An Outlook into the Concealed Truth of Domestic Workers

by Gabriel Hui


Foreign domestic workers are an essential part of life in Hong Kong, especially in the case where both parents in the household go to work and are constantly in need of care for their children. Hong Kong is short of affordable child care and elderly care facilities, despite being one of the most affluent areas globally.


Exploitive labor conditions are regularly faced by foreign domestic employees. They are often refused adequate rest periods and accommodation by employers. Employment agencies’ pervasive overcharging and unethical hiring practices make many international domestic employees heavily burdened with debt. Various legal criteria further compound the vulnerability of foreign domestic workers to violations of human rights and limit their access to redress.


Domestic employees here face both conditions and restrictive laws that make it difficult to live and work in compliance with international human rights standards.


During recruitment and/or jobs, foreign domestic workers face various obstacles to obtaining legal recourse for wrongful suffering. Employers and contractors also refuse to offer accurate receipts to domestic workers or later change their records to cover wage theft and unfair recruitment fee charges. In order to support their allegations of underpayment, denial of termination insurance, agency fraud, and other complaints, domestic workers frequently have trouble obtaining documentary proof.


Many foreign domestic workers are reluctant to speak out about violations while working unless they jeopardize their job status. In other words, this would mean that they would need to sacrifice their opportunity to provide their families with home remittances. Furthermore, wage theft also happens in the form of termination. Employers often threaten to accuse their domestic workers of fraud as a way of coercing workers from the related Hong Kong tribunals not to seek claims for unpaid termination rights.


If domestic workers press their claims after being dismissed in Hong Kong, they will not be able to work legally. Alternatively, they need to draw on meager savings or borrow from friends and, all too often, loan sharks simply to cover their living costs. Because of court backlogs, the process of bringing a lawsuit against an abusive employer or organization will continue for months or even years. Moreover, even though they stay in Hong Kong to seek justice after being unfairly terminated though sick or pregnant, domestic workers can no longer receive low-cost care in public hospitals. This scheme discourages domestic workers from disclosing violations and allows them, often for even less than they are rightly due, to resolve their cases out of court.


What’s more, Hong Kong has no clear laws criminalizing trafficking in human beings and forced labor. Moreover, the territory is not a party to the UN Palermo Protocol, a landmark treaty identifying trafficking in persons and dedicated to crime prevention and assistance for victims of trafficking in human beings. The government of Hong Kong says that current laws effectively protect domestic workers from trafficking in human beings. The lack of a systematic approach, especially the lack of training of government staff to include judges and police officers, results in human rights abuses of trafficking of human beings, leaving unrecognized slave labor, fostering impunity, and the need for foreign domestic workers to be remedied.


With no chance of rest, many foreign domestic workers work incessantly. Hong Kong does not allow for employees to have full weekly working hours, although the law allows domestic staff to receive a 24-hour rest period per week at the bare minimum. A 2016 survey carried out by the Hong Kong Justice Centre found that domestic workers work an average of 11.9 hours per week, six days a week, on average. Moreover, more than one-third of domestic workers told the Justice Centre that they worked daily for a certain part of their rest day. It could be more likely for those nationalities to experience exploitative hours. In 2013, Amnesty International interviewed 93 Hong Kong employed Indonesian domestic workers who worked an average of 17 hours a day. Many domestic workers report being “on call 24 hours” a day, even being roused to perform duties for their employers for their sleep.


In conclusion, domestic workers, dependent on their employers for food, shelter, and salaries, are in a vulnerable position. Government policy adds to this sense of insecurity, which makes it difficult, without fear of termination, for domestic workers to claim the rights that they’ve always deserved.


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