In today’s competitive society, various jobs are naturally seen as holding different levels of importance and value. This is often dictated by what we see as being “successful” or not. For example, we may consider working as a doctor, lawyer, or engineer to be an important job, whereas tasks that require less education might be seen as being less valuable. 

One line of work whose place in society has sharply risen in recent decades is the world of finance. Since the 1980s, the global economy has become increasingly “financialized”: that is, financial institutions and executives dominate the economic and political realms. This trend has led to a disproportionate increase of incomes within the financial sector, at the expense of others. Traders are traditionally considered as successful and ambitious individuals. Yet, what is the intrinsic value of their work to society? 

On the other hand, a job that is undervalued by most societies is domestic work. Domestic workers do household chores and caretaking jobs, and are part of the informal economy. According to the International Labour Organization, there are 11.5 million migrant domestic workers in the world. They are some of the most vulnerable workers globally, especially when they come from abroad. Again, one might ask what is the value that this work brings to society? In the case of Hong Kong, migrant domestic workers are essential to the well-being of its economy and society.

Domestic Workers as a Foundational Pillar of the Hong Kongese Economy

In Hong Kong (HK), Migrant Domestic Workers (MDWs) made up more than 10% of the local labour force in 2019. MDWs in Hong Kong mostly come from two countries: in 2020, 55% of HK MDWs were Filipinos, and 42% Indonesians. As shown in the graphic, the number of MDWs stalled in 2020. This is a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the closing of borders. Yet the overall demand for domestic workers is still sharply increasing.

Numbers of Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong (Graphic made by Marion Paparella with statistics from the HK government)

In fact, the HK government anticipates a need for a total of 600,000 foreign domestic workers by 2047, corresponding to an increase of 50% in 28 years. MDWs are the backbone of the Hong Kongese economy, with 15% of Hong Kongese households having hired a “helper” in 2018 to take care of children and aging populations, as well as to perform household chores. While seeming like basic work to some, the labour of migrant domestic workers actually has a large impact. 

Firstly, the presence of MDWs enables Hong Kongese women, usually responsible for household work, to contribute to HK’s active labour force. The participation rate of women in HK’s labor force increased by 8 percentage points between 1990 and 2018 (from about 46% to 54%), which can be attributed to the growing number of hired MDWs. By freeing some mothers from household chores to participate in the labour force, MDWs contributed USD $2.6 billion to HK’s GDP. 

Secondly, hiring English-speaking MDWs, such as Filipinas, has been proven to help children reach English bilingualism. In HK, 71% of MDWs are involved in childcare and support the achievement of childrens’ education goals. Local English proficiency is especially strategic because it helps HK maintain a commercial advantage in the region when dealing with foreign companies. 

Overall, MDWs’ economic contribution to HK’s economy amounted to roughly USD$12.6 billion in 2018, which is 3.6% of HK’s total GDP. Yet MDWs remain unprotected from abuse and overexploitation. Although HK has ratified laws regarding rights to minimum wage, a maximum number of work hours, or the right to weekly rest, MDWs’ labor rights are often not practically recognized.

From Promises to Disillusions: Realities of MDWs in Hong Kong

Many stories of domestic helpers have made international headlines. As a matter of fact, 4% of MDWs respondents to an inquiring survey say they are victims of physical abuse. While horrifying, it is only one of the many dangers experienced by MDWs. As several reports have shown, MDWs are prey to all kinds of maltreatment in every step of their job, including recruitment, working abroad, and coming back home. 

During the recruitment process, 71% of MDWs experienced exploitation. Due to the rising demand for MDWs, shady recruitment agencies have sprouted in the Philippines, Indonesia, and other countries. These agencies take advantage of MDWs who want to leave but don’t know how, by asking to be paid for their services, and forcibly training them. Nearly one out of two MDWs recruited through these agencies report not being able to leave the agencies once the recruitment started, even if they had changed their mind. Agencies do what it takes to meet demands and make a profit, going as far as to lie about the salary and confiscate travel documents to prevent migrant workers from traveling back home.

SEEFAR Report. – The cycle of common problems experienced by MDW, from the recruitment process to eventually returning home.

In order to better understand the reality lived by MDWs in HK, Marion Paparella for Spheres of Influence had the privilege of interviewing Lizz Natividad, a Filipina domestic worker who has been living and working in HK for 24 years. Natividad describes what triggers leaving. “A lot of us are doing the same thing. Coming here when the kids are very young. All the time, I hear: ‘I wanted to work abroad so that I can give my kids a good education.’” Recruitment agencies take advantage of the fact that many MDWs choose to leave their home countries to give a better life to their children.

Up to 63% of MDWs face exploitative practices while working abroad, such as no day of rest, working 13 hours per day, and not being able to go out after working hours. In HK, most MDWs suffer from isolation and lack of social life. Helpers are obligated to live with their employers, and sometimes sleep in storage areas or under the dining table. According to Natividad, a lot could be solved with better communication between employers and helpers, and adjusted expectations, “communication is a big factor, to ask: ‘what do you expect from me?’”

The Financial Hurdle of MDWs

When it comes to finances, “the main problem is debt.” A worker spends an average of 4 months during a 2-year contract paying back initial debts accumulated during the recruitment process on things such as travel expenses, food, agency fees, etc. As Natividad shared, although the goal of MDWs working abroad is to save for their children and themselves, they often remain indebted indefinitely. 

Once MDWs paid back their initial debts, other urgent financial needs usually related to families back home have accumulated by then, making the objective of saving almost impossible. “When we come from the Philippines, we don’t plan to stay. Your goal is to save money. But things come up, like what your kids need, or you have to help your brother who had an accident. You remain far away from your goal, and stay longer and longer” says Natividad. As well, the impact of this financial vulnerability mixed with high expectations from employers have been heightened during the pandemic.

Despite all of these major issues, many workers as well as their countries of origin benefit from MDW programs. For example, Indonesia and the Philippines both received remittances of over USD $1 billion in 2018. 

There are also happy stories of well-integrated MDWs. Natividad worked for the same family for over 20 years, taking care of their child who today has left to study in Canada. “I was part of the family” she describes. “I feel like I belong in HK. I made my life here, I have all my friends.” HK became her new home. Today, she has an understanding employer who gives her two days of rest and savings for the rest of her life.

Focusing on the Real Value of Work

There is a definite discrepancy between the vulnerability of domestic workers and the significance of their work. It is time to reevaluate their work proportionally to their social and economic contribution, in order to better protect MDWs from exploitative practices. 

Natividad describes work as an MDW as “a give and take relationship, you are in a team [with the parents]. They can go to work and not worry about the children, it’s like a team.” Work does not have to be inherently intertwined with exploitation, especially when helpers and employers communicate well. 

The first step is rendering the recruitment process more ethical by regulating it in host countries (in this case, the Philippines and Indonesia). It is also key for NGOs and the host governments to sensitize MDWs for the everyday work they will be doing. In addition, it is important to train employers and hold them accountable. Within companies, managers are hired after certain years of experience and training and have a duty to report to their own employers. This system of accountability should be applied to MDW programs as well, where employers are accountable to worker unions and the government.  

More support to MDWs’ plan to work abroad is also key. Many NGOs empower MDWs through accompaniment and training. For example, Uplifters, an HK-based NGO, supports MDWs to break the cycle of poverty by providing access to online education about personal growth and money management. As one of the leaders of this organization, Natividad testifies that it is “tailor-made for domestic workers”, and “really works if you follow their guidelines….You gain self-confidence in yourself, that you are able to manage.

HK’s laws about MDWs can also be improved. Extended stay without work – which is currently two weeks – or accessibility to formal loaners, such as banks, can have a significant impact on reducing MDWs’ vulnerability. The government should also effectively enforce labour laws that already exist (minimum wage, one day of weekly rest, etc.). 

Domestic work is a cornerstone of most societies. As Natividad shares, “if your helper is happy, your house is nice.” If there is one thing the pandemic has shown us, it is that our societies are based on essential jobs that are often undervalued. “Strive not to be a success, but rather be of value,” Albert Einstein famously said. Our vision of ‘successful jobs’ should be reassessed according to the value brought about by these jobs. In other words, we should reframe the value of  ‘labour’ in relation to its actual impact on the functioning of society. This is a way to ensure better protection for MDWs.

Special thanks to Uplifters and its founder and CEO, Marie, for contributing to this article and sharing their sources, as well as Lizz, for accepting to be interviewed!

Marion Paparella

Originally from France, Marion works for the non-profit sector, supporting young people and migrants in finding work and better living conditions. She earned a BA in Political Science at McGill University,...