To visit home or not: Decision-making among foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong

KA WANG KELVIN LAM & CHI SUM WONG  |  19 DECEMBER 2020  | ISSUE #13 
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Every Sunday, foreign domestic helpers gather for social interactions. Photo taken by the author in Shatin, Hong Kong.

Foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong often strive to return home, but their planning occurs in the face of financial hardship, short holidays and challenging employer relationships. There were about 400,000 foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong as of 2019, the majority were from the Philippines and Indonesia and were predominantly women. Supporting local families’ household chores and making a substantial contribution to the local economy, they are entitled to a number of days of vacation. During holidays, it is common for those who are feeling nostalgic to visit home, while others may prefer staying behind with friends or deferring their holidays for different reasons.

 

Last month we spent time with ten foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong who sought to visit home during the holidays, in order to understand their planning process. We used English in the interviews and focused on these questions: what does ‘visit home’ mean for them? When do they usually do that? And what needs to be considered in the process of planning? All the foreign domestic helpers we interviewed have been working in Hong Kong for over fifteen years and had served their current employers for at least two years.

 

Like other migrants worldwide, foreign domestic helpers maintain their transnational connections with people back home in various ways, for instance, having virtual engagements and sending remittances. Yet, none of these can replace a literal visit. Many interviewees could barely conceal their excitement when speaking of visiting home. As an interviewee from the Philippines stated:

‘It is the happiest time of my life as I can physically be with my family and friends and spend quality time with them.’ (Interviewee C, female)

Another interviewee from Indonesia told us that she had not seen her daughter for eight years since she worked in Hong Kong, due to financial difficulties preventing her from returning home. Her experience explained why many foreign domestic helpers cannot wait to visit home when possible. 

Visiting home also enables foreign domestic helpers to have a break from their tense and tireless work. As an interviewee from the Philippines stated:

‘It [visiting home] also means having a break from work. I can really take some rest without pressure back home, so I can relax my body and refresh my mind. After all, I can better prepare myself and come back to work again.’ (Interviewee D, female)

Visiting home means a lot for foreign domestic helpers, but when do they usually do it? In Hong Kong, foreign domestic helpers are entitled to home leave, either paid or unpaid. They also enjoy at least seven days of paid annual leave each year, although the duration depends on the length of service. Visa requirements mean they must return to their countries of origin for at least seven days upon completion of every employment contract.

Some foreign domestic helpers also visit home in other statutory holidays, such as Christmas. As Interviewee C explained:

‘I usually go home during the Christmas holiday as it is the time for my family, loved ones, relatives and friends to visit each other and spend time together.’ (Interviewee C, female)

Another interviewee from Indonesia told us that she often visits home during school holidays:

‘School holidays are good timing for me to visit home because children do not need to go to school so that I can spend more time with them.’ (Interviewee E, female)

Other foreign domestic helpers are prudent in spending their holidays and prefer reserving their few holidays for future use if needed, for instance, when there are important family matters.

Financial conditions are a major consideration for foreign domestic helpers when planning to visit home. As Interviewee A elaborated:

‘My employer does not give me salary when I am on home leave. My husband and I are the main sources of livelihood in my family so that I need to think twice whether my resources allow me to have a visit home or not.’ (Interviewee A, female)

In Hong Kong, home leave can be paid or unpaid upon mutual agreement between employers and foreign domestic helpers. Most importantly, even if time and resources allow, it is in turn the willingness of employers that determines the result. In theory, this should not be the case as foreign domestic helpers are entitled to vacations in accordance with the labour law in Hong Kong. Foreign domestic helpers and other workers are entitled to decent work conditions and adequate rest days. Mutual agreement and even compensation are required by law if their employers ask their staff to delay their vacations.

As foreign domestic helpers are often the main source of livelihood in their families, they need to evaluate carefully if they can really afford to visit home or not. Some interviewees told us that they at times had to postpone or abolish their initial plans of visiting home upon the ‘request’ of their employers, with the fear of a worsening impression and/or treatment in the future. It is clear that employers’ efforts are pivotal in better safeguarding the rights and protection of migrant workers in Hong Kong.

Our research has shown levels of discrepancy between the willingness and actions of foreign domestic helpers when it comes to visiting home. Despite the crucial role they play in Hong Kong’s economic and social life, and although most of the foreign domestic helpers miss their homes, they often still need to compromise with the reality – the interplay between the length of holidays, financial conditions and the willingness and ethics of their employers.

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Ka Wang Kelvin Lam

Ka Wang Kelvin Lam is an MPhil student in Sociology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research focuses on migration and immigrant incorporation, with regional expertise in East and Southeast Asia. Kelvin can be contacted at kelvinlam@link.cuhk.edu.hk.

Chi Sum Wong

Chi Sum Wong is an undergraduate student in Nursing at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), with an interest in promoting the wellness of migrants and minority groups. He can be contacted at chi-sum-sam.wong@connect.polyu.hk.

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