Domestic helpers in Hong Kong

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A revelation for many expats in Hong Kong is the expectation that they'll employ a full-time domestic helper. I use the term 'expectation' intentionally. Most expatriates -- especially families -- are likely to make far more money than is needed to afford this arrangement. Tens of thousands of local Hong Kong Chinese families also employ domestic helpers as well, of course.

For most of us expats, having someone living in your home who does the cooking, cleaning and childcare is a huge adjustment. It's a marvelous luxury, but it brings up a number of issues and problems you might not anticipate that can cause big problems.

How do you go about hiring a helper? There are a lot of other sites that set out the mechanics and provide you the chance to pick through hundreds of potential candidates (see amahnet.com, for example), so I won't get into that. But I will try to set out some more general guidelines that I know Mrs Tall and I would have found helpful before we hired our helper. Some of these are just common sense, but you'd be amazed at how often even these are ignored:

1. First, get yourself used to the idea -- think about it seriously. Your life with a helper is going to be easier but, depending on what you really value, you might not find that it is really better. For example, you must be ready to adjust to a much lower level of privacy. Hong Kong flats are small, and having an extra person living there means you may feel as if your domestic helper is 'underfoot' all the time. And current Hong Kong Government regulations require that your helper live with you if she's from overseas, so there's no question of you renting space for her to live out.

2. Prioritize your expectations. Cooking? Childcare? Party planning and flower arranging? You're not going to find a 'perfect' helper, so you'll need to be ready to put one area of responsibility first, and compromise on others. When Mrs T and I were interviewing helpers, we made it clear that taking care of the imminent Baby Tall was paramount. This really helped focus our interviews, both for ourselves and for the interviewees.

3. Learn the rules. This is no fun at all, but you're going to have to learn some things about immigration regulations and procedures, insurance, contracts, labor law and so on. If you don't, you'll almost certainly by forced by circumstances to do so at some point. Don't trust an agency to get everything right! You might want to see this artticle for some suggestions for ways to start on this.

4. Interview carefully, and leave plenty of time for it. Take notes, or you'll forget who's who. Compare and evaluate the skills your candidates have to offer, but remember that there's no good way to verify a lot of what you'll see and hear about any given helper. By all means, take up references, but don't expect complete transparency from previous employers, either.

5. Think about the kind of person you want to hire, not just what skills you want your helper to have. Would you prefer that's she's married or single? Young (and possibly inexperienced) or older (more likely to have health problems, more likely to be set in her ways of doing things, etc.)? Worked as a helper before or fresh from the Philippines or Indonesia? You've got to try to anticipate all of the consequences of your hiring. For example, Mrs T and I really didn't want to hire a domestic helper who would be leaving her own small children to come to Hong Kong to take care of ours. We made it a point simply not to get into this situation.

6. When you've got some real possibilities lined up, make the actual choice based on your gut instincts. You know you are going to have to live and get along with the helper you choose, so hire someone you're comfortable being with and talking to. If there's an edginess between you at the interview stage, what's it going to be like after six months' co-residence?

7. Once you've hired a helper, clarity is the watchword when giving instructions on how you'd like things done. Achieving and maintaining such clarity feels funny to most of us expats with limited-to-no experience issuing domestic orders. You want to just say 'Okay, now if you've got time this afternoon or maybe tomorrow, could you have a look at the windows in the guest room?'. But vague instructions usually lead to misunderstanding and irritation on both sides.

8. Be scrupulous in little things, such as getting receipts for monthly salary payments, keeping track of cash for marketing and household expenditures, setting requirements for working hours, and so on.

9. Watch out for moral hazards. For example, when you're out with friends, you may catch yourselves deep in a conversation about 'how hard it is to find good help these days' that sounds straight out of a Victorian novel. You may find that your explications of your domestic helper's performance devolve from talking about real issues to a kind of schtick you use to make small talk with your expat friends. This is not just boring, it's a violation of my final point.

10. Never forget: her life is just as important as yours. Enough said.