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AMAH DRAMA (or hiring domestic staff in Hong Kong)

Most expatriates have some sort of tale to tell about the woes of domestic helpers. Clear communication and an understanding of one's right and responsibilities can go a long way to ensuring that your own experiences are positive.

Domestic helpers can be hired in a number of ways - through employment agencies, via the notice boards at supermarket, through personal recommendations of friends, and through advertisements in magazines such as DollarSaver. The following are answers to some frequently asked questions.

What should I do on my helper's first day?
You should reimburse your helper for any expenses that she has incurred in preparing the necessary documentation. Your helper should be able to provide you with receipts of these expenses and they normally include things such as the exit permit fee from the Philippines, the notarisation fee by the Philippines Consulate and a Visa Extension fee by the Hong Kong Immigration department.

You should also discuss and confirm which day your helper will have off each week - usually Sunday and the domestic duties that you expect her to perform. You should appoint a day when you will pay her wages and ideally these wages should be paid by cheque or autopay as records can easily be verified. A receipt should be issued and signed by both employer and employee. You must take out employee's compensation insurance to cover yourself and you may also wish to arrange for your helper to have a medical examination although this should really be done prior to her being hired. Think about medical insurance or coverage as well.

How much should I pay my helper?
The minimum wage is detailed in the employment contract which at the present time is around $3680 per month. If you are not providing food, your helper is entitled to a food allowance which should be a minimum of around $300 per month.

How can you terminate an employment contract before it expires?
Either party can terminate the contract provided that not less than one month's notice is given in writing or payment of one month's salary is made. If an employer terminates a contract, they should pay any outstanding money such as wages, payment in lieu of annual leave and payment in lieu of notice, long service leave (if applicable) and a ticket back to her point of origin with food and travelling allowances. You should make sure that your helper signs a receipt acknowledging that all outstanding money has been paid. You should also write to the Director of Immigration in Hong Kong advising of the termination. The contract can be terminated without payment in lieu or notice in exceptional circumstances such as fraud or theft. These are detailed in the Employment Ordinance and should be used with caution and only in extreme circumstances. Far better to negotiate and settle your differences without bad feelings.

What kinds of leave is my helper entitled to?
Your helper should have one day off per week as a rest day as well as statutory holidays and paid annual leave. They are not entitled to every public holiday - this is something that you can negotiate. In the first two-year contract they are entitled to seven days at the end of each year with a total of 14 days at the end of the contract. Refer to the "Concise Guide to the Employment Ordinance" for more details. Your helper can only work on her day off if you have given her notice as well as giving her another holiday with two months. Your helper is entitled to sick leave and maternity leave.

Can my helper do part-time work for someone else with my consent?
It is against the law for your helper to work for anyone except for the employer sponsoring her for her employment visa. You can be fined, have your own visa revoked or be deported.

And my personal recommendations?
  1. Don't make the mistake of assuming that just because you have not had live-in staff before that you will manage without them in Hong Kong. Socialising is different and your children will not be accommodated as easily in Hong Kong as they may have been back home. Socialising tends to be at venues and restaurants rather than dinner parties and, if you are at home with the children, you ma be missing out some excellent opportunities. This is not to say you should neglect your children, far from it. But be aware that a healthy balance can be struck that gives you some flexibility and room as well as enabling your children to form relationships with other people.
  2. Buy and keep a large diary. We keep our in the kitchen and my helper uses it to record any messages, phone calls or other matters. We keep track of appointments, days off, holidays and even plan meals. It is a full record of our lives and, in the event of a dispute, a useful record for both of us.
  3. Don't pick a helper based on personal recommendations if your family situation is different from the person recommending the helper. What works for a working couple is not necessarily what will work for a family with young children.
  4. The conventional wisdom in Hong Kong is that the domestic helpers hired by working mothers are the best ones to choose. I disagree and think that the helpers chosen by the stay-at-home mothers are the best because these mothers have had a chance to keep a close eye on the helper and can give more accurate feedback as to how the helper interacts with children.
  5. Check references! Don't rely on written references. Call and talk to the past employer.
  6. Pick someone who compliments your personality. You will be spending a lot of time together. I need someone who is up beat - I can't live with a moody person regardless of how exemplary their cooking and cleaning is - I need to come home to a smile.
  7. Some things will never be perfect. You're not perfect and neither is your helper. If she is great at cooking and not so competent at ironing, this is really not worth worrying about - pick an acceptable range and then manage your expectations accordingly. As a mother with young children, a high priority was interaction with my children. A creased collar on a shirt was irrelevant in the larger scheme of things.
  8. If you do get stuck in an unpleasant situation call the Mission for Filipino Workers. They are very helpful and can offer excellent advice as well as helping you with any mediation and wage calculations.

Further information
If you need more information the best place to call is the Labor Department Hotline - +(852) 2717 1771. Also refer to the Community Advice Bureau for additional phone numbers or advice. The Mission for Filipino Workers (a Filipino organisation) is also helpful in translating and negotiating if you do get into any difficulties with your helper. The Philippine Consulate can also assist in pointing you in the right direction. See also the booklet called "Practical guide for Employment of Foreign Domestic Helpers - What Foreign Domestic Helpers and their Employers Should Know" issued by the Hong Kong Labour Department (http://www.info.gov.hk/labour ).

The information given here is correct at the time of publication and is given purely for guidance. Contact the relevant Government Departments mentioned for up-to-date information.

Amanda O has been an expatriate most of her life and can't imagine living any other way.

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Posted 24Apr05