Hong Kong has for a long time relied on the labour of migrant domestic workers from the Philippines and Indonesia. Because private child and elderly care facilities are too expensive for most working and middle-class households, hiring a live-in domestic worker to provide care and perform other household chores is the cheapest option.

While this can be a feasible and ethical arrangement for both parties, the Hong Kong government’s mandatory live-in rule for domestic workers makes them vulnerable to exploitation. The coronavirus outbreak has made this worse.

The International Migrants Alliance Hong Kong & Macau
The International Migrants Alliance Hong Kong & Macau slams the Labour Department’s suggestion to foreign domestic workers to stay home on their rest day as “unfair, unjust and discriminatory”. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Because of Hong Kong’s population density and social inequity, most households live in small flats — usually too small to accommodate an additional person. As a result, many employers are unable to provide adequate living quarters for their domestic workers. A survey conducted by the Mission for Migrant Workers found that 1 in 50 domestic workers sleep in unacceptable spaces, such as bathrooms, storage rooms, and balconies.

There is little legal protection or other help for domestic workers in this situation, who must choose between tolerating subpar living arrangements or losing their jobs.

The mandatory live-in policy and shortage of space implicitly encourage labour exploitation right where the workers live. Because the workers’ workplace is essentially the same as their home space, they may be expected to work around the clock with little respite.

The Hong Kong Labour Department requires that employers give domestic workers at least one day off each week. For many workers, that day is their only opportunity to leave work and socialise with their friends in spaces like public parks and footbridges.

This day is particularly important for workers whose working conditions are poor. Many workers have employers who expect them to do an unreasonable amount of work, or treat them with utter disrespect. For them, having a day with friends outside the home of their employers may be their only respite.

Domestic Workers Helper Maid
Photo: GovHK.

The recent coronavirus outbreak and public panic, however, has prompted the Labour Department to issue a statement suggesting domestic workers “stay home on their rest day in order to safeguard their personal health and to reduce the risk of the spread of the novel coronavirus in the community.”

By singling out domestic workers, the government’s statement implies that domestic workers do not have sound hygiene practices, and hence, are particularly susceptible to infecting others if they are allowed in public spaces. Not only is this assumption not grounded in any scientific evidence, it also reinforces existing prejudices against migrant domestic workers and ethnic minorities.

In addition, while this discriminatory statement was merely a suggestion and not a legal mandate, some employers have used it to forbid their workers to go out on their rest day.

While employers are not legally allowed to ask the workers to labour on their rest day, as most workers do not have private rooms they are still subjected to the employer’s demands.

In other words, workers who are forbidden to go out lose their precious holidays, as well as the opportunity to socialise with their peers. This highlights the significant power difference between employers and workers, which allows for easy and rampant labour exploitation.

Erwiana Sulistyaningsih
Erwiana Sulistyaningsih. Photo: Adrian Lo.

In 2014, the abuse of Indonesian domestic worker Erwiana Sulistyaningsih at the hands of her employer generated both international and local outrage. The Hong Kong public participated in marches demanding justice for Sulistyaningsih.

During the Anti-ELAB protests, Hongkongers rallied in support of Yuli Riswati, a domestic worker who was deported after she covered the protests as a citizen journalist for a non-profit Indonesia news outlet.

December 7 Yuli Riswati central migrant worker immigration department
Photo: Stand News.

While these were hopeful moments of solidarity between local Hongkongers and domestic workers, the ongoing exploitation of migrant domestic workers and the normalisation of such practices show that stigma and discrimination against migrant workers have not shifted much since 2014.

As Hongkongers continue to struggle for more political and social freedom, we must not lose sight of the importance of cultivating solidarity and coalitions across differences by recognising the labour of domestic workers, and by respecting them and compensating them in an equitable way.

Shui-yin Sharon Yam is an Associate Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky. She is the author of Inconvenient Strangers: Transnational Subjects and the Politics of Citizenship.