'Helper' vs. 'Worker'

My mother immigrated to the UK from Thailand in the 90s. She lived on the streets for most of her childhood and left home at the age of 17 in order to help provide for her family. She had limited English skills and never finished high school. After 7 years, when she received her first UK passport, she described the moment as a ‘mile stone and an acknowledgement’ of the sacrifices she has made and how far she has come.


If you move to Hong Kong (HK), you qualify for permanent residency after 7 years, not too dissimilar to the UK.[1] However, this does not apply to foreign domestic workers (FDWs); under their class of employment, they are ineligible. What differentiates FDW’s from other expatriates like my parents, is their categorization as a ‘helper’ rather than an ‘employee’ due to the live-in rule.


Effects of semantics

To be defined as a ‘helper’ in HK, is commonplace. But the impact is that it has created a new class of workers. The problem is that to be defined as a helper in Hong Kong, will offer you fewer rights, fewer protections, and the social burden of being ‘lesser’ than other working migrants in HK.


This burden is one borne out of fear and divisiveness. The live-in rule that prevents these women from attaining right of abode is what makes them vulnerable and places them in an environment where they are more susceptible to abuse.[2]


Comparing my mother’s experience to many FDWs in HK, it seems like a great injustice. What differentiates these women from my mother is that they cannot have to live with their employer. However, were HK to abolish the live-in rule, it poses space problems on locals and financial burdens on FDWs. Not just this, but would public opinion really change? The root of this divisiveness is not legislation, but is found within the semantics of labelling. The connotations and stigmas attached to being a ‘helper’ are unlikely to change. Instead we must show these women respect by referring to them as what they are; workers.


In conclusion, in the land of the blind, Hong Kong is the one-eyed King. The Employment Ordinance, offers FDW’s more protection than any other Asian country.[3] What needs to change however, is public discourse.

[1] https://www.immd.gov.hk/eng/services/right-of-abode-in-hksar/apply.html


[2] HKSAR v Law Wan Tung [2015] HKEC 242, per Woodcock


[3] https://seefar.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Seefar-Modern-Slavery-in-East-Asia.pdf

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