The Plight of Foreign Domestic Workers

Issue 43  //  · 



HK$4630 PER

Imagine living and working within the confines of the same four walls, far from the comforts of home. To make matters worse, your ‘bosses’ are the housemates from hell. How does one navigate that — and is there help? EUNICE SNG shines a light on the plight of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong.

Like many before her, Wanda* (name changed for her protection) left home in hopes of greener pastures abroad, hoping to provide enough for her family back home. However, it was not to be. Like many foreign domestic workers (FDWs), Wanda faced abuse at the hands of her employers. She was physically and verbally abused by her employers and their children. Not only did she have to endure an unsafe work environment, she had no rest days and had her mobile phone confiscated from her. When she was running a fever after being bitten by the family dog, she was even told to pay for her own medical expenses.

Unfortunately, Wanda’s case is far from unique. A 2014 survey of 3000 FDWs revealed that 58% experienced verbal abuse, 18% experienced physical abuse, and 6% experienced sexual abuse (Mission for Migrant Workers). Due to a law that prohibits FDWs from working while allegations of abuse are being investigated (which can take months or years), many of these cases often go unreported. The global pandemic has only made things worse, as it is even tougher for FDWs to get out of the house and get help due to the ever watchful eye of employers and the lack of work-life balance. Social-distancing also prevents FDWs from taking a breather with their friends on their off-days, and in Hong Kong’s infamously small flats, many do not even have their own rooms in their employer’s homes.

Even if they do try seeking help with local migrant worker agencies, they are often rejected because of how complex the case might be. This is when non-profit organisations like Justice Without Borders step in, because they are able to deal with complicated, cross-border, legal process, such as mediating between employers and the domestic workers when disputes arise that cannot be resolved. Most FDWs find it difficult to remain in Hong Kong to seek justice, and unfortunately, the legal aid systems cannot extend to these workers when they return to their home countries, since they lack the networks and knowledge to access justice there. As such, many workers end up giving up their rights altogether. At the same time, bad actors in the host countries understand that they can act with impunity, escaping responsibility once they send a worker home.

Many acknowledge that one of the reasons abuse of FDWs is so rife is the “live-in requirement” that FDWs must reside in their employer’s home, resulting in long working hours and very little privacy if they do not have their own rooms. Global Voices reports that this makes FDWs more vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse, with few avenues to seek help when it happens.

In the event that an FDW decides that she has had enough and wants to find a new employer, she faces further complications. Immigration laws stipulate that FDWs need to leave Hong Kong if they do not find a new employer within two weeks, which they know is difficult and unlikely. As these domestic helpers are often made to pay exorbitant agent fees in order to get a job in Hong Kong, leaving and re-entering the country (and paying the fees again) is typically not an option. As a result, many FDWs simply have to endure the abuse they face in hopes of making it through their contract so that they can pay off their agent fees and earn enough money to send home.


– Is Hong Kong the only place where this happens? How can we fight for the rights of FDWs in our own country?

– That Hong Kong’s lawmakers will value the dignity of FDWs and pass laws that give them the rights they deserve.
– That those equipped with relevant skillsets (e.g. lawyers, doctors) will be moved to volunteer to help FDWs who have been abused.

– Donate to organisations like Justice Without Borders or PathFinders, who serve the migrant community in Hong Kong by offering them legal and social support.

Eunice Sng
Eunice strongly believes that she can overcome any obstacle with a heart that’s surrendered to God, and hands that are filled with appropriately-temperatured cups of filter coffee.