Equal Opportunities Commission


Chairperson’s Articles

Treat domestic workers with respect they merit


International Domestic Workers Day is celebrated each year on June 16, following the adoption of the International Labour Organization convention 189 in 2011 on decent work for these easily overlooked factotums on the home front.

This year, the ILO is calling for the inclusion of domestic workers in care policies with due attention paid to their employment rights.

Hong Kong is home to more than 350,000 foreign domestic workers, with the overwhelming majority being from the Philippines and Indonesia.

It goes without saying that foreign domestic workers have been making tremendous contributions over the years to the economy of Hong Kong and the well-being of its residents through their toil, though the work situation they are in is unique.

For one thing, their workplace is their employers' home, and just like employees in general, they have legitimate expectations about the workplace: it must be safe, their bosses must be respectful and understanding, and they must be valued.

Second, the domestic workers' workplace is also their home away from home.

Most staff treasure the employer who respects the distinction between work time and personal time.

However, foreign domestic workers often find the two bleeding into one another.

Their workplace and living space are under one roof and with housing being what it is in Hong Kong, some of them may not have a personal space to retreat to for a break or after a long day of work.

Further, some may have to wait until everyone in the family has retired to bed before claiming his/her own sleeping space, which may even be shared with others, like a toddler in the family. On rest days, many resort to staying outside regardless of pouring rain or scorching heat, perhaps simply for a change of scenery or to avoid being inevitably drawn back into performing household chores.

Partly as an outcome of the above-mentioned situations, we wish to highlight a less-discussed topic: it may be a challenge for some foreign domestic workers to exercise their personal choice when it comes to food, clothing, religious practices and entertainment.

We, at the Equal Opportunities Commission, have been informed that some Indonesian and south Asian helpers who are Muslim are not being allowed to pray in the house or fast during Ramadan. Some were told to remove the hijab while working.

I strongly believe the vast majority of employers in Hong Kong treat their domestic workers well. However, exceptions exist and are cause for concern.

Not being allowed to practice one's faith and observe customs arising from one's cultural background is a violation of personal freedom, and, in some circumstances, even the law.

Although religion in itself is not directly protected under our anti-discrimination ordinances, imposing a condition on or requirement against religious practices commonly observed by a racial group may give rise to accusations of indirect racial discrimination.

It is not hard to imagine that many such acts may simply arise from a lack of awareness and sensitivity about another culture rather than malice.

All it takes is a little empathy and openness to asking and learning.

Employment agencies can play a big role in preparing employers to accept people practicing a different ethnic culture into their homes.

It is in everyone's interest to have a happy employee. Respecting an employee's cultural and religious practices builds mutual trust and loyalty.

This is usually taken for granted in a non-domestic working environment. It should be the same for domestic workers.

International Domestic Workers Day is an opportune time to remind ourselves of the important role Hong Kong's foreign domestic workers play in keeping our city running.

It is also a time to reflect on whether we in turn are doing our best to make this community of workers feel included, valued, safe and respected.

Their work, residency status and ethnicity makes them minorities on multiple counts, leaving them more vulnerable to discrimination and harassment. As their employers, we should have their back, care about their rights, freedoms and wellbeing. And we, as a society, should work toward being good hosts to these valuable migrant workers.

The article was published in The Standard on 25 June 2024.