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Rules on migrant domestic workers’ accommodation

20 December 2017

By Cynthia Tellez

Policy related to Accommodation: 
There are major portions of the Standard Employment Contract (SEC) of Foreign Domestic Workers (FDWs) on accommodation.  It says in Clause No. 3: “The Helper should work and reside in the employer’s residence as stated in the contract.”  FDWs are bound by this mandatory live-in requirement. Unfortunately, many FDWs are made to sleep in miserable conditions.
Accommodation is covered in clauses 3 and 4(a) to 4(c), mentioning the live-in requirement and restrictions on employment. This is expounded in the attached Schedule of Accommodations in pages 3 and 4; the size, amenities, co-occupants if there are, should still ensure suitable accommodation. However, it mentions only two examples of unsuitable accommodation: In a narrow corridor and shared room with adult of opposite sex.
With limited guidelines on accommodations, violations of suitable and decent living area often happen.

Situation – Health, Safety and Privacy:
A research of Mission For Migrant Workers (MFMW) published last year (2016) revealed that unsuitable accommodation, denial of privacy, and deprivation of amenities for migrant domestic workers (MDWs) persist in Hong Kong.
It showed that:
• 3 out of 5 FDWs in Hong Kong endure alternative living arrangements;
• Or their designated bedroom serves multiple functions in the household;
• One in every 50 of sleeps in areas such as toilets, backdoor, basement, balcony, rooftop, closet, or in a room with just a divider for sleeping space. (Research copies available at MFMW centre);
• Lack of privacy makes FDWs feel vulnerable and tense, especially if they are made to sleep in common areas in employer’s home; 
• Or, in relation to the privacy issue, 47% of those who responded as having their own room, revealed that they did not have their own key to the room, while 35% said their employers enter the room even without their consent.
Alternative accommodation arrangements are unhealthy, inhumane, and violate even the already insufficient standards set by Hong Kong in its SEC.

MFMW’s Advocacy
We can see from that survey that there are a lot of FDWs who are made to accept unsuitable and inhumane living arrangements. Obviously, the current mechanism to protect FDWs is failing; neither do policies for FDWs measure up to international human and labour standards.
We always hear that “Hong Kong already has an acute space problem.” We believe that there is no justification for not providing suitable accommodation to FDWs as human beings. The current legislation and policies are not effective to protect FDWs from being exploited and should be developed. The unsuitable arrangements should be clearly spelled out in the attached Schedule of Accommodations and domestic work.
Therefore, we are advocating for the Hong Kong government to reconsider the live-in requirement and make live-out as an option for FDWs, depending on specific circumstances of the households.
While the reality of the live-out option for FDWs is not yet possible, we strongly suggest to the authorities to define “suitable accommodation” in the SEC by listing down unsuitable arrangements, such as toilets and cupboards. This is aside from Immigration Department claims that they have regulatory and monitoring mechanisms wherein submitted accommodation arrangement of the employer is followed.

What can you do if you are made to sleep in a problematic situation? 
Many only become aware of the problematic accommodation in the employer’s home on their first workday. Somehow, FDWs usually believe that what is most important is to keep a good relationship with the people they work with to be able to extend the contract.
However, if you are in a situation that is physically and emotionally taxing, first, we encourage you to try talk with your employer, if possible. As workers, we also have to understand the limitations employers are in and therefore try to negotiate a more acceptable arrangement.
We know that some of you are scared that you may risk losing your job, but it is always good if mutual understanding can be developed. Find a way in which you can honestly explain your situation and its effect/s on your health. That way, they may also be able to express their regret for being unable to provide you better living conditions. For all we know, most of the employers are also trying to find a way to tell you how they feel about their limitations. In many such cases that we handled, both employers and workers found ways to remedy the situation.
There are, however, unreasonable people who might ignore what you are presenting. Usually, such employers just say, “take it or leave it.”  They may take your approach as complaining about them, instead of listening to you in a more objective manner, understanding what you really mean (which in most cases is not the job but the accommodation). Try another time if the mood and the conversation turn sour. Approach them next time, saying that it is not about the job, but perhaps there may be some remedy to your sleeping arrangements. If you get the same results, and in some cases, treatment worsens, perhaps you can consider bringing the matter to the authorities.
When facing violation of contract, including problems with accommodation, you can complain to the Immigration Department and also the Labour Department. It is suggested to lodge a complaint to both departments when it comes to the issue of accommodation as the employer might be giving false statements to the Immigration Department as well if they conceal the actual accommodation.
If you have decided to lodge a complaint, there are steps we suggest for you to follow:
 1. Keep records or evidences on the accommodation you are made to accept and make use of it to explain the problem you are facing. (Usually photos or short videos of consecutive days showing the area that you sleep in.)
2. Relate how the accommodation arrangement caused a serious toll on your health. Describe your current condition.
3. Relate how you tried to approach the employer to be able to settle the matter among yourselves and how those attempts turned sour. (Remember the date, time, and the content of the conversation. Make a written statement or any other kind of records if possible) and that you do not want the whole matter to worsen.
4. Include your suggestions to practically settle the matter, if any. 
5. Consult MFMW if you need assistance (2522-8264).
Have a VERY Merry Christmas, everyone!

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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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