Hong Kong Recruiters Pitch for Burmese Home Help

By Simon Roughneen 8 January 2014

RANGOON — A delegation of Hong Kong recruitment agencies is in Burma in an attempt to drum up interest in a proposed scheme to allow Burmese citizens to work as domestic helpers in the Chinese special administrative region.

Ahead of a discussion with officials from Burma’s Ministry of Labor in Naypyidaw on Thursday, the Hong Kong Chamber of Employment Agencies met with Burmese recruiters in Rangoon on Wednesday, explaining the nature of domestic work in Hong Kong along with related matters such as labor law and the respective rights and obligations of employers and workers in the sector.

Anticipating a decline in the numbers of maids from Indonesia and the Philippines, the two main source countries in the past, Chamber chairman Joe Chow told The Irrawaddy that there could be up to 20,000 jobs to be filled over the next four years, for Burmese seeking work as domestic helpers in Hong Kong.

“The numbers from the previous countries of recruitment are receding and there is now opportunity for other countries,” Chow said.

As of November 2013, there were just over 320,000 domestic helpers working in Hong Kong, an increase from about 256,000 in 2008. Of the current total, 51.4 percent are from the Philippines and 46.4 percent are Indonesian, according to the Hong Kong Chamber of Employment Agencies.

Recruiters expect Hong Kong’s appetite for foreign helpers to hold up, with the number of Hong Kong citizens aged over 65 increasing by 1.5 times over the next two decades. This will mean, according to the Hong Kong Chamber of Employment Agencies, that “our society needs a tremendous manpower to support Hong Kong’s elderly care services.”

But with the Indonesian and Philippine economies growing in recent years—meaning more jobs at home—recruitment prospects for Hong Kong families seeking maids from either country are declining, in turn prompting agencies to scout across the region for other options.

Relations between Hong Kong and the Philippines have deteriorated since the 2010 murder of eight Hong Kong tourists in a mass shooting on a bus in Manila. Late last year, Hong Kong lawmakers mulled banning Filipino domestic workers in retaliation for Philippine President Benigno Aquino III’s refusal to apologize for the killings, which sparked a wave of anti-Filipino rhetoric in Hong Kong and mainland China.

Burma, where a parliamentary committee last year estimated unemployment at 37 percent, has long been a source of emigrants, mostly to Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore, with an estimated 3-5 million Burmese living outside their homeland.

A recently commenced Hong Kong scheme to recruit Bangladeshis to work as domestic helpers in Hong Kong has fallen flat, however, meaning Hong Kong recruiters are pinning their hopes on Burma.

Seeking to dispel concerns about potential mistreatment of domestic workers in Hong Kong, Paul Chan, the Chamber’s vice chairman, said “Hong Kong is a civilized, multinational and safe society,” running through a sample job contract via PowerPoint, and outlining domestic helpers’ rights under Hong Kong law.

Almost one-third of a million domestic helpers already work in Hong Kong, numbers that Chan said would help new arrivals fit in. “We have no doubt they will make friends very soon,” he told Burmese agency counterparts, referring to possible Burmese hires going to Hong Kong.

Win Min Min, a Burmese recruiter who in recent times has been matching Burmese women with Singaporean families to work as domestic help in the Southeast Asian city-state, said there are a number of issues to be ironed out, however, before it will be possible to send Burmese domestic helpers to Hong Kong.

Her agency, Myanmar Express Link, typically charges three to four months’ salary equivalent to Burmese workers who secure jobs in Singapore—repayment for the training and other expenses, such as travel from rural areas to Rangoon—prior to deployment.

“But Hong Kong law does not allow such arrangements,” she said, referring to the repayment made by Burmese migrant workers in Singapore. “So it is not clear how the training will be covered, and if the girls are not trained, they can’t get jobs as helpers.”

Nonetheless, the Hong Kong Chamber of Employment Agencies reckons that thousands of Burmese domestic helpers could soon be working in Hong Kong.

“If the Ministry of Labor allows us, we can have the first recruitment within four months,” Chow said.