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New study shows MDWs’ woes over accommodation

24 May 2017

By Cynthia Tellez

(For this issue, we give way to the Mission for Migrant Workers’ news release issued at the launch of its ground-breaking survey on accommodation arrangements for foreign domestic helpers, in support of its advocacy for a more humane treatment of all migrant workers  – Ed)

A recently concluded research that the Mission for Migrant Workers (MFMW) released today revealed that unsuitable accommodation arrangements, denial of privacy and deprivation of amenities for migrant domestic workers (MDWs) persist in Hong Kong.

The research, entitled ”Pictures from the Inside: Investigating Living Accommodation of Women Foreign Domestic Workers towards Advocacy and Action” was conducted to provide real descriptions of how MDWs live inside households for more concrete policy change recommendations.

The launch coincided with the celebration of International day of Families as observed annually by the United Nations every 15th of May. The International Day hopes to promote awareness on issues concerning families including social, economic and demographic processes that affect families.

We believe that the issue of space and accommodations for migrant domestic workers needs to be tackled as it surely affects the prospects for harmonious and productive relationships between families and the domestic workers who live and serve them.

On conditions of accommodations
The mandatory live-in arrangement imposed by the HK Immigration Department puts MDWs in different accommodation conditions that they are forced to endure:

• 3 out of 5 MDWs in Hong Kong either endure alternative accommodation arrangements or their designated bedroom serves other multiple functions in the household

• While more than half the MDWs in Hong Kong (57%) are provided with their own room, 33% of them said that their “own room” also used doubled as house storage area (64%), space to hang clothes (49%), room for ironing and washing (45), computer or study room or office (3%), and a room for pets (1%).

• Of those who are not provided with their own room (43%), 1 in every 50 of them sleeps in areas such as toilets, storage rooms, stock room or warehouse, backdoor, basement, balcony, roof, computer room, study room, music room, closet, dressing room, or in a room with just a divider for her sleeping space

According to an MDW who participated in the focus group discussions,  workers are “forced to accept (the offered living condition) because whether I like it or not, I have no choice because there is no space in my employer’s house Because I know the answer will be, there is no space in her house.”

Another said that, “We agree because we need to earn money. If we disagree, of course, we’re sent to the agency or we’re sent to go back home, right? Just to agree.”

On privacy
One MDW said, “I feel I don’t have privacy because I feel uncomfortable (that) my employer can enter my room anytime.”

Another MDW lamented that, “If you ask me ‘Do I have my room?” I will answer ‘Yes’. But I tell you that even if I have my own room, I feel I never have privacy.”

Lack of privacy also makes women MDWs feel vulnerable especially if they sleep in common areas as the living room and make their rest/sleep uncomfortable.

• While they said they have their own room, 47% of them do not have their own key to the room while one-third of employers (35%) enter their room even without their consent

• Most employers do not rummage through the personal belongings of MDWs but 2 out of every 25 employers do without the consent of the domestic worker

On basic and rightful amenities
• Around 32,000 MDWs (14%) do not have ready access to toilets while 67% do not have their own toilets

• There is prevalence of non-provision of amenities such as air conditioning or electric fans during summer (33%) or heating amenity during winter (56%).

• The lack of ventilation where they sleep also poses a health hazard to 10% of MDWs

• 1 of every 10 MDWs are also not provided with beddings as stipulated in the standard contract

Make MDWs accommodation more humane, dignified and at par with human rights standards

The study concluded that problems regarding accommodation arrangements among MDWs – anchored in the mandatory live-in arrangement – are widespread and varied. Even the quality of accommodation of those provided with a bedroom is compromised as the room is often used for other purposes.

Alternative accommodation arrangements are unhealthy, inhumane and violate even the already insufficient standards set by Hong Kong in its Standard Employment Contract. This minimum standard also lack mechanisms for effective enforcement.

Project head Norman Carnay also pointed out that accommodation policies and conditions in Hong Kong for MDWs do not measure up to international human and labor standards, and are way behind the policies of other countries and cities with a concentration of MDWs.
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The group recommended that the Hong Kong government take the following steps:

1. Define and expound “suitable accommodation” in the Standard Employment Contract by listing down guidelines on what are unsuitable accommodation arrangements for MDWs.

2. Institutionalize regulatory and monitoring mechanisms wherein submitted accommodation arrangement of employers are actually realized.

3. Develop a complaint system for migrant workers to address issues of accommodations.

4. Analyze and align the relevant Hong Kong policy with international standards as well as other best practices around the world.

5. Ratify ILO Convention No. 189 to protect domestic workers from further human rights and dignity abuses.

6. Reconsider the live-in requirement and make live-out an option for MDWs and their employers depending on specific circumstances of the households.

About the Research
The study, “Pictures from the Inside: Investigating Living Accomodation of Women Foreign Domestic Workers towards Advocacy and Action” was conducted through a survey of more than 3,000 FDWs and by holding several focus group discussions among Filipino and Indonesian migrants. The purpose is to contribute to knowledge-based policy changes for MDWs.
The research was made possible thru the support of HER Fund and was part of the continuing advocacy of the MFMW for OPTIONAL live-in arrangements for employers and their domestic workers.

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This is the monthly column from the Mission for Migrant Workers, an institution that has been serving the needs of migrant workers in Hong Kong for over 31 years. The Mission, headed by its general manager, Cynthia Tellez, assists migrant workers who are in distress, and  focuses its efforts on crisis intervention and prevention through migrant empowerment. Mission has its offices at St John’s Cathedral on Garden Road, Central, and may be reached through tel. no. 2522 8264.
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