It’s well known that domestic workers in Hong Kong are not always treated favourably and cases of abuse are only on the rise. The rule which makes it illegal for domestic workers to live outside their employer’s home appears to only add to these problems. The “live in” rule was implemented originally to protect the local domestic workforce, but has had a detrimental effect on the migrant workforce who come to Hong Kong in search of a better life. They have no privacy and the lack of space means they are forced to live in inhumane conditions[i], the employer-employee relationship is tense and there is no evidence that it is even beneficial to the local workforce.
What is most disappointing about the situation in Hong Kong is that it is a common law system where human rights should be adequately protected and if not, there is a course of action to follow. However, as shown in the recent Nancy case[ii], where the live-in rule was put under judicial review, the lawmakers simply do not understand the conditions domestic workers face in Hong Kong. The judge upheld the rule and quashed the arguments that it was unconstitutional and a violation of human rights, stating that if the workers don’t like the conditions they are under, they have a right to termination. The lawyer representing Nancy stressed that the judgement only reinforced the view that these workers are seen as second class citizens and are severely misunderstood.
The judgement is out of touch as it ignores the great pressures and exploitations workers face. Corrupt employment agencies force them into debt bondage, withholding their passports and threatening their family members, making it almost impossible to leave. Once a worker finally has enough, they only have 2 weeks to find a new job before they are deported, thanks to the rules concerning their residency. This means many employees remain in abusive households with little protection.
It is undoubtable that domestic workers in Hong Kong are often treated poorly, but the reality is the live-in rule is not the root of all these problems. In reality, if they were given the choice (as they should be), most workers would come to an agreement with their employer to continue to live-in. Therefore, other, more important, issues should be tackled if we want to make a real difference.
The 2- week rule is a great hindrance to workers wanting to leave abusive employers but workers also don’t have a maximum amount of working hours or a proper rest day. The live-in rule means that workers offer round-the-clock care and unfortunately the government have used this ‘distinctive work pattern’ as the reason they are excluded from the minimum wage protection all other employees in Hong Kong are entitled to. Other countries have come up with inventive ways to protect maximum working hours, demonstrated in the 2013 ILO policy brief on live-in domestic workers’ hours[iii], so why can Hong Kong not do the same? Adding to this, domestic workers are rarely given their full 24-hour rest period. More awareness needs to be raised that this is a legal requirement and if breached can be taken to the labour tribunal.
Hong Kong must accept the need to prevent exploitation of this vulnerable group of workers. But changing the live-in rule is not the answer. We need strict implementation of maximum working hours, 24-hour rest days and extension of the 2-week rule first. These issues, if changed, will have a much greater impact.