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What is "suitable" accommodation?

All foreign domestic workers are required by law to live with their employers. This was implemented in 2003 as the “live-in” rule, to prevent job-hopping or moon lighting. As such, accommodation must be provided for the worker at the employer’s household. However, rather worryingly, there are many cases where the accommodation provided is far from appropriate or adequate.

So, what are the guidelines around what constitutes suitable accommodation? It is surprisingly, not all that clear. On the specimen employment contract provided by the immigration department, employers must disclose the size of the room. It recommends “suitable accommodation” with “reasonable privacy”. It also outlines the essential facilities to be provided from a bed to blankets and warns that if this list of facilities is not provided, it is unlikely to be approved.

The greatest issue is the lack of guidance on where the boundaries are. Instead, they just give one example of what would not be suitable; “having to sleep on made-do beds in the corridor with little privacy and sharing a room with an adult/teenager of the opposite sex”. The issue is that a layman’s perception of what a private room means, is a room to himself/herself. But, it still counts as a private room if it is shared with the employer’s children for example. Furthermore, often what constitutes a private room could be a laundry room with a bed. Yet, it is a room with people coming in and out all the time which doesn’t seem so private. The size of the rooms can also often be very small and not designed for people to sleep in. In some extreme cases, makeshift cabinets are built instead, as it is “technically” a suitable private room.

The bigger question then, is what the standards should be? The International Labour Organisation sets out a useful recommendation: “A place that allows privacy and space to rest without disturbance, ideally with a door that can be locked while they sleep”. In terms of the priority of things domestic workers value most, privacy is number one. In terms of the size of the space provided, (understandably, Hong Kong is cramped for space), it is reasonable to suggest one which can fit more than just the bed itself is suitable.

Overall, in order to tackle the issue of inadequate/inappropriate accommodation, it needs to be done by the employers and the immigration department. Employers should try to understand the importance and value of privacy and space and the immigration department should also set out clearer guidelines in detail, in order to educate the employers on what the standard should be.

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