Domestic helper job-hopping: Serious problem or an overreaction?

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Domestic workers enjoy the sun on their day off

Last month, the immigration department issued a new measure which is aimed at deterring domestic workers from repeatedly changing jobs. Anna Cummins investigates whether this is a necessary move or a step too far

Issues surrounding domestic helpers are seldom out of the headlines in Hong Kong. If the story isn’t about a landmark court case or the struggle for permanent residency, it’s about a theft or other allegation against a Filipino or Indonesian maid. Just last week, a Hong Kong couple were jailed for seriously abusing their Indonesian helper, Kartika Pusitasari.

But one story hasn’t really been investigated in depth over the past few weeks. And that concerns the Immigration Department’s statement on August 30, which introduces new measures that ‘fortify the assessment’ of employment visa applications from domestic helpers who ‘change employers repeatedly’ – colloquially known as ‘job-hopping’. 

The department says it promises to ‘closely scrutinise’ domestic workers’ employment visa applications for signs of ‘abuse of arrangements’. On the day the statement was made, it transpired that 45 domestic helpers suspected of job-hopping have had their visa applications refused over the past two months. Some have argued that this is a necessary response to a real problem, while others have raised concerns that it will leave helpers feeling trapped in unsatisfactory jobs. 


Maids waiting to apply for a visa

But why would a domestic worker change their employer repeatedly? Joseph Law is the chairman of the Hong Kong Employers of Domestic Helpers Association – and he has firm feelings on the matter. “This is a scam!” he says. “A scam! S-c-a-m.”

The problem, as Law sees it, is that overseas domestic workers are charged high fees to be ‘placed’ within an agency in Hong Kong – something they are obliged to do before they arrive here. While these fees should legally not exceed 10 percent of a worker’s monthly salary – $392 – in practice they often charge much more. Up to $20,000, in fact. This money is usually taken out in a loan by the worker and it goes straight to the agencies, who also charge hiring fees of up to $8,000 to the local employer. As Law points out: “It’s a very lucrative business.”

“The real scam,” claims Law, “is that agencies then coerce the employers into wanting to fire their worker. Once they fire her, the employer then has to pay for the air ticket plus one month’s wages in lieu of notice. So she gets more than $5,000 from the employer who terminates her. Some agencies will use one worker and introduce her to three or four employers. She works for one or two weeks only, [gets fired] and then comes back to the agency – and they go to the next employer. The agency gets the fee from each employer all over again.”

There is certainly anecdotal evidence that supports these claims. Peter Chen (not real name) is currently employing his third domestic helper. The first two, he suspects, both tried to get fired on purpose. “Our first helper, she worked for us for six months,” says Chen. “She did something disgusting – she put faeces inside the toilet roll tube. It was definitely her. She was the only one it could have been. After that, I couldn’t trust her with my baby.” Chen claims that, despite the fact he treated his helper fairly at all times, she made no effort to keep her job and he was forced to fire her. “She already had a job lined up before she left,” he says. 

Chen claims he experienced a similar case with his second helper. “She would give us dirty looks and just turn her back when we asked her to do something,” he says. “She was seeing what she could get away with.” Chen again felt forced to fire this helper and found the experience distressing. “It’s not even the money,” he says. “It’s the energy and time that it takes [to re-hire a helper]. As an employer it really sucks.”  


Recent protests in support of Kartika Pusitassari.
Image courtesy of Tom Grundy/ HK Helpers Campaign

Despite these claims, though, workers’ organisations remain unconvinced. Grace Estrada is a member and secretary of the Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Union. “Domestic workers are also human beings!” she says. “They also want good working conditions and to live in a good environment. So, of course, we find another job if we’re not comfortable with our present job – and this is our right.”

Estrada maintains that there is no money to be made for helpers in job-hopping. “It’s not really true that we are earning money if we change employer,” she says. “It’s expensive to go back home, and then we have another agency fee when we apply for another job. Maybe the agency will earn more money – but not the employee.” Estrada feels that helpers only change jobs if they are unsatisfied. “If the workers don’t have food, if they are sleeping in the sitting room, if they have to get the employer tea at 2am… of course, the domestic worker in that house will say ‘I’d better find a good employer’.”

Holly Allen is the manager of non-profit organisation Helpers for Domestic Helpers. She agrees that job-hopping is not lucrative. “It’s not in the helper’s interest to quit their job prematurely,” she argues. “They have to leave Hong Kong to start a new contract and pay more extortionate placement fees. Every time they start a new contract, it can add up to between $10,000 and $15,000. So, why would they do that unless they are subject to poor working conditions?”

In theory, a worker is allowed to terminate a contract if she can prove she has been maltreated, meaning she shouldn’t become trapped in an abusive job. But defining abuse can be difficult. “When we talk about abuse, we have to differentiate what kind of abuse it is,” says Law. “If I say ‘oh f*** off’, what is the big deal? Everybody swears to some extent.” But Leo Tang of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions disagrees. “It is not easy to prove!” he says. “When the workers go to file a case with the police, and the police ask the employer if it’s true, they usually trust the employers.” 

For many, it seems as though it’s the employment agencies that really need more regulation. 

“The law can easily be circumvented [by agencies],” says Allen. “Domestic workers pay money but no receipt is issued. There is no paper trail. And, of course, the agency will never admit that they are charging these illegal fees. There needs to be greater political will to crack down on these rogue agencies.” 

“I’m trying to lobby the labour department to have a tighter control on the agencies,” says Law. But he’s not optimistic. “[The Labour department] only has a few staff. There are more than a thousand agencies. It’s too much work! People get lazy.”

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