Migrant domestic worker activists have urged the government to stop accusing workers of “job hopping,” saying that changing employers is a “human right” that everybody is entitled to.

domestic workers protest
Domestic workers staging a protest outside the Labour Department on March 20, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Protesting outside the Labour Department on Monday morning, activists with the Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body (AMCB) held up signs reading “stop discrimination” and “we are workers, not slaves.”

Their comments come ahead of the government launching a public consultation aimed at cracking down on those who terminate their contracts early to find another employer.

Dolores Balladares, a spokesperson for the AMCB, said job hopping was a “myth” as changing employers was “one of the [last] things” a domestic worker would do.

Domestic workers have to pay “a big price” if they end their contracts early including having to pay a large sum to employment agencies as well as facing a wait for a new work visa. Hence workers would not easily decide to change their employers, she said.

domestic workers protest
Domestic workers staging a protest outside the Labour Department on March 20, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

“If we are not doing good, if we are not feeling good, if we don’t receive any good treatment with our [employer], it’s the right of an individual to look for a better [employer],” Balladares said.

The protest comes as the Labour Department makes plans to amend its Code of Practice for Employment Agencies, a set of guidelines for agencies that help domestic workers find jobs in the city.

According to the Labour Department’s proposal, employment agencies would be required to “clearly explain” to domestic workers that applications to change employer before the completion of the standard two-year contract will “normally not be approved,” apart from in “exceptional circumstances.”

These circumstances include “the transfer, migration, death or financial reasons” relating to the original employer, or where “there is evidence that the [foreign domestic worker] has been abused or exploited.”

domestic workers protest
Domestic workers staging a protest outside the Labour Department on March 20, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The department has also proposed “closely monitoring the business practices” of agencies and “conducting inspections [of agencies] offering cash incentives” to workers whose employment contracts are prematurely terminated.”

According to the government, with Covid-19 affecting the supply of domestic workers in Hong Kong, employment agencies have been inducing domestic workers to end their contracts early. The situation has “markedly improved” as the number of domestic workers gradually rebounded, the government said. The Labour Department received 47 complaints involving employment agencies incentivising domestic workers to change jobs last year, compared to 177 in 2021.

‘Listen to our demands’

The proposals will be discussed at the Panel of Manpower meeting in the Legislative Council on Tuesday. On the same day, the Labour Department will launch a public consultation to collect views from stakeholders.

Sringatin, the chairperson of the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union, said she hoped the government would meet with domestic workers.

“Today, we [are] asking the Labour Department immediately to call different organisations of migrant domestic workers to have consultation and listen to our demands and voice[s].

domestic workers July 1, 2022 Handover anniversary mask
Domestic workers on their day off in Wan Chai. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Last month, lawmaker Frankie Ngan raised a motion in the Legislative Council calling on authorities to improve “the policies on foreign domestic helpers.” He said the government should crack down on domestic workers who change their employers often and step up regulation of employment agencies.

During the Legislative Council meeting, lawmaker Elizabeth Quat said she had received many complaints from employers about their domestic workers, including that they did not know how to perform chores.

She said some domestic workers “did not match their product descriptions,” a comment that drew ire among activists who demanded an apology from her.

Domestic workers in Hong Kong are legally obligated to live-in with their employers, and have only two weeks in the city to find another job if they become employed. A 2021 survey revealed that reports of sexual abuse and harassment suffered by foreign domestic workers at their workplace tripled during the previous year, while another found that 40,000 of such workers in Hong Kong were given zero rest days during the pandemic.

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Hillary Leung

Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.