Over the past seven years, on average every year one migrant domestic helper has died in Hong Kong from falling out of residential skyscrapers while cleaning the exterior of windows. After a 35-year-old Filipino woman fell to her death doing just that in an apartment on the 49th floor of a building in August, domestic helper groups in Hong Kong took the issue to the streets, demanding that the Hong Kong government address the problem of their work safety.
Dolores Balladares, a spokeswoman for Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body, told the press at the time:
For us it’s hard to say no when employers ask us to clean windows, but it’s scary […] It’s about time for the government to protect the workers.
While Hong Kong's authorities did not immediately respond to the workers’ demands, the Philippines consulate ordered in mid-October that all its citizens’ work contracts should include a clause stating that the cleaning of the exterior of windows will not be included in a domestic helper’s duties.
As anticipated, groups representing domestic helper employers opposed the new contractual terms. The Philippines consulate agreed to delay the effective day of the new contract for one month to November 14 after the Hong Kong government raised concerns and agreed to tackle the issue as soon as possible.
Finally, at the end of October, Hong Kong's labour department put forth a new proposal that domestic helpers should only clean windows with fixed grilles under another adult’s supervision. The proposal, which follows the practice in Singapore, is acceptable to countries that are a major exporter of domestic labour, according to a Hong Kong government source. But employers groups do not accept the “under another adult's supervision” term, arguing that they don’t have the time to oversee a domestic helper in that way.
Throughout the entire controversy, many employers have simply argued that it is not dangerous to clean the exterior of windows, and others have insisted that it is domestic helpers’ duty and they should be trained to do the task. For example, one of the employers’ petitions demands the Philippines Labour Department to:
monitor the quality of domestic workers, including the excessive time they spend on their phones, taking loans, theft, framing their employers, engagement in sex work, and poor behaviours alike. […] They should educate their people on how to become a positive labourer overseas, so they can earn foreign money for their country and their families.
The above stand is not atypical. Similar comments are easily found on social media. Comments below were selected from a Facebook news thread on non-profit online media Standnews's profile:
抺窗真係危險嘅 個個都危險啦 咁邊個可以抺呢?! 如果做足安全措施就可以抺, 點解家傭就唔得呢?!
One can cut oneself using a knife, burn oneself when lighting a fire, boiling water and oil and ironing clothes. Does it mean that they don’t need to perform these duties?
If they cut the cleaning window duty, [we] should also cut that part of the salary from the monthly HK $4,120 [approximately US $550 dollars] pay check.
Cleaning windows is dangerous for everyone. Then who is to perform the task? If all it takes is security protection measures, why can’t domestic workers perform the duty?
Most of the newly built middle-class apartment buildings in Hong Kong are skyscrapers with huge windows. Leaning outside to clean the outside of the windows can be dangerous. Labour activist Leo Tang highlighted the failure of local laws to protect migrant domestic helpers:
The home is a private domain, but it is also the migrant domestic helper's work space. It is the employer's responsibility to provide an appropriate and safe working environment. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Ordinance, employers should provide suitable tools, equipment and safety guidelines for their employees. Yet employers of migrant domestic helpers are exempted from such a legal obligation. The fact that a domestic setting is also a work space for 10% of the total labour force in Hong Kong has been ignored, and employers of domestic helpers have little awareness of work safety. In a recent radio program, a representative from an employers group even suggested that domestic helpers could wear a safety belt when cleaning the exterior of windows. Such a suggestion is pathetic — wearing a safety belt means that you are aware of the danger of falling from high rises — do you really expect such a duty to be done by helpers who receive about HK $4,000 [US $550 dollars] a month?
Unfortunately, the mistreatment of migrant domestic helpers in Hong Kong is nothing new. The recently released Global Slavery Index 2016 reported that at least 29,500 people out of Hong Kong’s more than 7 million population are trapped in modern slavery. A local human rights group, Justice Center, believes that the figure should be higher as the organization’s recent survey finds 17 percent of migrant domestic helpers is carrying out “forced labour.” The figure is equal to about 55,000 of the city’s 320,000 helpers.