Empowering Domestic Workers in Hong Kong
Foreign Correspondent in Hong Kong, Callum Hill, discusses how the NGO EmpowerU is tackling the issue of workers’ exploitation, following his experience volunteering with the organisation.
What is a Domestic Worker?
According to the most recent census figures there are 386,075 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong. Predominantly these are women from the Philippines and Indonesia, although some come from Thailand and other South-East Asian countries. The law dictates that they must live in their employers’ house where their duties consist of tasks such as cooking, cleaning, housework and childcare. They work, often for long hours, Monday to Friday, with one day off at the weekend, usually Sunday. As of September 2019, a domestic workers minimum wage is $4,630HKD with a minimum food allowance of $1,121HKD. In British Sterling this amounts to roughly £575, per month. The majority of these women are single mothers who have emigrated in search of better employment. Their children are left behind to be financially supported from afar and raised by grandparents. As such, most of a domestic workers’ salary is repatriated home. For some, being a domestic worker is fantastic: a kind employer, steady income and accommodation create an ideal employment scenario from which they can support their family. However, exploitation of workers is incredibly common, leaving some in a position where they cannot send money home.
How are they exploited?
In March 2016, the Justice Centre Hong Kong did a survey into foreign domestic workers. They found that 94.6% of workers showed some sign of exploitation, including 17% being victims of forced labour. Exploitation of these workers comes in a variety of forms. The law states that agencies can only charge 10% of the first month’s salary as a placement fee. However, in practice, loan sharks and employment agencies collude to tie workers down to exorbitant loans which can take many months, even years, to pay off. The law also states that workers can only work in the home of their employers. Yet, many employers force their employees to work in multiple locations, often homes of family members or their own work premises. This results in extremely long working days and no financial compensation for it. Further to this, if they are caught working at another premises they will be the ones punished by the law – not the employer. Workers’ contracts and visas are incredibly easy to terminate so they have very little bargaining power to resist these abuses. Having their passports locked away and their salary withheld are other common practices that abusive employers use to ensure worker compliance. When one considers that the Justice Centre Hong Kong survey found that 14% of the victims of forced labour have been trafficked into it, it is easy to see why they are so vulnerable.
However, exploitation of workers is incredibly common, leaving some in a position where they cannot send money home.
But there is a desire for change. The government have expressed a verbal interest in changing the laws to better protect foreign domestic workers, although as of yet there has been no legislative progress. There are a multitude of NGOs out there that look to support the workers. Organisations such as HELP, FairAgency and EmpowerU educate workers on their rights, understanding their contracts and identifying exploitative circumstances. FairAgency also looks to provide legal advice for those who need it. I recently volunteered at EmpowerU, a non-profit organisation that is run by professors, law-students and volunteers – where they educate domestic workers.
I spent a weekend at EmpowerU where we taught people what constitutes human trafficking and the possible ways to identify it. I found it to be an incredible organisation that was clearly hugely valuable to the hundreds of women who attend the sessions. Not only does it provide them with the opportunity to learn about very important issues, but it also gives the women a platform to be heard. The idea of creating a safe space where workers know they are being listened to is of paramount importance to the facilitators of EmpowerU – and they’ve really been successful in creating this.
One of the top pieces of feedback that the organisation has received is that the women thrive on the fact they can express themselves. This can be seen vividly by a re-telling of the most harrowing, but equally rewarding, moment of the weekend. We had been working with a group for a few hours, it was comprised of women who were at their third term of EmpowerU – meaning they’d been there for over a year now. We’d been focusing on human trafficking, with the latter part of the session being a role play where one of the women would play out the role of someone who had been trafficked. Following this activity, one lady came up to a fellow facilitator and divulged the fact that her life as a domestic worker was not dissimilar to that of the woman in the role play. It must be remembered that these women’s employment status is incredibly precarious and often a single complaint can lead to termination, therefore it is common to suffer in silence. The fact that she felt comfortable enough to come forward and speak about her plight which, due to what she had just learnt, she now realised was illegal, vindicated the whole purpose of EmpowerU.
The fact that she felt comfortable enough to come forward and speak about her plight which, due to what she had just learnt, she now realised was illegal, vindicated the whole purpose of EmpowerU.
Despite all the hardships these women face in life, they were funny, kind, appreciative and they had a true passion for learning. Their attitude was overwhelmingly positive and truly refreshing. One can only hope their exploitation will soon be a thing of the past – and with more great work from organisations such as EmpowerU, this could happen.
What is the purpose of EmpowerU?
In the words of the founder, Dr. Michael M. Manio:
“EmpowerU is an educational platform that provides domestic workers with lessons on subjects like practical health and nutrition, basic rights and empowerment, nature appreciation, physical fitness, and performing arts. This gives the workers a place to be the best version of themselves, to voice their opinions, and be part of the community. It also provides the chance for workers to upgrade their knowledge and skills for their respective jobs, helps workers assimilate to life in HK, and helps them to prepare for life after HK.”