Hong Kong-Filipino Deadlock Over Filipino Domestic Helper Issues

This article is based on an interview with Cynthia Abdon, the General Manager of the Mission for Migrant Workers. It addresses the deep-seated master-labor relationship between Hong Kong Chinese employers and Filipino domestic helpers that results in abuse and low social status for the Filipino diaspora in Hong Kong. This article argues that the Filipino migrant community is undervalued by the Hong Kong Chinese community given how much it relies on the services Filipino domestic helpers provide. 

Jason Hung
June 22, 2018

Employment discrimination overview

The inadequacy of working opportunities, poor quality of social welfare services, and financial insecurity in the Philippines are driving Filipino citizens to work as domestic helpers in Hong Kong and elsewhere. Hong Kong Chinese employers and Filipino domestic helpers have long been perceived as having an entrenched master-labor relationship, often resulting in abuse and low social position for the Filipino diaspora in Hong Kong. In a recent interview, Cynthia Abdon, the General Manager of the Mission for Migrant Workers, claimed that her team has handled countless domestic abuse cases in recent decades, where Filipino domestic helpers have been insulted, abused, and exploited by their local Hong Kong employers and employment agencies. Unfortunately, Filipino victims often lack the information they need to seek help. 

When Filipino domestic helpers express any discontent with their working and living conditions, some Hong Kong Chinese employers would insult them by asking them to return to their home countries. In most circumstances, it is acknowledged that most domestic helpers, who are the primary breadwinners for their families in the Philippines, are concerned about losing jobs and incomes, and would not be able to make any complaint or take any initiative to terminate their employment contracts. Subject to substantial and continuous employment discrimination, these vulnerable domestic helpers often suffer from a mixture of sorrow and indignation, and even, psychosocial challenges, including depression and anxiety. 


Filipino Government neglects the rights of overseas Filipino domestic helpers

Abdon argued that the Filipino Government has implemented legislation to purportedly protect the living and working conditions of overseas Filipino workers, including the Overseas Employment Certificate and the Migrants Workers and Overseas Filipino Act RA10022 (Magna Carta for Migrants). Unfortunately, this legislation has not been enforced or regulated effectively. For example, while the C189 - Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) states that all foreign domestic helpers should enjoy same income levels and working benefits as  local workers, the Filipino Government has put in little diplomatic effort to champion fair working conditions for their overseas domestic workers. 


Hong Kong Government disrespects for Filipino domestic helpers’ safety concerns

Additionally, the Hong Kong Government has taken insufficient legislative action to improve the working conditions and safety concerns of Filipino domestic helpers. A particularly controversial piece of legislation in Hong Kong along this vein is the live-in policy. This policy entails that all Filipino domestic workers to live together with their employers, irrespective of how their employers treat them. Abdon condemned the live-in policy in the interview, saying that it has put Filipino domestic helpers in an extremely unfavorable and insecure position, as helpers who experience continual insults, abuses, and threats of violence, have no legal rights to live outside their employers’ residence when they are off from work. This policy exacerbates incidents of domestic abuses in all forms. 

This past February, Hong Kong judges dismissed all challenges against the existing live-in policies during a judicial review. As the judges asserted, “If, after coming to work in Hong Kong, the foreign domestic helper finds it unacceptable, for any reason, to reside in his/her employer’s residence, it is well within his/her right or power to terminate the employment.” The judicial review’s outcome infuriated the Filipino diaspora in Hong Kong, since the review overlooked their financial burdens and responsibilities to feed their own families as primary breadwinners, which preventthem from terminating their employment contracts even whenabuses occur. 


The need to understand the importance of Filipino domestic helpers

Unless the deep-seated master-labor relationship between Hong Kong Chinese employers and Filipino domestic helpers is dismantled, the latter will continue to encounter difficultie sand face abuse. While Hong Kong Chinese employers understand that their helpers are financially relying on them, they need to develop greater awareness of their reliance on the domestic services provided by those helpers. As argued by Labour and Welfare Secretary Dr. Law Chi-kwong, Hong Kong requires an additional 240,000 foreign domestic helpers in the next 30 years in order to manage the needs of a fast-aging population. Combined with the increasing number of mothers entering the labor market, Hong Kong Chinese citizens are increasingly relying on Filipino foreign domestic helpers to fulfill the responsibilities of caring for and looking after their dependent children, the disabled, and the elderly. Otherwise, Hong Kong Chinese families would need to sacrifice their work opportunities and leisure time to undertake household duties.  

The Government of Hong Kong has the responsibility to educate its citizens about how important it is to improve relationships with Filipino domestic helpers, and to provide better legal protections for the Filipino domestic helpers upon whom Hong Kong society relies. Employing these helpers makes a higher living standard and professional prospect possible for many Hong Kong Chinese individuals. If the Hong Kong Chinese community does not value the contributions by Filipino domestic helpers and Hong Kong Government continues to overlook the problems of domestic abuses, an increasing number of Filipino domestic helpers might consider migrating to alternative Asian countries, including Singapore and  China, for work in future, at great cost to the Hong Kong Chinese community, a cost that they may not recognize until after the Filipino workers they rely on have moved to other places. 

Jason Hung is a MSc Sociology student at London School of Economics. He works as a staff columnist at Penn Political Review and is a visiting student in research at King’s College, London.