We occasionally hear complaints that the Immigration Department takes very little interest in what happens to domestic helpers once the employment contract on which the department insists has been signed and implemented.

This now appears unfair. The department is not interested in the parts of the contract which concern such trivia as the helper’s hours, accommodation, food or pay. But it is manfully struggling to enforce one item – the duration.

domestic worker maid helper
File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Because of Covid there is currently, it appears, a shortage of helpers. This has led to some potential employers offering terms better than the minimum required, and some helpers wishing to change their employer as a result.

This, you might suppose, is the normal operation of economics at work. A commodity is scarce, so those offering it become more valuable. This is an example of market forces at play, something of which our government has traditionally been fond.

Not, it seems, where foreign ladies on the standard contract are concerned. The Immigration Department, according to a local tree carcass, is determined to combat “job-hopping, which is when domestic helpers prematurely terminate their employment contracts or deliberately perform poorly to force their employers to fire them to change employers.”

Statistically this is apparently a growing problem, if it is a problem. In the first ten months of this year the department approved 340,000 domestic helpers’ visas, of which 10,153 involved “premature” changes of employer.

domestic workers coronavirus covid masks
Hong Kong domestics helper gathering in central on Sunday May 31, 2020. File Photo: May James/HKFP.

Some 4,400 cases were “suspected of job-hopping”, (compared with 1,776 cases last year) and 1,748 were actually denied visas on this ground, compared with 319 last year.

The example offered by the department spokesman went like this: “For example, the department received a premature termination of the contract earlier, claiming that she was treated poorly …after contacting the original employer, the officers found that the helper asked for a pay rise and resigned after finding a new employer. Therefore, both her compensation and visa application were denied.”

As a way of detecting abuse this is distressingly one-sided. “In suspicious cases,” the department spokesman said, “the department will contact the employer to find out the reason for early termination and will deny visa applications in cases of confirmed job-hopping.”

Surely this is a rather naive way of settling the matter. After all, the employer has his own interests to consider. He wishes to employ another helper. So if contacted by the department he is not going to say “I don’t know why she left. But the fact that we expected her to work 16 hours a day and sleep with the dog may have had something to do with it.” Much easier to say she had another job offer, although why the helper should have shared this interesting piece of information with her ex-employer is a puzzle.

Domestic Workers under Covid-19
Indonesian domestic workers during their day-off in Victoria Park. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The standard contract is interesting on the matter of termination. The employer has a wide range of options – disobedience, conduct “inconsistent with the true and faithful discharge of his/her duties,” dishonesty, is “habitually neglectful in his/her duties, and any other ground on which the employer would be entitled to terminate without notice at common law.”

The employee’s options are more limited. They start with: “if he/she reasonably fears physical danger by violence or disease which was not contemplated by his/her contract of employment expressly or by necessary implication.”

I do not know what was going through the mind of the person who wrote this, which comes from the Immigration Department’s “Explanatory Notes”. Does the department think that some contracts expressly or implicitly require domestic helpers to put up with violence or disease?

Then we are offered “ill-treatment”, which is not defined, and the common law thing.

This, however, appears to be rather a poor explanatory note. In the Department’s FAQs for employers it says that “An employer and his helper alike may terminate the contract prior to its expiry by giving not less than one month’s notice in writing or by paying one month’s wages to the other party.”

Domestic Workers under Covid-19
Calls from the migrants’ group for better protection of migrants’ rights. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

This is the usual arrangement for most of us and I do not see why the department should be abusing its powers over work visas to make it difficult for foreign domestic helpers to do the same thing. No doubt it is very inconvenient for some employers to lose their helper early. But this is a hazard of employment generally. Just when you’re happy with the new recruit you get a slap from the invisible hand and she leaves for another job. As Saki quotably wrote: “The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go she went.”

Rich people have been complaining for centuries about the difficulty of finding and keeping servants. It is not the job of the Immigration Department to protect the interests of employers by punishing employees who resign to go to a better job. Job-hopping is not illegal. Paying a helper more than the stipulated minimum is not illegal either.

And in view of the government’s lamentable record in protecting, or rather failing to protect, the interests of foreign domestic helpers, so that the provisions of the standard contract are in many households an entertaining work of pure fiction, the right to change employers is probably the best protection they have.

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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.