Domestic helpers, part II

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I've been motivated to revisit the issue of hiring and living with a domestic helper because Mrs Tall and I have recently had to hire a new helper ourselves.

I'm intending this article to be a follow-up to my previous one on this subject, which you can find here. If you're interested in this subject, you might want to go back and have a look at that article first.

Here in Part II I'll address the often-perplexing bureaucratic process of hiring a helper, and consider some of the psychological barriers to hiring a helper that might not be serious impediments after all. Then in Part III I'll touch on some more issues you as an employer of a domestic helper may need to resolve. Let me say here that readers should use my recommendations/information completely at their own risk: I'm no expert on immigration law in Hong Kong, and the rules change all the time, so don't take my word for it on technical issues -- look them up yourself! (See link a bit later on.)

When Mrs Tall and I first started looking for a domestic helper a couple of years ago, I thought it would be easy -- I made the stupid assumption you could approach it from a rational, economic point of view. Point 1: there exists an enormous oversupply of women (and some men, to be fair) from the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and other developing Asian countries who want to come to Hong Kong to work. Point 2: as a middle-class family, we could easily afford to pay one of these women the going rate. Ergo, it's a hirer's market.

But then why did hiring our first helper take several months, numerous trips to the Immigration Department, a couple of fraught meetings watered with our potential new helper's tears, and the growing need to stave off panic as Baby Tall's delivery date grew closer, with nothing resolved?

Hiring a helper is relatively complicated bureaucratically, so it can take a long time. The tangle of regulations and paperwork you and your helper-to-be must negotiate can be thick and thorny. The Hong Kong Immigration Department is much better than it used to be (don't let me start telling my old work-visa-renewal stories here, Mr B!) but it still erects formidable barriers against a DH having the remotest chance of staying in HK for a minute longer than the ID deem necessary. I'll not bore you with the gory details -- if you need to wade through them, there's a full and official set of guidelines here.

A problem with these Immigration Department regulations is that they're geared at making a DH go back to her home country before she can start work with a new employer. That doesn't sound so bad, especially when you consider how desperately some overworked helpers need a break. In practice, however, this policy can work deeply to a DH's disadvantage if she's seeking a new employer, when you couple it with the fact that she gets only a 14-day extension to her visa in which to find work. That is, a DH who's been dismissed, or who's come to the end of her contract, has only two weeks for interviews and, in case she actually can find a new employer, for getting the mountain of paperwork for a new visa application in order. If she doesn't get this done before her visa runs out, she has no choice but to leave Hong Kong and return to her home country. Then, if she wants to come back to HK and find work again, she's got to start at square one back at home, typically at a far higher level of trouble, time and expense.

As you can imagine, a DH who knows in advance that her contract won't be renewed has an advantage. She at least can use her weekly day off to attend interviews, and she's likely to have all her friends and relatives working here looking out for opportunities as well. Of course it can be hit-and-miss: many DH's employers won't give them time during their working week to seek a new post, and some won't even allow them to take phone calls from potential employers. This cuts down the job-search strategies you read about in business communication books!

But many DHs have an even tougher time. Often they receive no warning that they're going to be dismissed, so they'll have had no chance to get the word out that they're looking for a new employer. And there's no compromise on the 'return to home country' question for them. In fact, if a DH finishes a contract and is then rehired while she's still in Hong Kong, she and her new employer can arrange to defer her leave until after she starts her new contract. A DH dismissed because of her employer's financial hardship can also get permission to stay on in Hong Kong. But a straight up dismissal -- which requires no grounds; just one month's notice -- means a definite trip back to start the whole process over.

Well, an observer might argue, no one would want to hire a maid who's been dismissed anyway. But the fact is that those looking to hire a DH would do well to avoid writing off DHs in this situation. The reasons for dismissal are often so trivial, and sometimes so outright cruel, that they end up being no problem at all to a new employer. Just to give an example: our now-departed helper was in fact dismissed by her previous employer, who sacked her on ridiculous pretexts: e.g. when her employer's friend brought over her five-year-old son, and he misbehaved, our soon-to-be DH 'looked at him in an unhappy way'; other complaints had to do with her inability to iron the underwear properly, and so on. These complaints were so trivial we in fact took them as a positive sign: an employer so obviously neurotic, who couldn't find anything more substantive to complain about, was in fact offering quite a convincing, if left-handed, endorsement!

So, to sum up this part in a couple of brief words of advice: if you're planning to hire a domestic helper, start early, and make sure you cast the nets wide enough! In my next article on this topic, I'll look at some of the reasons it seems like everybody's always looking for a new helper all the time.