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The Live in Rule: any chance for change?

In Hong Kong, It is illegal for a foreign domestic worker to live at a different address from their employer. This is known as the live-in rule and it was introduced by the Hong Kong Immigration Department in 2003. Only those who have been continuously employed by the same employer since the period before this law, are allowed to live out, provided that the employer and helper declare this with the Immigration Department every single time upon visa renewal.

The main argument provided in support of this rule is that it prevents foreign domestic workers from competing with local Hong Kong workers. Despite this not being very persuasive, the government maintains that lifting the rule could have serious consequences for Hong Kong’s economy and society.

Unsurprisingly, the live-in rule has often been criticised since its implementation. Many argue the arrangement increases the risk of abuse and breaches the helper’s privacy. These arguments were reinforced after the significant case of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, whose employer was jailed for six years following seven months of abuse.

This year, the rule was challenged under judicial review. Nancy Lubiano, a domestic worker from the Philippines, argued that the creation of the rule was unconstitutional and breached the fundamental rights of workers. This was dismissed by the High Court judge.

Over the past few years, various organisations have also pushed for a reform of this law, arguing that abolishing the rule would reduce the likeliness of abuse and would offer more privacy to domestic helpers. However, if the rule was abolished, new issues could appear, particularly since helpers would need to find the money to rent accommodation.

Even though the live-in rule exists, a gap still remains between the law and what happens in practice. Frequently, both employers and foreign domestic workers favour a live-out arrangement. Despite the severe consequences (up to 150000HKD and 14 years imprisonment), both parties must believe that the risk of being caught is worth taking.

Although the government provides many reasons justifying the live-in rule, it seems that these are only diversions from the real reason. Relaxing the rule would clearly lead to a debate on the politically sensitive topic of whether domestic workers should gain the right of permanent residence, a can of worms that the government does not want to open. Consequently, it seems there is little hope for reform in the foreseeable future.

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