Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

When local and migrant domestic workers fight together

Care workers put their hearts into the job. Is asking for recognition and rights in return too much?

Fish Ip Bobo Lai-wan PO Phobsuk Gasing (Dang)
27 July 2017

Union workers gathered to celebrate Domestic Workers Day 2017 in Hong Kong. IDWF/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When Po Po passed away last year, I was sad. I had been taking care of her for six years. We lived together, ate together, and went to sleep together. Whenever she felt pain, I immediately felt it as well. Po Po often screamed and moaned all night, making it difficult for me to fall asleep. I was unable to compensate for these hours of lost sleep during the day. She couldn’t walk and I needed to lift her up to help her use the toilet.

I took care of Po Po as if she was family. While working for my second employer in Hong Kong, I realised that in order to properly care for someone, I needed to imagine that I was caring for my own parents and treat them from the heart. At the time, I was taking care of an elderly man and felt embarrassed when he needed me to bathe him. As soon as I started treating him as though he was my own father, the embarrassment went away. Care work required us to work with love.

I am from Thailand and I have been working as a migrant domestic worker for 26 years. I was a factory worker in Thailand, but did not make enough money to support my family of three daughters. I came to Hong Kong to work as a domestic worker with the hopes for a better income. However, the work was not what I imagined it to be. Whereas I previously worked for eight hours a day in the factory, domestic work involved much longer, unregulated working hours.

In my first job in Hong Kong, I ate leftovers from my employer’s family, which was not enough food. I slept in the same bed as a baby girl. I would not sleep until 3 a.m. and then wake at 5 a.m. to prepare breakfast for the family. Sundays were technically my day off, but I was required to stay at the house until 11 a.m. for the family’s breakfast and had to be back by 6 p.m. Because I didn’t speak Cantonese or English, I could only smile back when my employers scolded me or disrespected me. In my second job, I took care of an elderly man, as well as all the domestic chores for two apartments in a three-story building. I walked up and down the stairs over a dozen times a day. I slept in a small structure on the roof of the building, next to where the employers raised chickens in cages. I often fell ill because of the poultry dust and faeces.

I could only smile back when my employers scolded me or disrespected me.

In Hong Kong, there are 350,000 migrant domestic workers, the majority of whom are live-in workers. There are also around 50,000 local domestic workers who mainly do part-time work in multiple households. Local domestic workers do not work long hours for individual employers, but work at an intense pace because their wages are calculated at an hourly rate. “We chase after the clock to work. A work which should take seven days to finish, we finish it in three hours. We forget ourselves while we work. We chase after the high demand of employers. Not until you finish the work, back home to rest, you feel all the pains and tiredness”, said my friend Bobo PO Lai-Wan, a local domestic worker. “They (employers) feel they are paying you and want to squeeze you as much as they can”.

Employers ignore workers’ health and safety, and as a result, domestic workers suffer from serious occupational illnesses due to the intensive and repetitive nature of their labour. For example, Bobo lost the ability to work as a domestic worker because her hands became too weak and she can no longer kneel or squat. Carpal tunnel syndrome, back pain, trigger finger, and tennis elbow are only some of the major health problems faced by local domestic workers. “We expressed this problem to Mathew Cheung, commissioner for labour, in 2005. He said we got the muscle strains and back pain because we are old or we just got the illness from our own family domestic work”, said Bobo, recalling from her union meeting experience with the Labour Department of Hong Kong. To make matters worse, domestic workers do not enjoy any retirement protections as they are excluded from the Mandatory Pension Fund Ordinance.  

This is the reality of domestic workers: being on standby around-the-clock, excessively long hours of work, food deprivation, difficult accommodation, and verbal abuse from employers, just to name a few. Our wages are low and for those of us who are migrants, our first few months’ salary goes towards paying off agency fees.

Domestic workers suffer from serious occupational illnesses due to the intensive and repetitive nature of their labour.

It wasn’t until less than ten years ago that I started to take part in union activities, before becoming a union leader myself. After the Asian Migrants Centre (AMC) advised Dang and her colleagues to organise a union for Thai migrants, I attended a few training sessions and helped form the Thai Migrant Workers Union in Hong Kong in 2009. The same year, with the assistance of AMC and the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), along with members of the Filipino, Nepali, and Indonesian migrant workers unions and Hong Kong Domestic Workers General Union, which organises local domestic workers, we came up with a list of demands for the ILO Convention on Domestic Workers, which helped lay the groundwork for the adoption of the 189th Convention on Domestic Workers in 2011.

At the same time we decided to form a federation of domestic workers. The Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions (FADWU) was thus established in 2010, with the idea of giving local and migrant domestic workers the space to support each other and have one united voice as domestic workers. FADWU is a self-funded union that is membership-based. Our members mostly consist of both local and migrant domestic workers, who pay a monthly or yearly membership fee to help sustain the union. We also fundraise and apply for small grants and government funding.

The Hong Kong government claims that, just like any other worker, we are protected under the Employment Ordinance. However, certain immigration rules, such as the two-week rule, prevent us from enjoying basic labour rights. According to this rule, once our work contract is ended or terminated, we are only entitled to two weeks before our visas expire. This makes it very difficult for domestic workers to file a case of abuse or to find alternative employment with better working conditions. As a result, many of us are silent about the labour abuses and exploitation we face.

Once our work contract is ended or terminated, we are only entitled to two weeks before our visas expire.

Furthermore, we recently completed a research project through which we learned that employment agencies have been charging domestic workers more than 30 times what is permitted by the law. Excessive agency fees are an urgent issue for migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong, as they keep workers in debt bondage.  The governments in both Hong Kong and the countries of origin must establish measures to stop and punish agencies for these abuses. Other important issues to address are the regulation of working hours, the freedom of workers to choose where they stay, and the regulation of food and accommodation through labour inspections.

The 4-18 rule in the Employment Ordinance allows a full package of rights only for workers who work a minimum of 18 hours per week and who work for four weeks consecutively. This rule should be removed, as local domestic workers typically work with multiple employers, meaning that they do not necessarily fulfil the 4-18 requirement in each given employment situation. These workers are therefore barred from enjoying full labour rights, including paid holidays and severance payments. A Central Compensation Fund for Occupational Illness should be set up to pool insurance money from different employers into a centralised fund and make it possible for local domestic workers to claim compensation for occupation illnesses. As a first step, the various occupational illnesses that domestic workers suffer from must be recognised.

FADWU and its affiliates have made significant progress in the betterment of our working conditions. These initiatives have also allowed us to come together as workers and learn from and support each other. Together, we feel empowered to assert our demands to have our rights respected. Together with the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), we successfully contributed to the adoption of the ILO Convention 189 concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers. We now have an international standard recognising us as workers who deserve the same rights as any other worker. Every May Day, we rally with other workers. In the past two decades, we have achieved labour insurance for local domestic workers as well as standard wages, contracts, and practices. For migrant domestic workers, we recently got the government to increase the punishment for excessive agency fees. Most importantly, we have committed leaders to handle cases, share experiences, organise activities and actions, and address our demands to the government and politicians. Through all these actions, we have made our union and ourselves visible.

Ever since Po Po has passed away, her son has continued to employ me. He knows that I am a union leader and he recognises the importance of my labour and my activism. We need to gain more support from employers like him. In Hong Kong, we launched the My Fair Home campaign to encourage fair treatment of domestic workers by their employers. We also published an employer handbook to show employers how to treat their workers fairly and decently. Since then, we get more telephone enquiries from employers asking us how they can help their domestic workers reclaim excessive agency fees.

We are still far from achieving our struggle. The Hong Kong government needs our labour, yet continues to ignore our rights and the value of our labour. We must combine efforts with other workers in the fight for labour rights for all. We are workers, not slaves.

About the Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions

Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions (FADWU) is a registered union federation that is composed of local and migrant domestic workers unions in Hong Kong. Currently its affiliates include Hong Kong Domestic Workers General Union (HKDWGU), Thai Migrant Workers Union (TMWU) in Hong Kong, Union of Nepalese Domestic Workers in Hong Kong (UNDW), Progressive Labor of Domestic Workers in Hong Kong (PLU) and Overseas Domestic Workers Union (ODWU) with 1,100 domestic workers organised. It is an affiliate of Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) and of International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF).

The Beyond Slavery Newsletter Receive a round-up of new content straight to your inbox Sign up now


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData