Browsing through a very old collection of newspaper columns the other week (half price from Swindon) I came across an interesting piece by Michael Kinsley, addressed to people who were considering employing a domestic servant.

This was intended for American purposes and much of it is not relevant here. Also, it is addressed to people who grew up in the 60s and might find the idea of domestic servants a bit of a political problem. Solution: “People work because they need the money, and denying them that opportunity in the name of equality is doing them no favour.”

The piece did spark the thought that people entering into this relationship in Hong Kong get very little helpful advice. There is the contract, which like all contracts leaves a great deal unsaid. Then there are the “notes to the contract,” which have little of interest except the repeated warnings that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will rampage through your living room if you allow your helper, as part of her duties, to drive your car.

File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

This is not much help. So in the hope that with some prompting the government will wish to provide helpful advice to people embarking on the servant scene, I have drafted a few paragraphs. If this seems like a good idea, dear bureaucrats, please help yourselves. Here we go:

Dear future Employer, welcome to the wonderful world of domestic help. Let us be clear at the outset that what you make of this is entirely up to you. The government has neither the means nor the will to keep an eye on what you get up to. The Labour Tribunal is a notorious waste of time and the police will only be interested if someone is physically injured. So it is up to you whether you want to be nice or nasty. These notes will help you in that choice.

1. The relationship. Please remember that you are purchasing a service, not buying a person. Your domestic helper has her own rights and needs. You are not in the position of a parent and there are no circumstances in which you may legally inflict corporal punishment — or for that matter fines — on your helper. If you have trouble communicating with each other in English bear in mind that the problem may be with your English, not hers. And just because she can’t poach an egg the way your grandmother did does not mean she is stupid.


2. Hours. You are required to give your helper a day off lasting 24 hours once a week. Unless your family circumstances impose a compelling need for help on Sundays, that day off should be Sunday. Exiles like to meet their friends and compatriots occasionally. Note also that the entitlement to 24 hours off does not mean that you should require the poor lady to work all the hours God sends in the rest of the week. Six 16-hour days comes to a 96-hour week. Would you work those hours? Organisations taking an interest in this area suggest that you should give your helper a couple of hours to herself before she goes to bed, and also some time for meals. This might get the daily working hours down to 12, which is enough in all conscience. Filling her time with work is not “getting your money’s worth”. It is ruthlessly exploiting your position of power.  There may be a need for periods when she is “on call” but not working, which is fair enough. Try to be reasonable. Your car’s paintwork will last longer if it is waxed professionally once a week than if it is hosed every morning.

3. Accommodation. This is a problem not of your making. The government requires that the helper live in your home. Given the average size of flats in Hong Kong this is a big ask. Still. your helper is entitled to a space of her own, however small, with a door on which you should knock before entering. Not acceptable: a tent on the balcony, a tent anywhere else, plank on top of the fridge, a plank on top of some other domestic appliance, a toilet, cupboard, shared bed with your kids, dog, or racehorse, use of living room after everyone else has gone to bed.

4. Food. Under the contract, you are required to feed your helper. This obligation continues if you yourself are eating out. You are NOT entitled to make a deduction from her pay to compensate for this. Which brings us to:

A helper’s room. Photo: Apple Daily.

5. Pay. Your obligation is to pay the sum stipulated in the contract. Under the Labour Ordinance (this is one of the few points on which the “notes to the contract” are rather good) it is a CRIME to deduct anything from your employee’s wages unless she has not turned up, or having turned up has refused to work. You may not make deductions for food, clothing, accommodation, bedding, use of your WiFi or to compensate for possibly lost teaspoons.

6. Work. There are some restrictions on what you may require of your helper. She must not drive your car, which for some reason the official mind finds deeply offensive. She may not clean the outside of your windows unless she can do so without sticking no more than her arm out of said window. This rule is not much publicised except when it is broken and cases of actual punishment are rare. But if your helper joins the choir invisible by attempting impromptu wingless flight while precariously perched outside your living room window, you will get some seriously bad publicity.

7. Uniforms. There used to be a requirement that you either provide a uniform or a clothing allowance. This has quietly disappeared from the standard contract. Your helper can wear her own clothes. This does not absolve you from the obligation to provide gloves, apron or whatever protective gear may be appropriate. If your dog is bigger than the helper a choke collar (for the dog) is a good idea.

File photo: Tom Grundy.

8. Address. A tricky area. Mr Kinsley suggests that nobody outside the disciplined services should expect to be addressed as “sir” or “ma’am”. But Hong Kong helpers seem to be quite happy with this. It saves them the trouble of memorising a lot of names. It also brings a bit of formality to a relationship which otherwise may be misunderstood, especially by the man of the house.

9. Agencies. Much unhappiness is caused by the system under which helpers are recruited in overseas countries by agents who charge them a large fee for the service. The helpers are expected to repay this from their earnings in Hong Kong and their passports are typically detained to ensure that payments — at usurious rates of interest — are kept up. This is all against the rules, but it happens. This is not your fault. You can, however, solve the problem by using an agent who will charge you the usual fee but not charge the helper at all. There are such agents. One can be found at

In closing, another quote from Mr Kinsley: “If you’re still feeling a bit squeamish, try paying a bit more.”


Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.