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Protecting Foreign Domestic Workers’ Rights Amidst the Hong Kong Protests

Updated: Nov 27, 2019

It is no secret that foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong are often overworked and underpaid, many of them unable to exercise their basic rights. Ongoing protests have resulted in unintended consequences on foreign domestic workers, which has added to the maltreatment and deprivation of such rights, begging the question as to why proper protection is not granted in the first place.

The implications of the Hong Kong protests appear minor regarding the population of some 386,000[1] migrant domestic workers (primarily from the Philippines and Indonesia[2]), who are seemingly distanced from the situation. However, under the legally binding Employment Ordinance[3], foreign domestic workers are entitled to one rest day weekly, where they often gather in Admiralty, Central and Causeway Bay – common protest hotspots[4].

The demanding hours and tedious work endured makes the rest day all the more important. Nonetheless, as a consequence of the protests, this crucial rest day is cut short despite the legal requirement. Foreign domestic workers return to their employer’s residence early or do not go out at all, as they fear for their safety. Left vulnerable in their place of work, certain employers are quick to take advantage of foreign domestic workers and compel them to work, sometimes without compensation on their rest day according to Gabriela Hong Kong, an organisation helping Filipinas in Hong Kong[5].

Yet the exacerbation of unjust circumstances regarding foreign domestic workers emphasises a deep-rooted issue; be that ‘with or without the protests’ according to migrant worker Villanueva[6]. Workers who are forced to work on their rest day are deprived of their legal rights because they have nowhere else to go; the live-in rule, which must be agreed to in the standard employment contract, has long facilitated the exploitation of foreign domestic workers. For instance, in the landmark case of Erwiana[7], although the Labour department prosecuted the employer for not permitting a weekly rest day, Boase[8] details that this was largely due to pressure, criticising the live-in rule for increasing the likelihood of maltreatment. Furthermore, judicial review of the live-in rule was dismissed in the recent case of Lubiano[9], reinforcing the discriminatory laws that unfairly allow foreign domestic workers to be treated as second-class citizens.

If protests contribute to an issue that already exists, when will Hong Kong ensure correct implementation of the Employment Ordinance and fair treatment of migrant domestic workers?

  1. Betsy Joles and Jaime Chu ‘Domestic Workers Search for Rights amid Pro-Democracy Protests’ (Al Jazeera, 21 October 2019) < > accessed 09.11.2019

  2. Census and Statistics Department, ‘Foreign domestic helpers by nationality and sex’ (Census and Statistics Department, The Government of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region) < > accessed 11.11.2019

  3. Cap. 57 Employment Ordinance

  4. Yan Zhao ‘ Hong Kong’s domestic workers caught up in ongoing protest clashes’ (HKFP, 18 October 2019) <> accessed 09.11.2019

  5. Fiona Sun, ‘Hong Kong’s domestic helpers from Indonesia and the Philippines struggle through fear and pain of protest crisis’ (SCMP, 4 October 2019) < > accessed 09.11.019 \

  6. n1

  7. HKSAR v Law Wan Tung [2015] HKEC 242

  8. Melville Boase, Keynote Speech (25 April 2015)

  9. Nancy Almorin Lubiano v Director of Immigration [2019] HKCFA 33

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