A young woman carrying a baby entered the help centre in a building beside St. John’s Cathedral. A volunteer hurried to attend to her. She was having problems obtaining a work visa. Maria — not her real name — and her previous employer terminated her domestic worker contract when she was nine months pregnant, almost a year ago.

Because of the so-called “two-week rule” she then had to leave Hong Kong and go back to the Philippines within 14 days. She tried to book a plane ticket and found that no airline would take her because she was in the final stage of her pregnancy. “When I went to hospital for one of the final checks just before giving birth I found my identity card had been blocked, so I had no medical coverage,” Maria said. She turned to the Helpers for Domestic Helpers’ (HDH) centre near St. John’s for advice.

Domestic workers in protest
Domestic workers at a protest. Photo: Robert Godden.

Maria’s case was particularly serious because of her personal circumstances. It illustrates the dangers to which domestic workers are exposed by the policies that regulate their employment. The “two-week rule” forces domestic workers to return to their country of origin within 14 days of the termination of their contract, unless there are very exceptional circumstances.

They have tighter restrictions on their employment conditions than other workers in Hong Kong. The “live-in rule” forces them to live with their employer. Changing employers within a year triggers a special screening process and can cause the Immigration Department to cancel their visa. This rule was implemented to prevent so-called “job-hopping”. Many domestic workers are affected by these policies and their cases shape the daily routine of HDH.

Any change of employer requires a domestic worker to go home and come back to Hong Kong, because it’s very difficult to find a new employer and file all the paperwork in two weeks. Although the flight ticket to their country of origin is payable by the old employer, the re-training expense, additional travel cost, and for some nationalities, agency fees, are the responsibility of the domestic worker.

Local newspapers reported in February that four domestic workers had taken their own lives this year – the same number as in the whole of 2015. Three of these cases were confirmed to be debt related.

The “two-week” rule was implemented in 2003. Grace Estrada is the chairwoman of the Progressive Labour Union of Domestic Workers. According to her, back then new conditions of stay were implemented, like the mandatory living arrangement, the right of abode and the limitation to only be employed as domestic workers.

Grace Estrada, chairwoman of the Progressive Labour Union of Domestic Workers
Grace Estrada, chairwoman of the Progressive Labour Union of Domestic Workers

“Currently, almost all domestic workers have loans,” said Estrada, “The workers have to pay the fees. The agencies don’t charge you, but they redirect you to a loan company. Those companies give the money to the agency directly. There’s no evidence; no receipts are given.”

Maria actually was lucky. Her elder sister lives in Hong Kong, and the sister is married to a permanent resident, so she was able to stay with her. She had to go to the Immigration Department to renew her visitor visa several times, until it was extended for 14 months. “I got that because I had filed a case. I took my employer to court and the Labour Tribunal,” said Maria.

Her employer initially had accepted that she was pregnant. She got the termination of employment news when she was nine months pregnant. She said that it had affected her financially and emotionally. “My medical bills cost me over $100,000,” she said. Her sister paid them, until Maria got a settlement with her employer in January 2016. She was given $90,000.

In 2013 a new law was implemented to tackle what some employers’ groups called “job hopping.” The law prevents domestic workers from changing employers. If a domestic helper has had two or three terminated contracts in the same year, the Immigration Department will question the worker and can reject her next work visa application.

The employers’ groups put pressure on the Hong Kong government to bring in this regulation. “Joseph Law, the chairperson of the Employers Association, is very vocal,” said Holly Allan, executive director of Helpers of Domestic Helpers, “we don’t know how many people are part of his group, but he always speaks about domestic workers’ standard working hours and salaries.”

Holly Allan, executive director of Helpers of Domestic Helpers.
Holly Allan, executive director of Helpers of Domestic Helpers.

Allan said that the Liberal Party has also been vocal against domestic workers. “They have complained that some workers were going to Macau instead of going back to their own country.”

Michael Lee is a member of the Liberal Party. He said that employers hire helpers to take care of children and the elderly. He supports the live-in rule; one of the reasons, he said, is the insurance the employer pays for the domestic worker. According to him, if the domestic worker has an accident when living out, she may not be covered.

Lee said that employers would lack control over the worker. “Helpers would get other part-time jobs. They already take a lot of time to do some tasks at home; they are slow,” he said. According to him, if foreign domestic workers lived outside their employers’ homes then rents would increase; there would be inflation because of a housing shortage. He said that “if they lived out employers wouldn’t hire local domestic helpers.” He couldn’t confirm the number of local domestic helpers who would be impacted by a change in regulation.

Joan Tsui represents Support Group for Hong Kong Employers With Foreign Domestic Workers. She said that the “two-week rule” is not for helpers to find a new job, but for the employer to settle the payment with the helper. Repeated calls for comment to Law’s association of employers of overseas domestic helpers have not been answered.

foreign domestic workers march
Photo: Adrian Lo.

Nicola Cottrell is a volunteer with HDH. She says that the job-hopping reason is being used as a justification for the “two-week rule.” “There’s a cost involved in changing jobs for a domestic worker; they don’t want to do that,” said Cottrell. “That’s why they hang onto their jobs for as long as possible. They know they will be questioned on why they were terminated and that they will have to go back, re-train, and pay for that.”

Estrada explains that there have been cases of workers being terminated because the employer thought they had bad feng shui. Allan has also encountered such cases. She said some employers think that crying brings bad luck. If they see a domestic worker crying, they may terminate her contract, although employers will never admit that crying was the reason for termination.

HDH participates in the Domestic Workers Round Table, which is sponsored by the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Comparative and Public Law. It meets once every few months and raises matters with the government. Allan said they also meet with legislators like Emily Lau, chairman of the Democratic Party, and Fernando Cheung, from the Labour Party. Allan’s centre has no direct communication with employers’ groups with the exception of one called Open Door.

domestic worker roundtable
Photo: DWRT.

Despite all their recommendations to the government, not much has changed. Both the International Labour Organization and United Nations have recommended changes in legislation, according to Allan, “but the government are just in denial.” When the case of the abused domestic worker Erwiana Sulistyaningsih was brought up, the government made an effort to crackdown on agencies, by investigating employment agencies about which there had been complaints. But according to Allan, the government is not doing enough to proactively investigate agencies. “There’s a lack of regulation when granting licenses to agencies,” she said.

Justice Centre, a non-profit human rights organization, has just published a report, “Coming Clean,” in which it estimated that one in six migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong is in forced labour. According to the study, that is equivalent to more than 50,000 domestic workers. Of those in forced labour, one in seven have been trafficked into it.

The study also found that 49 percent of domestic workers had borrowed money in some way to facilitate their recruitment. It said that the “live-in” requirement made domestic workers vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. The centre called for the Legislative Council to conduct a formal review to assess the adequacy of current laws on standard working hours and overtime work. It recommended legislation to prohibit forced labour, remove the live-in requirement and abolish the two-week rule.

According to Tsui, employers found replacing a domestic worker difficult. They need to spend time and money, and it may cost them over $10,000 to pay for a new agency fee. “We didn’t agree with the report,” Tsui said. According to her the live-in policy and ‘two-week rule’ are not a problem.

Julian Groves is a senior lecturer in the Division of Social Science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He has specialized in migrant workers and has done field work with employers. He said that his findings about employers were disturbing.

Domestic Workers
Domestic Workers at a protest. Photo: Scott Carpenter.

“There’s an old idea of childcare and housework. The government assumes that childcare will be done privately, by women at low cost,” he says. To him that’s the bigger picture. “The Hong Kong government is composed of 80 percent men and 20 percent women,” he said, “and the childcare issue is not taken seriously. They rely on imported, unskilled, poor women.”

A good way of securing votes is by making people believe that they are protecting local workers. He said that the bottom line is that the government is not ready to pay for this, to subsidize the cost with public money. “Hong Kong government have a surplus every year; they pay for education, schooling, hospitals. They could pay for public childcare if they wanted,” he said.

Begona Blanco is a Journalism masters student at the University of Hong Kong University. She has a passion for politics and travel, and has written for lifestyle magazine Sassy. Born and raised in Spain, she lived in Ireland for few years where she studied journalism.