Some Hong Kong employers of foreign domestic workers have complained of being unfairly targeted after an NGO found that three out of five domestic workers are not provided with adequate accommodation.

“Public opinion has been unfair to employers. If you are unhappy with your boss, you can consider switching your job. But I cannot buy a bigger flat,” Joan Tsui of Support Group for HK Employers with Domestic Workers told HKFP.

domestic workers helpers
A protest by domestic workers. File Photo: Socialist Action.

On Wednesday, Mission for Migrant Workers said a survey it conducted found that one in 50 domestic workers slept in areas such as toilets, storage rooms, basements, balconies, roofs, closets or sub-divided common spaces.

Other findings included instances of employers regularly entering the rooms of domestic workers, an absence of easy access to toilets, and the lack of access to fans or air conditioning during the summer. The poll sparked a public outcry.

Employers’ difficulties

But Tsui said she had reservations about the survey, because domestic workers are informed about the living conditions of their prospective employers before signing an employment contract. The government requires employers to provide information such as apartment floor plans and whether workers will be living in a shared room.

Living conditions of domestic workers.
Living conditions of domestic workers reported to the Mission for Migrant Workers. Photo: Mission for Migrant Workers.

“They are well-informed, and they can choose to work in other places such as Singapore and Taiwan. I am sure the living environment there will be better than that in Hong Kong,” she said.

Tsui said most employers in Hong Kong face limitations such as cramped living spaces and high housing prices. “My two sons also share a room,” she said. “If I had an extra room, why would I subdivide my living room as a bedroom for my domestic worker?” Tsui said.

“We [employers] have done all we can do to offer workers a comfortable living environment. If workers think they are being treated unfairly, they should tell the Immigration Department and let law enforcement agents decide who is right or wrong.”

She added that sometimes the problem may be due to a lack of awareness among first-time employers as to what they should, or should not, do. She said there are social media groups for employers to exchange information on how to foster good working relationships with their domestic workers.

Duty of the authorities

Tsui believes that the authorities play a vital role in ensuring both employment contracts and domestic workers’ rights are respected.

Agreeing with this position, Michael Li of the Liberal Party’s Task Force on Foreign Helper’s Problems suggested the Immigration Department conduct surprise home inspections or require employers to provide photos or videos of their apartments.

Task Force on Foreign Helper's Problems
Members of the Liberal Party’s task force. Photo: Task Force on Foreign Helper’s Problems, via Facebook.

“It is the duty of the authorities to safeguard the interests of both parties. The most important thing is to ensure the spirit of contract is upheld,” he said.

Li added that it is “unfair to judge a certain group by the behaviour of a few.” He said media disproportionately focus on the plight of domestic workers, while underreporting issues facing employers, such as poor performance of domestic workers who exaggerated their work ability in their applications.

“The Labour Department helps labourers. Employers have nowhere to turn to over issues they face,” Li said.

See also: Hong Kong domestic workers made to live in bathrooms, closets, on balconies and roofs

The Labour Department told HKFP that existing laws protect foreign domestic workers by requiring employers to provide “free, suitable and furnished accommodation.” Examples of unsuitable accommodation cited by the authorities include make-do beds in the corridor with little privacy or shared rooms with teenagers or adults of the opposite sex.

It added that it provides free consultation and conciliation services for foreign domestic workers who complain of poor living conditions.

A visa application form of the Immigration Department acknowledges that the “average flat size in Hong Kong is relatively small and the availability of separate servant room is not common.”

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.