I’ve written several times about hiring and managing domestic helpers here in Hong Kong, but not for quite a while. There’s a reason for that – or, rather, a couple of reasons.
First, after employing a couple of decent helpers, we had bad luck and employed one we really didn’t like. Then, after she left, we found one we liked very much indeed. I was so worried about jinxing the whole deal I felt constrained from mentioning it!
I hope I’m past the jinxing stage now, as I’m going to add a few comments that I again hope might help out those of you who are either already employing helpers, or may be planning to when you arrive in Hong Kong.
A history of the Tall family’s experience with domestic helpers
We first hired our first helper about five years ago, when Mrs Tall was gravid with Daughter Tall. We found one we liked, assumed she’d be able to start immediately because she’d just been dismissed, but on the grounds of her employer’s financial difficulties. Then we found out the Immigration Department rejected those grounds (her previous employers had hired and fired several maids within months, using the same excuse), so our prospective helper had to go back to the Philippines anyway. She started work the day before Mrs Tall gave birth, so I guess it all worked out, but still! Anyway, she had some very strong points – experienced and good with babies, which of course was our first priority, and a fantastic cook – and some bad points, e.g. she cut corners like a Formula 1 driver when cleaning, and she regularly cooked the books when accounting for her household spending. But overall, she was not bad, and we were surprised and disappointed when she suddenly left HK after just over a year working for us.
Our second helper had finished a contract when we hired her, so she at least was able to start working for us sooner (crucial, given our previous helper’s rapid retreat). She was again excellent with Daughter Tall – she essentially potty-trained her in a week, for example – and was also similar to Helper 1 in that her cleaning could be haphazard. She was a rotten cook. But whereas our first helper had been a bit moody and standoffish at points, Helper 2 was easy to get along with, and we were again surprised and disappointed (queue theme music) when she suddenly resigned after just over a year, because she’d taken an offer in Canada. Can’t blame her for that, as the working hours and pay are far better.
Then came Helper 3. We hired her on a strong recommendation from one of Mrs Tall’s colleagues – a really strong recommendation. In later, bitter reflection upon the day we hired her, we realized how cavalierly we’d conducted our interview with her, and how many potential problems we’d blithely overlooked – all because we’d already had a positive disposition to her in advance.
So what went wrong in the just-over-a-year in which she worked for us? Nothing huge. She didn’t incinerate our kitchen, or leave Daughter Tall out in the street, or anything really bad. She was also a bit of a book-cooker, but that’s pretty common amongst domestic helpers, so we generally let it ride. It was instead a string of little things. Forgetting instructions that had been made over and over, and often written down. Angrily claiming she understood something when having it explained to her for the umpteenth time, then proving she still had no clue by messing it up. Constantly undermining our approach to discipline with Daughter Tall, because it was easier to spoil her than to keep her in line. And on and on.
We realized after just a few weeks that we’d probably made a mistake in hiring her. But since it was hard to justify immediate dismissal – no big disasters, remember – we let things go. We reached a point at which were almost hoping she’d cause a small-scale disaster so we’d have our grounds for dismissal. Eventually, she decided to leave of her own accord, citing family concerns back in the Philippines. We did not ask her to reconsider her resignation.
Anyway, after hearing all this, I suspect you might want a few general conclusions that might help you in your own hiring/managing of a helper.
Signs you’re having trouble with your helper
Note: I don’t mean this list to be funny or ironic. This is really how it goes when it goes bad . . . .
A happy ending?
I’ve waited till the end of this article to tell you about Helper 4. Mrs Tall and I broke one of our cardinal rules when we hired her: she was the first, and only, candidate we interviewed. We liked her so much we didn’t bother seeking other candidates even when we found ourselves mired in yet another weird mess with Immigration over her status in Hong Kong, and discovered she’d need to go back to the Philippines for six weeks. (See below for a rundown of this – it’s something anyone employing a helper should know about.)
Why were we so confident? More than any other candidate we’ve ever interviewed, she seemed calm, competent and quick-thinking. She had an unblemished work record here (all contracts finished; one had been renewed), and good references. She readily agreed to our request to talk to her current employer, and had a working telephone number for him at hand. And perhaps most of all, Mrs Tall and I agreed after the interview that we’d really enjoyed talking with her. We had that ‘comfortable to be around’ gut feeling that living under the same roof for two years would work out okay.
And it has. She’s been with us now for over half a year, and she’s by far the best helper we’ve had.
So if you’ve been having trouble finding a good helper, or simply have heard that it’s impossible to ‘find good help these days’, take heart. It’s possible for things to work out, too.
Postscript on Immigration notification
The Immigration incident with our current helper was so bizarre and seemingly unjust that it took me quite a while just to grasp it. Here’s what transpired.
Our helper was coming to the end of a contract, and she and her employer had mutually agreed not to renew. As that contract was winding down, her employer went on a longish holiday. As he and his family wouldn’t return to Hong Kong until after the current contract had expired, he simply gave our helper the last two weeks of her contract off to look for a new job. She interviewed with us just a day before the end of that time, but that was fine – she could go to Immigration the next day with signed contracts, and she should be allowed to begin right away working with us because she’d completed a contract. And anyway, helpers are allowed two weeks after their contracts expire to find a new employer. Although we thought we had plenty of time, we asked her to take care of everything as quickly as possible so that she could start work for us asap.
The next day we got a tearful call from her – she had indeed gone to Immigration, and she found out she had 48 hours to get out of Hong Kong. She was being deported – even though we had hired her, she had been told she had overstayed her visa, and would absolutely have to return to the Philippines. It would now take the normal 6-8 weeks before she could start working for us.
I was beside myself: what could possibly have gone wrong? We met up with her, and took a look at her work visa. It didn’t expire till the next day. And then there were still the two weeks’ grace! So I accompanied her back to Immigration, and together we finally got the whole story.
When her previous employers had left for their holiday, they faxed a letter to Immigration informing them that their contract with our helper was not being renewed. This is perfectly normal – it’s required, in fact. But their letter was dated just over two weeks before the end of the contract – and, according to the Immigration officer, there was no stipulation in the letter that our helper would be continuing her employment until the end of the contract (truth be told, of course, she was not). Therefore, her employment visa was ended the minute that fax was received, and the clock on her two weeks’ grace period started ticking immediately. It turned out she ‘overstayed’ by just eight hours. Immigration even has a special name for this kind of case, which I can’t recall exactly, but it’s essentially a ‘special termination’. That is, they don’t count it as a real termination, in which case it’s very hard indeed for a helper to avoid returning to the Philippines, but they also don’t consider the contract to be ‘completed’, and hence the early commencement of the grace period.
So there’s a structural problem in this notification system that employers need to watch out for. No one really was ‘at fault’ in our helper’s case – her previous employer most likely didn’t realize he was actually cutting short our helper’s time to find a new employer rather than extending it. Our helper had no idea when her previous employer was sending that fax, or what was in it. Mrs Tall and I were utterly innocent of the intricacies of this process. And the Immigration officer who handled the case was actually extremely nice. He said he simply couldn’t extend our helper’s visa no matter what once she’d exceeded it, and I believed him. He also said he could have had her prosecuted for overstaying and he didn’t, which is of course true, and he gave her as long as he possibly could (i.e. 48 hours) for her to leave HK.
So if you are finishing a contract with a helper, or releasing her for whatever reason, pay attention to when you inform Immigration, and to what you put in that letter. Your actions and words may have a profound effect on your helper’s chance to find another job.