How to Hire a Domestic Helper in Hong Kong
“If you have a domestic helper, you have heartaches. If you don’t have a domestic helper, you have hand aches.” This is my mom speaking. Obviously doesn’t work as well translated in English, but you get the gyst.
I am currently on my 3rd domestic helper within the span of a year. If you’re lucky, you get a great helper. If you’re not, you get one who can potentially be lazy, a horrible cook, dishonest and just darn right bad. My current helper is amazing. I’ve only had her for 2 weeks+ but so far, she’s getting an A in most categories. F for cooking (but that’s not my priority) and F for communication (so now I’m learning Indonesian).
Think of your needs first
First and foremost, you have to consider what kind of domestic helper suits your needs best. You can hire full-time, part-time or live-ins. The article below is dedicated to hiring foreign domestic help. A live in helper is very common in Hong Kong, but I am still not used to having a body I don’t recognize as family living in my space. Since the publication of this article, I’ve gotten many questions about hiring part-times who don’t live in. If you’re interested in going part-time in Hong Kong, please see this “Employees Retraining Board” which is run by the Labour Department in Hong Kong. The one key thing about hiring a foreign domestic helper is that they HAVE to live at the specified address of the sponsor (unless otherwise given permission by the government) and work at that address as well. I know people who pay their helpers to live out in boarding houses, but keep in mind – this is illegal.
How it works
Hiring a foreign domestic is very common in Hong Kong. Each hire is fixed to a minimum 2-year contract.
There are 2 types of foreign domestic help you can hire. One is overseas helpers (which means they don’t have the visa to work in Hong Kong at the present time) and one is local (which means they have a valid visa for only so long – usually 2 weeks from the point of their last contract). These days, you can hire foreign domestic helpers from Indonesia, Philippines, Nepal, Thailand, and a few other south asian countries. The most common in Hong Kong though is currently Philippines and Indonesia.
These helpers are no longer contracted (or their contracts will be ending soon). When you visit agents on Sunday, you’ll see many of them sitting around and waiting for new potential employers. The good thing about these types is that you can see them and interview them and they have local experience. They can be contracted immediately and can commence work as soon as the contract work is done (usually 2 weeks). The bad thing is that when demand is high, they can be choosy too. So in my case, when the mum is at home, many say no. Be reminded that some of the local hires may also have had their contracts terminated permaturely, so it’s important to check length of previous contracts and if possible, get references. As well, agent fees are greater for these hires because you’re skipping over the training fee process (which I will talk about later).
Overseas are usually uncontracted. Many of them are coming out of their local training centers. The good is that their training is still fresh (so they will bow and say “yes mum”) and can consistently fold your underwear and iron your bedsheets. The bad is that you can’t interview face-to-face (although some agents do have web cam interviews) and some references are deadends because they may have worked in other countries, other than Hong Kong and the agent doesn’t have previous employment information. The hiring process for overseas is about 2-3 months in length. For helpers coming out of training centers, they then have to pay HKD$21,000 back to the agency for a loan they borrowed to go through training – so they don’t actually pocket anything until after 7 months of employment. Which means, they have a lot more to lose for an early termination. I know this because one day my new helper showed me her repayment schedule (mailed to my home) and was confused about how to repay it, so I’ve arranged to up her salary to the day she’s worked in order to repay this loan.
I have actually hired both locals and overseas. From personal experience, you can find good and bad domestic helpers from both routes.
How to Qualify
In order to qualify hiring a domestic helper, the sponsor must be a Hong Kong resident with either have a minimum income of HKD $15,000/month or enough assets to support the helper for the duration of their employment.
You must be able to provide:
- Proof of income (original bank statements or deposit slips with at least 3 months of employment shown – or assets)
- Proof of address (gas, utility, water, land tax bills etc)
- Proof of residency (HKID)
It’s so critical to ask questions during the interview – and you HAVE to do an interview, or else you’re just randomly choosing someone who resides in your house, interacts with you and your family, cooks your food and basically knows the ins and outs to your life. Below, I’ve posted my interview questions. The one key question to ask though is: “If mum is at home, is it OK?”. If this is a “no”, I don’t need to continue further.
1. Do you have references that I can call and speak to?
2. Tell me about your last job?
3. What did you like about your previous job?
4. What did you learn the most from your previous job?
1. Are you married? Do you have children?
2. Do you have a boyfriend?
3. Do you have brothers and/or sisters?
4. Tell me 3 things (qualities) you like about yourself.
5. Tell me 3 things you think you are good at.
6. Have you ever been seriously ill? With what? When?
7. What do you like doing in your free time?
8. Have you ever done a first aid course?
9. Do you smoke?
10. Do you drink?
11. Do you have any outstanding debts?
12. On holidays, what do you think is an appropriate time to come home?
1. Do you like cooking? What kind of things did you cook for your last employer?
2. How would you cook ________?
3. How would you do laundry? (Provide example of people living in the house)
4. What do you think is a good daily routine for a clean household?
1. Have you looked after children before? What ages?
2. Do you like children? What ages best?
3. How would you prepare an 8-month old baby’s food?
4. How would you clean baby bottles?
5. How would you put an infant to sleep?
Yes, I’m a nit picker. I have stringent hiring guidelines because this is afterall, MY HOUSE and MY CHILDREN.
The current domestic helper minimum monthly salary is HKD $3580 for contracts signed on or after July 10, 2008. You can obviously pay more if you see fit, but what I’ve done is created a bonus system in which the helper is entitled to earn a bonus after her probation period (3 months) and then yearly. On top of that, she gets additional bonuses from my in-laws, I’ll give her red pockets on her birthday, Christmas and Chinese New Year. We also have to pay a government levy of HKD $400/month – which is now being waived for contracts signed on or after August 1, 2008. See here for details.
On top of these fees is agency fees. If you’ve gone through an agent, that obviously will cost you money and the fee varies from agency to agency. I paid HKD $3800 for a local hire (which includes airfare – because they are entitled to 7 days vacation for every year, body checkup, visas and agency fees).
For helpers who manage to stay 5+ years, they are entitled to a “long service” bonus (given at the end of their contract – if not renewed, or upon dismissal – see below on the reference for Foreign Domestic Helper Guide for exact details). The bonus is: (Monthly wages x 2/3) x years of service). I hate to say this about Hong Kong employers, but I know so many helpers who have 4 years of service with one employer and then aren’t renewed because the employer doesn’t want to pay the long service bonus. I have even seen employers who change the sponsor from wife to husband in order to avoid this. WHAT? You’re obviously keeping the helper because they are performing to par, so give them their damn bonus!
In addition, if they aren’t eating the family food – which means separate meals, you have to pay HKD $300/month for them to cover their own food expenses. I stand on the fence with this because maybe there are families that prefer the helper to eat separately. Of course, it’s probably just easier for them to eat whatever you’re eating - what’s another cup of rice?
You also have the option of buying insurance – which I must say, is a must. This protects you in case of injury, accidents or death while the domestic helper is employed at your house. It also covers being ill and doctor visits. The cost is roughly HKD $500/year so it’s definitely worth it!
You are required to give your domestic helper 24 hours rest for every week they work. It can be on any day, but most helpers will request Sunday. In addition, they are entitled to statutory holidays (but don’t need to be paid for the statutory holidays for the first 3 months of their contract). You can swap statutory holidays for other days off but you can’t pay them to work in lieu of the holiday (that’s actually illegal). See here for details. Keep in mind, statutory holidays and general holidays are different – so be sure to check the government’s yearly calendar for the right holidays.
Before work begins
So they need a space to sleep in. We provide our helper with her own bedroom and plenty of storage space for her things, plus she has the guest washroom all to herself. It’s so hard in Hong Kong for many families to even provide helpers with their own space. I know someone who built a little room out of a closet for their helper, so she basically climbs into a cubby hole each night.
We have also installed a web cam prior to our helper’s start date. This is merely as a precaution because we haven’t actively used it to date (with any of our helpers). Then again, maybe my husband bought it because he just wanted to play with it.
Another item to consider is a safe. We have finally upgraded our rinky dink key safe to a full blown water-proof, fire-proof, hack-proof, digital safe. It’s so heavy that you can’t carry it out and we are looking to have it bolted to our built in closet in the master bedroom. It’s basically used to store valuables such as jewelry, passports, important documents and cash. In the end, why take any risks? If something does go missing, who can you really blame? Oh, this is on top of the safe deposit box we have with HSBC (I don’t keep all my valuables at home – so don’t come thinking there’s treasure here).
When work begins
Our overseas domestic helper came from Indonesia with one small luggage and no friends. I think it’s been rough on her. The first thing I did was sit her down with a list of rules (yes rules) and we covered everything. Some stuff is common sense, but you have to lay it down early. It’s easier to relax your household policies after, but hard to tighten the cuff when you need to. I basically covered everything to cleaning schedule, disciplining rules of my children, how to handle the telephone, work hours and curfew times (it goes on and on). I know some people may think I’m being tough, but at a normal office, you have rules too. Don’t you sign an employment letter before you begin work?
Problems? I’ve written a new post on “Domestic Helper Issues and How to Deal with them“. This is just my sharing on problems I’ve encountered and while not enforcing termination, resolving them diplomatically and fairly as any employee-employer would in the western world.
My first helper was young. She was 23 and didn’t have children of her own. There were of course, other tiny things that grated me and eventually we terminated her (which included an additional HKD $10,000 for 1 months notice, current prorated monthly salary and airfare). My second helper was only here for 5 days. She was much older than I was (around 45) and was constantly thwarting my authority. She was lazy and only wanted to carry my youngest daughter all day long – which I don’t need her to do because I have 2 functional hands myself. My current and third helper is also young, 23, but has a 9 month old son back home. Like I said, I highly praise her and value her assistance. Our communication is weak, so I’ve taken to learning Indonesian in hopes that we can meet somewhere in the middle to strengthen this gap. In the end, you have to go with your gut feeling with helpers. If something instinctively doesn’t feel right – then it probably isn’t.
I think the critical thing to keep in mind with domestic helpers is that they are “helpers”. She’s a supplement to my duty as household CEO and she’s my right-hand. Having a helper is great – it definitely reduces my workload and gives me time to spend “quality” time with my kids. I personally am not a big fan of having a stranger live with me, but the benefits do outweigh the negatives and my current helper is careful to give my husband our space in the living room when the kids have retired to bed.
If you’d like a copy of my “rules”, let me know – I’ve also had it translated (an earlier version) to Indonesian courtesy of my agency. It’s like 3 pages (courtesy of my sister) and most of it is common sense, but I’m consistent in laying it down for all my helpers. I think my experience with the past 2 helpers have helped me understand what I want as an employer and has helped me in communicating what I expect from my helper. Of course, everything is a 2 way street. Really, it’s karma. Just my 2 cents.
- “How to Train a Domestic Helper“
- “Traveling with a Domestic Helper“
- “Frequently Asked Questions” for Hiring a Foreign Domestic Helper – Government of Hong Kong
- “Foreign Domestic Helper Guide“ in PDF – Government of Hong Kong
- “The Domestic Helper Green Bug“