The tragic death of a Filipina who fell from the 49th floor of a Hong Kong tower block while reaching outside to clean the windows of her employers’ flat has forced the city’s Labour Department to amend work contracts for domestic helpers, forbidding the task unless safety conditions are met. The obligation comes into effect on New Year’s Day.
The new contractual clause comes in the wake of several untimely deaths of foreign helpers in the high-rise city in recent months, including the 35-year-old Filipina, surnamed Dulluog. Investigators, who found cleaning rags by her body, suspected Dulluog had lost her balance and fallen while attending to the dangerous chore.
The contractual amendment stipulates that a helper can only be expected to clean the exterior of above-ground windows if they are fitted with a secured grille. No part of the helper’s body, apart from the arm, should extend beyond the window ledge.
“In view of the community’s concerns about the safety of foreign domestic helpers when cleaning outward-facing windows, the Labor Department has over the past few weeks consulted various stakeholders, including the consuls general of [workers’] home countries … employer groups, foreign domestic helpers groups and employment agencies associations,” a department spokesman said.
“They all care about the safety of foreign domestic helpers and accept that they should not be asked to work in unsafe situations.”
The amendment was effectively sealed after Jalilo Dela Torre, the Philippines’ labour attaché in Hong Kong, told the city’s government in the wake of Dulluog’s death that from October 15, contracts signed by Filipino domestic helpers would have to specify that cleaning the outside of windows should not be part of their job.
Thanks to the Philippine authorities’ stance, the new contractual arrangement protects helpers from all countries. There are roughly 300,000 domestic workers in Hong Kong, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia, with fewer numbers from Thailand, Sri Lanka and other Asian nations.
The Labor Department’s ruling was met with immediate opposition, however. In a bizarre twist, the hardline Support Group for Hong Kong Employers with Foreign Domestic Helpers argued on a radio show that the workers could abuse the new clause to quit their jobs. The group implied that helpers unhappy with their employers could seek a more conducive working environment elsewhere, falsely citing forbidden duties as an excuse.
The group’s convenor, Joan Tsui Hiu-tung, said on Tuesday that helpers might claim their boss forced them to clean the exterior of windows, resign, and demand compensation. Tsui also gave other reasons for opposition to the amendment.
“You have to wait three months for a new helper,” she said, according to the Hong Kong English-language newspaper South China Morning Post. “Many of these employers are working parents. Some might even need to spend tens of thousands of dollars to change maids.”
Hong Kong has a conflicted relationship with foreign domestic helpers, who are the only workers exempt from the city’s statutory minimum wage law. They are a necessity for working couples with children, but are often perversely treated as an unwelcome financial burden.
A Hongkonger’s minimum salary is HK$32.5 an hour. Domestics receive HK$4,310 (27,290 pesos) a month, plus board and food allowance. Assuming they worked a 40-hour week, helpers would earn only about HK$27 an hour. However, they must reside in the employers’ home and are often on call 24 hours a day, six days a week.
Foreigners who have resided and worked in Hong Kong for seven years are entitled to apply for permanent residency status. But when two Filipina helpers who had worked in Hong Kong for more than 20 years applied for permanent residency three years ago, the courts ruled they had not been “ordinarily” resident in the city. Their applications were dismissed.