Hong Kong domestic helpers’ dreams dashed by debt - ANISYA

Hong Kong domestic helpers’ dreams dashed by debt

Original article at http://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/long-reads/article/1976195/hong-kong-domestic-helpers-dreams-dashed-debt (Anisya has reproduced this article here as an ongoing effort to generate public awareness around the changing landscape of employer-FDW relationships)

Caught between unscrupulous employment agencies and an apathetic government, many Hong Kong domestic helpers find themselves locked in a vicious cycle of poverty, write Angharad Hampshire and Georgia Feldmanis.

Domestic helper Jorial Funtaniel (seated) attends the “Moneywise for Newcomers” workshop in Sheung Wan last month. Photos: Edward Wong; K.Y. Cheng; Nora Tam; Angharad Hampshire

Jorial Funtaniel is 32 and has four children under the age of 12. She recently started work at a new job in Hong Kong with big hopes and dreams.

Like many working mothers in Hong Kong, she hopes to fund her family’s day-to-day life and her children’s education, and to save for the future. Like them, she leaves her children in the care of someone else while she is at work. But unlike local working mothers, she will only get to see her children once every two years.

As a domestic helper, Funtaniel will be looking after someone else’s home and family in order to provide for her own. And she is compelled to do so by economics. The two main countries that supply domestic helpers to Hong Kong, the Philippines and Indonesia (at least for now; Jakarta has said it will phase out sending domestic helpers overseas, starting next year), face high rates of poverty and unemployment.

A recently published report, “Modern Slavery in East Asia” by social enterprise Farsight, found that of prospective domestic helpers responding in Indonesia, 26 per cent were employed, compared with 16 per cent in the Philippines. In Indonesia, the average salary of respondents with a job was HK$932 a month; in the Philippines it was HK$1,219.

Scott Stiles, of Fair Employment Agency, with domestic helpers in Central.

In Hong Kong, the current minimum allowable wage (MAW) for foreign domestic helpers is HK$4,210, so a helper can expect to earn roughly four times what she or he would at home.

Ninety-six per cent of the 340,000 registered foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong send 50 to 60 per cent of their salary home each month, an average remittance of HK$2,035, which adds up to HK$24,220 per person each year. That money supports, on average, four people in the helper’s home country.

The most obvious economic benefit to Hong Kong of employing helpers is the cheap care they provide for children and the elderly, allowing many families to have a dual income. On top of this, helpers spend HK$500 to HK$800 of their salary each month in Hong Kong on their own expenses, which keeps HK$170 million to HK$272 million in the city.

People in Hong Kong often find it hard to grasp how difficult it is for a migrant worker to save when the salary they receive here is so much more than they would get at home.

One of the Farsight report’s main findings is that only 6 per cent of migrant domestic workers return home feeling they have saved enough money. Ten per cent go home with no money at all and 50 per cent return with only material things. Of those who return with nothing, 13 per cent still owe money to recruiters. And of those who have returned home, 65 per cent of Indonesians and 89 per cent of Filipinos say they want to migrate again.

“This is not temporary migration to save for one’s family – it is recurring participation in an overseas labour market to maintain a subsistence income,” the report concludes.

Lenlen Mesina (left), executive director of Enrich, with domestic helper Warlita Manera.

FUNTANIEL IS ATTENDING a workshop called “Moneywise for Newcomers”, run by Enrich, a charity that provides financial advice to domestic helpers. Inspirational quotes line the walls of the small room on the 11th floor of a block in Sheung Wan, including one by Eleanor Roosevelt: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

The aim of this four-hour session is to help the five newly arrived helpers in attendance to think about their dreams, prioritise them, set achievable goals and come up with an action plan.

“My goal is to educate my children and to save for their future,” says Funtaniel. “I need to pay off my debts and pay for food for my family. Then I also have to pay for my parents and siblings. I would like to stay for two contracts – four years. I hope that will be long enough.”

Enrich’s executive director, Lenlen Mesina, says, “We see people who have attended our courses, who have paid off their debts, are setting up a pool of money for emergency funds and are saving for the future. It is possible to go home with adequate savings with the right kind of financial guidance. However, it is hard work.”

Enrich is clear that the first priority must be debt repayment. The Farsight report found the average amount of debt incurred during the recruitment process by a domestic helper heading for Hong Kong was US$1,845 (HK$14,300). This amount is higher than the 14.8 million rupiah (HK$8,600) fee limit stipulated by the Indonesian government and far beyond the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration’s “zero agency fee” policy for all Filipinos wanting to work overseas as “household service workers”.

Some of this debt is incurred in the home country, but 62 per cent of migrant workers pay recruitment costs after arriving in Hong Kong and 41 per cent of those already working here incur further recruitment debts when they change employer.

Illustration: Bay Leung.

An employment agency in Hong Kong can legally charge just 10 per cent of a domestic helper’s first monthly salary as a recruitment fee. At the MAW, this would be HK$421. However, charging fees of up to HK$21,000 is commonplace.

“More than half of the women who walk through our doors have been charged illegal and exorbitant fees,” says Holly Allan, manager of the charity Helpers for Domestic Helpers. “A common story is that the first thing the agent does when they arrive is make them sign a loan agreement for agency fees. They never actually receive the proceeds of the ‘loan’ but then spend up to 80 per cent of their wages for the next seven to eight months paying these excessive amounts back. The agencies are very careful not to leave any paper trail. For example, they don’t issue receipts, so it is very hard to trace payments. Despite the illegality of the fees charged, domestic workers feel they have no choice but to pay them for fear of losing their jobs and being sent back home penniless.”

The Employment Agencies Administration (EAA) is the section of the Labour Department tasked with regulating and investigating offending agencies. Given the widespread illegal fee charging, it doesn’t have a strong track record. Last year, the EAA received 108 complaints against employment agencies relating to overcharging of placement fees and only nine resulted in convictions.

Justice Centre Hong Kong recently published the report “Coming Clean”, the result of a year-long study of more than 1,000 domestic helpers in Hong Kong.

“Whether they are securing their job in Hong Kong or in their home country, domestic workers are likely to have to pay for the majority of the contracts they work in Hong Kong,” says Jade Anderson, anti-human-trafficking coordinator at the Justice Centre. “In reality, migrant domestic workers have very little real opportunity to save for their futures or those of the people in their home countries dependent on these remittances. Rather than working in Hong Kong to invest in their own and their families’ futures, migrant domestic workers are working to keep working.”

Funtaniel focuses on a budgeting exercise that involves cards labelled with priorities that include debt, food for her family, schooling, a sum for her parents and her own spending. She struggles to balance the books: the sums add up to more than her income.

“Before I came here, I thought I’d have lots of money left for me,” she says. “Now I realise that there is nothing after each remittance.”

As well as the MAW of HK$4,210, helpers must be provided with accommodation, food or a food allowance of HK$995 per month and passage home at the end of each two-year contract. There is no limit on working hours. Based on the helpers’ average working hours in Hong Kong of 12 hours a day, six days a week, the hourly wage comes to HK$14.39, which is HK$18.11 less than the statutory minimum wage for other workers in the city.

The Asian Migrants Coordinating Body (AMCB) demands that domestic helpers be included in the statutory minimum wage.

“When you work in Hong Kong, you should be paid based on the living standard in Hong Kong,” says AMCB spokesman Eman Villanueva, who finds it outrageous that people defend the current MAW by saying helpers earn more here than at home. “There is no point basing it on, let’s say, the living standard in India. If that’s the case, there should be no minimum wage. Each individual should be paid according to where they came from – and that is not internationally acceptable by any labour standards. And it’s totally illogical and the direction of that is towards a slave wage.

When you work in Hong Kong, you should be paid based on the living standard in Hong Kong
“It’s like saying, ‘You get pennies in your home country so we’ll pay you just a few more pennies here.'”

Details about how the government calculates the MAW are kept under wraps.

Financial training workshop for domestic workers provided by Enrich Hong Kong at St. Jerome’s Church in Tin Shui Wai.

“We look at the price index and wage levels, and a basket of economic indicators, which is a general description,” says Queenie Wong Ting-chi, an assistant commissioner at the Labour Department and the person in charge of formulating policies for domestic helpers and employment agencies. When asked to give specifics about exactly what the basket includes, the answer is nebulous: “We are looking at things holistically, so it’s not actually a formula … it’s not really meaningful for us to disclose what kind of economic indicators we use.”

The current median monthly income in Hong Kong is HK$15,500. One in eight households, and one in three with children, currently employs a domestic helper. The minimum monthly household income needed in order to employ a helper was introduced in the mid-1970s, when foreign domestic helpers first came to Hong Kong, at HK$15,000. This amount has never gone up. Since then, the MAW has more than quadrupled. Had the threshold gone up at the same rate, households employing a domestic helper would have to have a monthly income in excess of HK$60,000.

“When we consider the threshold, we also take into account whether the employer is able to pay on time and pay the minimum amount,” Wong says, defensively. “So far, over the years, when we look into the figures of underpayment and non-payment, the figures are not really bad. That means the employers and households are able to pay that wage.”

The government figure on wage underpayment and non-payment claims is “around or below 0.2 per cent over the past 10 years”. Yet, the Justice Centre’s survey found that more than 70 per cent of respondents said they earned less than the MAW.

“Employers are not required to increase wages for migrant domestic workers mid-contract, in line with increases to the MAW, and unfortunately we are not in a position to say whether the reported salaries were less than the MAW at the time they were signed,” says Anderson. “What this shows, however, is that the rate at which the MAW is set is being treated as the norm for salaries rather than as a minimum floor.”

Wong says the government won’t include helpers in the statutory minimum wage for two reasons. First, it is necessary to protect local live-in domestic helpers whose jobs may be threatened by migrant workers. Second, the “distinctive characters of the distinctive working patterns of a live-in domestic helper” make it very difficult to count working hours.

When questioned about the number of local live-in domestic helpers whose jobs are threatened by migrant workers, Wong is vague: “It’s the government’s understanding there are some. We don’t really have the figures on hand.”

Villanueva takes issue with the second point. He cites Canada, where live-in foreign helpers have their hours counted, are paid a statutory minimum wage that is the same as for other workers and can earn overtime.

“When you are demanded to be on duty, whether you are doing something or not, then you are at work and have to be paid, like nurses or firemen,” he says. “Unless you tell them they can leave and go wherever they like, they have to be at home, therefore they are working. Of course it’s possible to count hours. It’s just a matter of political will and whether the government wants to treat foreign domestic workers as equals.”

It’s the government’s understanding there are some [local live-in domestic helpers]. We don’t really have the figures on hand
Wong points out that Hong Kong is a better place for helpers than other receiving countries, such as Singapore and those in the Middle East.

Financial training workshop for domestic workers provided by Enrich Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong claims to be a global city,” says Villanueva. “Why do we always compare ourselves with places which are really bad? There are lots of good international cities which treat domestic workers much better. We should be comparing ourselves with places like New York, London, Vancouver. The cost of living in those places is similar.

“When I am asked how much foreign domestic workers should receive, I like to turn it round and ask, ‘How much are you willing to pay for your children and elderly to be taken care of properly?’ That is the value of the work. And if you treat that person badly, what does it say about how much you really value your family? Currently, there is a big disconnect between the two things.”

The AMCB has calculated a revised MAW based on the wage demands of local workers and the basic needs of live-in foreign domestic helpers who have their accommodation and food provided and are working a 10-hour day: HK$5,344.91.

“However, we are demanding HK$5,000 because we are considering the wage movement of local workers and employers, which has not significantly increased in 10 years,” says Villanueva. “This is a wage increase of HK$790 monthly, or 18.8 per cent.”

Scott Stiles, co-founder and general manager of the Fair Employment Agency, is concerned about raising the MAW too quickly and says this approaches the problem from the wrong angle.

“It makes sense that employers are opposed to raising it too quickly,” Stiles says. “Many employers are working families who are also struggling to make ends meet. Hong Kong people’s wages haven’t kept up with rising rent and food costs over the last 25 years. These employers will have to make difficult decisions if the minimum wage becomes unaffordable to them. I am concerned that thousands of talented domestic workers will lose their jobs if this isn’t handled prudently.”

We know most workers are spending four to nine months of their salaries paying back agency fees in order to find a job

Stiles would prefer the immediate fight to be about illegal agency fees, which he feels both employers and workers alike agree are unfair and immoral.

“We know most workers are spending four to nine months of their salaries paying back agency fees in order to find a job,” says Stiles, whose own agency doesn’t charge helpers a cent. “But what’s not talked about is that during those four to nine months they still have obligations at home and those are going to be funded with new loans. Agency fees create a cycle of debt bondage that stays with them throughout their entire time in Hong Kong. If you can get to the root cause of this debt and prevent it from happening, you can change the entire financial trajectory, perhaps even more than with a dramatic increase in the minimum wage.

Queenie Wong

“These are changes workers and employers will both support. After all, employers don’t want debt collectors at their door, either.”

Emily Halsall, director of external relations at Enrich, is disheartened by the frequent misconception that helpers return home rich, the owners of multiple properties and land.

“There is a huge lack of awareness of the nature of the poverty they come from and go back to,” she says. “When they go back, they often don’t go back to employment. They need to return to some sort of sustainable livelihood and, for many domestic workers, that is farming or a property that they can use as a small shop. Investing in these things is the only way they can actually get their family out of poverty. It’s a necessity not a luxury. Let’s not begrudge them that.

“There’s a huge lack of awareness about the realities that face domestic workers. She is this person in your home every day. You don’t really know anything about her or her situation.”

WARLITA MANERA, A 53-YEAR-OLD Filipino helper, has been working in Hong Kong since 1994 and, prior to that, in Singapore for six years. Manera is on track to become one of the 6 per cent who goes home with what they consider to be enough savings. In 2011, she finished paying off debts and has managed to build a house on land that she will run as a subsistence farm with her husband. Since completing the Enrich courses in 2013, she has been saving HK$2,000 a month.

“Enrich helped me to set up my goals and to prioritise them,” Manera says. “I learned to say ‘no’ to my family whenever they asked for money unless it’s a necessity. We often cover up our absence by giving them what they want and need. Now I am saving for my emergency fund and retirement. I think I need to work for three more years to save enough, which is one more contract after this one. So, I hope to go home in July 2019.”

Meanwhile, Funtaniel is at the beginning of her journey of migration. She looks at the sums on the sheet of paper in front of her. She is coming to the realisation she may have to stay for more than two contracts in order to go back with adequate savings for her family’s future.

“It was so difficult to leave my children, especially my little one who is only two,” she says, as she wipes away a tear. “I hope I can save money here. With God’s will.”

But is God’s will enough? Or would a genuine campaign to stamp out recruitment debt and end the differentiation between terms and conditions for foreign domestic helpers and local workers help her more?

For further details on the Enrich courses, visit www.enrichhk.org.

View all posts in Anisya Blog
Posted on 19 Jun 2016


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