Underpayment and debt
Income and money have been many Hong Kong citizens' top priority. As many are aware, Hong Kong has and still is experiencing rising prices in the Secondary Housing Market, with rent increasing substantially. Tens of thousands of helpers are unaware of the Minimum Allowable Wage for Foreign Domestic Helpers, which is around 4,310 HKD as of September 30th, 2016. This is largely due to their inexperience as a Foreign Domestic Helper in Hong Kong relative to the veterans whom have seen or participated in demonstrations to discourage increasing population of Foreign Domestic Helpers in Hong Kong or discussions with recruitment agencies and employers about their contract where it is reported that their opinion has no part in how the salary has been decided for them.
Previously, as of 1st October 2015, the Government of Hong Kong increased the Minimum Allowable Wage for Foreign Domestic Helpers by 100HKD, 4,110 HKD to 4,210 HKD which is but a mere 2.4% pay raise while their food allowance increased by 31 HKD, from 964 HKD to 995 HKD and only went up 3.2%.
These changes disappointed Domestic Workers’ Activities and Helpers themselves. The 100 HKD increase did not create a significant impact on their lifestyles as the growth of prices due to inflation in Hong Kong, standing around 4.4% as of 2014.
As of September 30th, 2016, the Minimum Allowable Wage for Domestic Workers in Hong Kong is 4,310 HKD.
As quoted from an article from the Hong Kong Free Press published back in 2015, Eman Villanueva of the Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body stated: “The demand for HK$4,500 minimum allowable wage has been forwarded to the government for the past three years and is already long overdue. The decision of the government to only give a measly $100 pay hike only shows how low is their regard to the value of our work.” It is nearing the year 2018 and the minimum allowable wage, although has been raised closer to the demanded wage, has yet to reach or exceed the demanded wage.
Figure 1: Members of Asian Migrants' Coordinating Body staged a demonstration about their petition for wage increase.
Foreign domestic helpers have been requesting the Administration to raise their pay to $4,500 for several years to cover the cost of this inflation while paying for the housing rents and basic necessities in Hong Kong.
This pay rise is not an annual event but a rare and occasional one in which this pay rise(s) amounted to only $380 since 1998, suggesting that almost 2 decades have past and the minimum allowable age have only increased by less than 10%.
According to a Government spokesman, the minimum allowable wage for Foreign Domestic Helpers is reviewed regularly. It takes into account Hong Kong’s general economic and labor market circumstances, affordability for employers and livelihood of these domestic helpers. From these factors, the government decides the changes to the minimum allowable wage.
Figure 2: Hong Kong Rents (HKD/sq ft) in Secondary Housing Market from July 1995 to March 2015.
Foreign Domestic Helpers have been requesting the Minimum Allowable Wage to be raised to 4,500 HKD for years.
Although it is true that the rents in the secondary housing market are increasing, as shown in Figure 2, the unemployment rate is falling while Hong Kong’s average monthly salaries have substantially increased to compensate for expensive apartment rents. And yet, the minimum allowable wage showed a minimum increase.
Some helpers, though are unaware of the minimum allowable wage, are satisfied with their salary. While others are compensating this through charitable donations from others. When I asked an Indonesian Domestic Helper along with her group of friends, they stated all these charitable donations will be sent to the families back in Indonesia to create a better life and future for them.
Premature termination of contracts with Foreign Domestic Helpers is allowed under Clause 12 of the Standard Employment Contract where both parties, which include the employer(s) and Foreign Domestic Helper(s) must deliver a written note or fax to the Director of Immigration. After the premature termination, the Foreign Domestic Helper(s) will be only permitted to stay/remain unemployed for 2 more weeks and overstaying this period may result in prosecution.
Figure 3: Hong Kong average monthly salaries from July 2012 to July 2015.
It is essential for Foreign Domestic Helpers to clearly understand the requirements and entitlements these helpers have as stated in their contract before signing it as some of them may implicit about having much control over their movements, resulting in exploiting their services.
In many cases, these Foreign Domestic Helper(s) often face forced premature termination by their employers. Employers ensure the Foreign Domestic Helper(s) agree with the employers' statements through threats, violence in the form of verbal or physical abuse.
According to the interviewed Foreign Domestic Helpers, recruitment agencies and employers discuss the contract and Foreign Domestic Helpers do not have a voice about the details in the contract though they believe the contract is created under the law and policies. This may be the case for majority Foreign Domestic Helpers in Hong Kong but there are many ongoing cases and reports about this exploitation.
Figure 4: Foreign Domestic Helpers playing cards on cardboard boxes while congregating on sidewalks.
Figure 5: Propaganda image of the misfortunes workers may face working in Hong Kong
Premature termination can be the worst case scenario for many Foreign Domestic Helpers. One reason is they are not aware of local organizations that assist these unemployed helpers. Another reason is to find a place to stay and in majority reports of premature termination, the conditions they live in after the contract has been terminated is usually harsher. Moreover, these helpers without assistance are in debt from loans borrowed from banks, friends and often employers.
Organizations such as HELP for Domestic Workers, Mission for Migrant Workers, Enrich, PathFinders, assist these helpers and most would provide free legal services for these Foreign Domestic Helpers to deal with their legal issues and provide them compensation fee to further help them find another job or allocation to another recruitment agency.