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Know your rights on rest days

26 July 2017

By Cynthia Tellez

The South China Morning Post recently published a very popular article, drawing on the research of the Mission for Migrant Workers , and featuring an experiment in which a reporter spent the night sleeping in a cramped space to simulate the experience of many migrant domestic workers.

Experiments like this are interesting, the point being to make a difficult experience translatable for the journalist, and thus understandable for the reader. While the sleeping experiment seemed to catch the eye of many readers, there are other experiences faced by domestic workers that are not as easy to simulate, or even imagine, by an outside observer. For instance, could most people imagine working every day for weeks or months straight without a full day off, under the careful watch of one’s employer?

Rest days have become a central issue for migrant advocacy in Hong Kong. As anyone who has ever done difficult work knows, rest is crucial for one’s continued well-being, and domestic work is no exception. Every domestic worker is entitled to one rest day every seven days. A rest day, defined by the Labour Department of Hong Kong, is a “continuous period of not less than 24 hours during which an employee is entitled to abstain from working for his employer.” If an employer does not grant a rest day on a Sunday in a week, they should give a substitute rest day within the same month or the next thirty days. These requirements are stipulated in the Employment Ordinance but, in practice, many employers take advantage of their workers. Currently, there are many domestic workers who are not allowed to take regular rest days.

There are several ways employers violate workers’ rights to rest days. The most obvious is of course the simple denial of a rest day to the worker. At the Mission we meet women who have worked for months without a single full rest day.

But there are other, less obvious ways in which rest day laws are not obeyed by employers. One common practice is the creation of a “curfew time” for a domestic worker. Many employers demand that their domestic worker return at a given time on a rest day. Workers in these cases are unable to enjoy the full 24-hour period of rest to which they are entitled. Imposing a “curfew” is illegal yet is usually the norm in Hong Kong.

Another common scheme of some employers is to require their domestic worker to do some housework before going out on a rest day. Curfew is imposed because the worker is required to do more tasks upon her return home.

There is also the issue of irregular rest days. Usually, domestic workers in Hong Kong will take Sundays off, but if this is not possible, at least inform the worker about her day off on the first day of the week, so that she can plan her activities ahead of time.

Many employers make last-minute changes which prevent the domestic worker from having a regular rest day, in-sync with others in their community. As well as being psychologically and physically important, taking a break from work has a social component as well. Making and maintaining friendships, collaborating with other people in creative activities like bands, and organizing with town mates, religious, and cultural groups, are what most domestic workers do on rest days. Most often, these activities occur on Sundays, in commonly used public areas like Chater Road, Central for Filipinas, and Causeway Bay for Indonesians.

Without a shared, regular rest day among domestic workers, individuals cannot meet in person, and social and cultural bonds are weakened, and access to resources hampered considerably. Without a regular rest day, individual workers cannot plan their private lives properly. How can a worker schedule an appointment, for instance, without knowing when they will have time off? How can a mother plan a long Skype call with her family back home without knowing when she’ll be off from work?

The fact that rest days are so commonly overlooked and ignored is indicative of the exploitative practices of those with power over people with certain types of jobs. Many migrant domestic workers are unable to spend their days off in their usual resting place at night in the employer’s home because that is also their workplace. When there is lack of privacy, there is uneasiness when employers do their jobs in their presence; and in some cases, employers also expect them to do the work while they are “around”.  Many employers fail to see the private lives of their workers as valuable, at least in the same way they’d see their own or their friends’ private lives as valuable. The denial of rest days reveals many employers’ belief that migrant domestic workers should have no life in Hong Kong outside of work.

When rest days are not properly granted but you still want to keep your job, find a way to set regular meetings with your friends, keep a diary of what happens daily in your chores, how you are told that you have no day-off for the week, or that when you asked, your employer just ignored you. You can send the Immigration such complaints. Not granting a rest day in a week is a violation of the employment contract and persisting in such violation could be construed as a breach, or a termination of the contract by the employer.

If you feel your rights to a full rest day have been violated, file a complaint at the Labour Relations Division of the HK Labour Department (LD), and furnish the HK Immigration and the Philippine Labor Office proofs of this violation. The LD should be able to review your case and if warranted, file a case against the employer for failure to abide by the law. The maximum penalty for such a violation is $5,000.

Institutions like the Mission can provide timely assistance in cases where one’s right to a rest day is violated.
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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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