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Hong Kong calls on Bangladesh to fill domestic helper shortage

By Peter Shadbolt, CNN
updated 3:40 AM EDT, Tue May 14, 2013
Hong Kong is facing a shortage of foreign domestic helpers from the region
Hong Kong is facing a shortage of foreign domestic helpers from the region
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hong Kong faces a shortage of domestic helpers, a vital part of its economy
  • Indonesia has said it aims to curb its low-paid foreign work pool by 2017
  • Hong Kong plans to import more domestic helpers from Bangladesh
  • There are currently more than 290,000 foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong

(CNN) -- Hong Kong is facing an acute shortage of one the engines of its dynamic economy -- cheap domestic help.

More than 290,000 foreign domestic helpers -- mainly Indonesians, Filipinas and Thais - live and work in the special administrative region of Hong Kong, according to Hong Kong's Department of Immigration.

But fears that Indonesian plans to wind up the foreign export of its low-skilled workers by 2017 will lead to a shortage of cheap hired help has the city's employment agencies looking elsewhere in the region.

This week Hong Kong received its first batch of domestic helpers from Bangladesh, a country that agencies hope will provide a rich source of women willing to work in a foreign country for just $HK3,920 ($505) a month.

"There are not enough Filipino and Indonesian domestic helpers these days," said Teresa Liu Tsui-lan, the managing director of the Technic Employment Service Centre. "We have a good training course for them in Bangladesh over three months where they learn Cantonese and Chinese cooking.

"We think that employers will be able to accept that," she told CNN.

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She said there was now a lot of competition from other countries -- mainly Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan -- for Indonesian maids, making it harder for Hong Kong to recruit them.

"Even though the salary offered in Hong Kong is higher, these countries are a lot closer to Indonesia so it's easier for domestic helpers to return home when they need to," Liu said.

She said Indonesian maids were in demand as carers for the elderly because, with limited English skills, their Cantonese has a tendency to improve quickly.

Filipinas, by contrast, who often have high levels of English before they come to Hong Kong, normally rely on English to communicate with their Hong Kong employers, she said.

Another 75 Bangladeshi workers will arrive in Hong Kong over the next three months, followed by 150 to 200 every month after that.

There are currently just 71 Bangladeshi domestic helpers in Hong Kong, compared with 152,557 Indonesian and 149,009 Filipino domestic helpers in the city, according to 2012 figures from the Department of Immigration.

The Bangladeshi helpers said they paid an agency in Bangladesh about $HK13,000 - more than three times their monthly salary - to apply for the job in Hong Kong.

One of the helpers, Khadiza Akter, 24, who is married with a son, told a press conference in Hong Kong that she planned to work in the city for five years.

"My husband is a driver and I want to buy another car for him so that we can start our own business," she said. "I also want to give my son a better education."

READ: Indonesian migrant worker endured years of abuse

Indonesia's Manpower and Transmigration Minister Muhaimin Iskandar last year announced the country planned to stop sending domestic workers abroad from 2017. While the government has no authority to prevent people from seeking work abroad, he said workers would have to have a clearly defined position and working status before taking up a foreign job.

"The recipient country would have to recognize them as formal workers with certain rights, such as working hours, the right to holidays and leave as well as to a set salary," Iskandar told the Jakarta Globe.

While Hong Kong has strong laws in place to protect the legal minimum wage of $HK3,920 (U.S.$505) a month, domestic helpers are sometimes subject to abuses such as long working hours, sub-standard living and sleeping arrangements and employers that attempt to cut deals to pay below the legal minimum.

Indonesia slapped moratorium on domestic workers to Malaysia in 2009 after multiple cases of abuse there. While the country has since lifted the ban, it only resumed sending migrant workers after more than a year of protracted negotiations on protecting the rights of domestic workers in Malaysia.

Indonesia's economy has shown stellar growth in recent years, expanding 6.02% in the first quarter of 2013, according to figures from Indonesia's Bureau of Statistics. With jobs available domestically, analysts say many Indonesians were are electing to stay at home.

An Indonesian Business Forum held in Hong Kong recently outlined the thrust of government policy, which aims to boost the skill sets of Indonesian foreign workers, particularly those working in building and construction.

"In five years it will be a very different situation," Indonesian government economic advisor Professor Hermanto Siregar told the forum. "These changes are already happening in the likes of South Korea and Japan. There are many semi-skilled workers employed there now on much better wages than they would earn as domestic helpers."

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