Tuesday, 9 June 2015

A More Dignified Employment Experience

Credit: SCMP, HelperChoice.com

Growing up in Hong Kong I’m no stranger to the locals – my family and relatives included – complaining about the noise migrant workers make in public spaces on their one day off every week, and talks of thefts and child abuse by these migrant workers. From a household where the mother looked after the children and did all household chores, I was never able to verify the complaints against migrant workers; the domestic helpers I met at friends’ places were invariably nice, however. So for the dissertation for my master’s degree in international journalism, I decided to visit Victoria Park and shopping malls to talk to domestic helpers coming from the Philippines and Indonesia. Along the way I also met people at NGOs fighting for migrant workers’ rights, from Indonesians and Filipinos to a British lawyer who offers pro bono legal services. From people at the employment agencies I learnt that employers are normally advised not to let their domestic helpers have their day off on Sunday (when most domestic helpers get their day off), in case they learn ‘dirty tricks and pick up thieving tendencies’. I learnt the two-week rule and the exponential sums of money the domestic helpers are required to pay – to both agencies in their home countries and Hong Kong – an amount of money that the domestic helpers struggle to repay over a period of one to two years, if they’re not fired within two weeks and therefore repatriated as a result, that is.

I’m not denying cases of thefts and child abuse by domestic helpers, I only think that society also needs to acknowledge the hardship many domestic helpers suffer while working in Hong Kong. There’s not a reason to lump them together and brand them as thieves or good-for-nothings, because they are individuals too, and their help has enabled local mums to join the work force to support their families.

Which is why my eyes lit up when I came across this SCMP interview with Laurence Fauchon, who founded HelperChoice in the wake of the ‘unfair and painful selection process’ she underwent when trying to hire a domestic helper to help take care of her newborn daughter in 2012. To quote Fauchon, “When we went there on a Sunday afternoon, 10 to 15 helpers were sitting on a bench waiting for someone to employ them…Everybody looks at you, like ‘Please, choose me.’ It felt really hard.” She would later learn about the fees the domestic helpers need to pay just to come to work in Hong Kong.
And there, she wondered, why isn’t there something like a LindedIn for domestic helpers? So as Fauchon was learning the new responsibilities for a new mum, she started HelperChoice, an online service that connects domestic helpers and employers. Fauchon, on the website, stresses that HelperChoice is not an employment agency, and it remains to today a platform that charges domestic helpers nothing but employers a monthly membership fee of HKD290 for both parties to upload their profiles on the site, and use the platform to search for possible matches. It works just like LinkedIn, except that HelperChoice also refers matched clients and helpers to partner agents that offer competitive prices for assistance with visa applications and other paperwork.

It’s no surprise that HelperChoice is able to sustain its finance: as a platform aimed at providing fair employment matching services while uplifting domestic helpers’ sense of dignity, the platform has successfully helped over 3,000 employers find the perfect matches, meaning more than 3,000 domestic helpers have been able to find a suitable job, without having their bank accounts dented, to support their families back home.

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