Hong Kong domestic workers ‘abusing’ post-contract grace period, officials say, pointing to jump in work visa rejections

·6-min read

Growing numbers of Hong Kong’s foreign domestic helpers are “abusing” a special arrangement that has allowed them to stay in the city for a month after their contracts have been terminated, officials have said, pointing to a major jump in the number of visas rejected over alleged “job hopping”.

The Immigration Department turned down 1,332 visa applications from domestic workers suspected of switching employers without a valid reason in the first nine months of 2021, up fourfold from all of last year, according to a Labour Department letter to employment agencies seen by the Post.

The letter warned that helpers were increasingly “abusing” the extended stay arrangement – introduced in the first months of the coronavirus pandemic – saying complaints about agencies inducing domestic workers to leave their employers had jumped to 120 in the first nine months of the year, from just 29 in the same period in 2020.

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Domestic helpers who spoke to the Post said there were often very good reasons for switching employers. Photo: Felix Wong
Domestic helpers who spoke to the Post said there were often very good reasons for switching employers. Photo: Felix Wong

But helpers who spoke to the Post said round-the-clock work hours, verbal attacks and lack of food were among the reasons they had left their employers in search of better ones.

The number of workers the government has accused of abusing the system accounts for 0.4 per cent of the domestic helper population in Hong Kong.

“The relevant figures indicate the problem of job hopping of foreign domestic workers has become more serious,” a government spokesman said in the letter dated November 12.

A department spokeswoman told the Post that job hopping referred to helpers allegedly changing employers by terminating a contract prematurely.

She said the authorities considered a number of factors in applications for work visas including the integrity of applicants, their previous employment record, the number of contracts terminated and the reasons for termination. Valid reasons included job relocation, the migration or demise of an employer, the employer’s financial inability to complete a contract or evidence of the helper being mistreated, she added.

But Thomas Chan Tung-fung, chairman of the Hong Kong Union of Employment Agencies, said the government unfairly singled out helpers for seeking better working conditions, something that was common practice in other occupations.

“Foreign domestic helpers are working at a job. In other jobs, you can leave your employer when you’re unhappy with the company to pursue a better opportunity. Are domestic helpers not allowed to have that right?” he asked.

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Helpers employed for fewer than six months have typically been allowed to resign with one week’s notice. That notice period grows to a month if they have been on the job for more than half a year.

Historically, once a domestic worker’s contract is terminated, they have been allowed to stay in Hong Kong for just two weeks to find a new employer

But as international borders began closing after the coronavirus pandemic hit, making it difficult for helpers who typically hail from the Philippines and Indonesia to travel to their home countries, the Immigration Department began granting conditional extensions of up to a month for those seeking new employers.

Employer groups have previously accused domestic workers of job hopping without a valid reason or even deliberately getting themselves fired to collect severance payments.

Some have also argued that the pandemic and associated shortage of helpers has worsened the problem, with such workers lured away for higher wages.

I wanted to stay [with the employer], because I needed a job, but I couldn’t … because my health was already affected

Evangeline, a domestic helper from the Philippines

Helpers, who asked to be identified by their first names as their visas and contracts were being processed, told the Post job changes were often made out of necessity.

Evangeline, a 41-year-old domestic worker from the Philippines’ Davao province, said she fainted and was admitted to hospital in August from sheer exhaustion and hunger.

After that first-time experience, she decided to leave her employer – a couple with two young children – only two months into her contract.

“I wanted to stay [with the employer], because I needed a job, but I couldn’t … because my health was already affected,” she said, adding her employer did not normally provide her breakfast and only allowed her to eat when her chores were done at about 3pm.

Evangeline said her employer once banged on her door at 3am demanding she wash a disposable spoon.

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She has since found a new employer – a couple with a 14-year-old son – and is expected to start the job in December. She will earn HK$4,800 (US$616), slightly higher than the city’s HK$4,630 minimum wage for domestic workers.

“I came to Hong Kong for work and I do my best. As much as possible, I hope to finish my contract with the employer instead of having to find a new one. It takes a long time to look for a job, and it’s a big adjustment. I need the stability to provide for my family back home,” she said.

Evangeline said she had a good track record as a domestic helper, working eight years in the Middle East cleaning mansions before coming to Hong Kong in 2017 and staying with her first employer for more than four years.

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Merlita, a 41-year-old Filipino, left her employer in September after four months of rising tensions.

Hired by the daughter of a 95-year-old woman, Merlita said she was told she should complete her household chores at night or in the early morning as they slept in the small Hong Kong flat.

But any noise, even opening a cupboard, seemed to anger her employer, who would call her “stupid” and “not good enough”, according to Merlita, who said it began to affect her mental health.

She said she would frequently eat nothing but instant noodles during the course of the day, claiming she was provided no meals or a food allowance to supplement her minimum wage earnings.

“I can handle the lack of sleep, working 6am to midnight, that’s part of the reality, but it’s the stress and constant arguing with the employer that I could not handle,” Merlita said, tearing up.

“I wouldn’t have resigned if she had treated me well.”

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