subjecting you to bad treatment or even abuse.

People ask, “Why can’t they just call for help?” We’ve seen cases where phones are confiscated, particularly in situations where they are subjected to assault or rape. Some have been told, “When you start working with us, your phone will be kept with us. If you do want to call your family, we will give you 10 minutes of supervised calling time.”

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The domestic worker has so much more to lose than the employer.

The other issue is that the live-in rule creates unequal bargaining for the two parties. For example, a domestic worker gets one rest day. Again, in a good situation, you get to exercise your rights, go out with your friends, go to church, recharge. But sometimes, domestic workers are told, “You can only leave the house at noon and you need to come back at 6pm,” or “You need to complete all your work before you leave, or don’t get your rest day.”

Because domestic workers’ job and accommodation are tied to their employment relationship, they think twice about refusing such requests. If they exert their rights and the employer gets angry, they can be intimidated with statements like, I’ll cancel your visa, you’ll lose your rights, you won’t be able to stay in Hong Kong, you won’t be able to provide for your family.

The domestic worker has so much more to lose than the employer. If they leave their job, there are so many others who will take that spot in a day. But they need to consider losing their accommodation and subsidized healthcare and being considered job hoppers.

If you look at online hiring forums, you often see a “finished contract only” condition because there’s a misunderstanding that those who do are troublemakers. So a lot of domestic workers who are in bad situations still want to finish their contract because if they don’t, their families will suffer.

#2 – Is there any set of rules that dictate the rights of domestic workers, beyond the Employment Ordinance?

Other than the minimum wage, domestic workers have all rights that any Hong Kong employee has. But the problem lies in the practicality of things like the live-in rule and two-week rule. (Editor’s note: The two-week rule stipulates that if a domestic worker’s contract is terminated prematurely, they only have 14 days before they must leave Hong Kong.)

Under the Employment Ordinance, a domestic worker has to get one rest day a week. This is enough for the average Hong Kong employee. But domestic workers’ evenings are not their own. They work from whenever they wake up to whenever they sleep because there’s always something to be done in the house. The hours are not regulated. Practically, the rules of the Employment Ordinance are not supposed to be applied in the same way. I think you need to look at the way a rule is being implemented, and if you look at that, one rest day is not sufficient.

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We see domestic workers put up with problems until it is absolutely impossible to continue.

Also, a lot of domestic workers, if not given that rest day, are too scared to enforce that right. If they try to fight, they’re then living and working in a place with an unhappy employer and might lose other privileges.

So a lot of the times we see domestic workers put up with problems until it is absolutely impossible to continue. One of the most egregious cases for us is seeing domestic workers go through multiple instances of rape and only coming for assistance when they find out they’re pregnant. That’s how terrified they are of the implications of terminating a contract early.

#3 – What resources do domestic workers have for reporting problematic situations?

Any resource that’s available to any Hongkonger is available to domestic workers: police, Labour Department. But practically, when domestic workers go to the police about an issue, it’s difficult to go back to that employment household. Then you need to find a shelter to stay at. You’re not going to be able to find a new job until your police case is over. So how are you going to send money to your home country? Even though assistance exists, they don’t have the extra support in order to get that assistance.

#4 – What does HELP do to support migrant domestic workers?

HELP provides access to justice for domestic workers, which can mean a few different things. From the traditional perspective, it definitely means we provide support concerning their legal questions. So labour claims, immigration issues, criminal cases, things like that.

There’s only so much one domestic worker can do in asserting their rights.

Another way is by supporting employers. We strongly believe you can’t solve a problem sustainably without engaging both sides of the conversation. And you can’t expect domestic workers themselves to be solving all the problems surrounding domestic worker issues. There’s only so much one domestic worker can do in asserting their rights.

There are so many employers who mean well, but don’t know how to properly support their own domestic worker. We engage employers by educating them on the rights of the domestic worker, how to build a good relationship for both parties. By doing this, we are actually helping to protect the domestic worker in the longer term.

A lot of times agencies play on their fears…

Another way that we ensure access to justice is by supporting their mental wellbeing. A domestic worker who’s been in a physical or emotional assault situation won’t be in a fit mental state to decide whether to leave or not. And a lot of times agencies play on their fears and say “If you leave your job, you’ll get arrested, you’ll be deported, you’ll never be able to work.” We help to bring the domestic worker to a position where they’re able to make a rational decision concerning their lives without having everybody else feeding into those fears.

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We also provide education programs for domestic workers, employers, and school students. We do programs for students particularly because they will be the future employers of domestic workers. At the moment, there are 390,000 domestic workers in Hong Kong. In the next 30 years, it’s supposed to go up to 600,000.

We help youth to understand what the migrant experience is, not only for domestic workers, but in general. Many young people probably don’t know what it feels like to be in a foreign country where you don’t have money to take a taxi if you’re lost, or where you don’t have money to buy food, or you don’t understand the language. Helping them understand that experience really helps create empathy.

#5 – What obstacles does HELP face in helping domestic workers?

One of the biggest problems HELP faces is this idea that domestic workers are not Hong Kong’s problem. This is really strengthened by the fact that we still use the term ‘foreign domestic helper’, which creates in people’s minds the idea that this is a foreign problem that should be handled by the Philippines or Indonesian government, which really isn’t the case.

There’s a lot of misconceptions that Hong Kong shouldn’t be dedicating resources or efforts to support this work. Organizations like us don’t have access to a lot of government funding because domestic workers aren’t considered residents. Every domestic worker serves an average of three people, so the impact of helping one domestic worker is the impact on three local residents.

#6 – What can people do to support organizations like HELP?

I would urge people to explore and understand the issues surrounding domestic workers. There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding things like job hopping and the idea that domestic workers want to take advantage of employers. This is not helped by newspaper articles which highlight domestic workers that have taken employers to litigation or demand higher salaries.

What would be helpful is people just understanding the nuances of the difficulties faced by the domestic worker community, and also understanding the impact of the community on Hong Kong. It’s not a foreign problem, it’s very much a local problem. From there on, we can start a good conversation on how to support both domestic workers and Hong Kong at large.

Manisha Wijesinghe is a human rights lawyer who has worked for UNICEF, Save the Children Sri Lanka, and Christian Action. Since 2019, she has been Executive Director of HELP for Domestic Workers, an NGO which provides legal advice and employment, immigration, and human rights assistance to domestic workers in Hong Kong.

(This interview has been edited and condensed.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of The HK HUB.

Header image credits: Foreign Domestic Helper Corner, Labour Department

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Born in Canada, Danielle is deep diving into the things that make Hong Kong a city of intermingling identities, and bridging the information gap as someone trying to navigate the city herself as a cultural inbetweener. Sometimes this means examining culture and local people’s stories, and other times it means drinking all the milk tea and doing walking explorations of peripheral districts.

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