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Songs of Freedom: Celebrating Helper Appreciation Month

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As we celebrate DB’s third Helper Appreciation Month, Sam Agars focuses on three domestic workers who have got themselves out of debt bondage, and the people who are working to solve the problem at its root.

Each May, we have the opportunity to show our appreciation for DB’s domestic workers – the women and men who are our helpers, carers, friends and family. It’s a time to focus on the hardships they endure but more importantly, it’s a time to celebrate their triumphs.

While you often hear of domestic workers who have been overcharged by corrupt employment agencies and as a result find themselves in unmanageable debt, DB is now teeming with helpers who have successfully lifted themselves out of debt and poverty… with a little help from their friends.

At Fair Employment Agency, DB residents David Bishop and Scott Stiles are setting the market standard for ethical recruitment practices in Hong Kong, by not chargin domestic workers for recruitment services. DB resident Freedom Jackman does similar work at her agency Maid For You. Holly Allan, another DBer, is at the helm of HELP for Domestic Workers, a charity that offers free counselling to helpers and connects them with pro-bono legal services through a large network of local and international law firms. And then of course there’s Enrich, the charity dedicated to promoting helpers’ financial empowerment, co-founded by DB resident, Myriam Bartu.

While Myriam is no longer at the helm, Enrich has held over 650 workshops and directly influenced the lives of over 10,000 migrant workers in Hong Kong since its establishment in 2007. As a result, many helpers are now on top of their financial struggles and thriving in the investment market. To celebrate Enrich’s 10th anniversary, we talk to three DB helpers who have benefited from its workshops and outline the best ways for employers to get on board.

Understanding the debt spiral Opening the conversation, DB helper Marilou Canaway, the president of the Association of Concerned Migrant Workers, reveals that many migrant workers are illegally forced to pay up to PHP60,000 (more than HK$9,000 agency fee) just to get to Hong Kong. “The agency fee is supposed to only be 10% of the monthly salary and the minimum wage is HK$4,210,” she says. That equates to HK$421, a far cry from HK$9,000, but often domestic workers don’t know any better and are thrown into a spiral of debt that sees them forced to take out additional bank loans simply to survive, while providing for their children at home.

“Most of us have difficulties because before we enter Hong Kong we spend a lot of money to pay the agency fee,” says DB helper Jovita Wangag, who has a husband and two teenage children in the Philippines. “We have to ask for some help from the Philippines and you have to pay that back before you can save.”

Success stories 

When seeking a solution, Jovita heard about Enrich and she is quick to explain how its workshops helped her out of trouble. “What I did was I borrowed money from a bank and I paid my debt and then I slowly paid my debt to the bank,” she says. “Enrich taught me how to manage my money and how to grow my money because the salary is not that much. They taught me how to spend it wisely. There is the needs and the wants, you have to identify what you really need.”

Fellow DB helper Lorna Mauricio tells a similar story. On arriving in Hong Kong almost 20 years ago, she not only had to pay her agency fee, she also owed money to the lending company that funded her coming here – a debt that needed to be paid on a three-month instalment basis.

“It was quite difficult to manage my finances because my monthly repayment was HK$3,000 at that time and my salary was only HK$3,860, so there was not much left for me to send home to my three kids,” Lorna says. “Luckily I was introduced to Enrich and they taught me how to budget, even if I only had a small amount. I have followed the rules and I was able to manage my debt within six months. Enrich reminds us why we are here and the goals we have.”

Having worked their way out of debt, the next step for a lot of domestic helpers is to start building some stability for the future, with many investing in cooperatives back in the Philippines. Ten-year Hong Kong resident Jovita has done just this, as has Marilou who first attended an Enrich workshop in 2008 and now has a house north of Manila.

“I didn’t have difficulties when I first went to Enrich because I had managed to get out of debt already, but I learnt where I should put my money and how to save it and calculate it,” says Marilou, who has lived in Hong Kong since 1994 and has one married son back home. “Even if you have money to start a business, it’s not enough, so you must learn how to start it and how you are going to run it.

“The best thing I learnt from Enrich is that when you start a business in the Philippines you must be there, so I haven’t started a business yet but I have learnt to invest my money,” Marilou adds. “I am an investor, not a business owner. I have invested in two cooperatives in the Philippines and Enrich’s one-on-one mentoring sessions have helped me understand investment procedures.”

Advice for employers 

Anna Maria Andreoli, head of development at Enrich, explains how employers can play a big role in ensuring their helpers stay focused on their goals. “Firstly, ensure your helper has a bank account,” she says. “Some banks in Hong Kong are not very welcoming to domestic workers, so you may need to accompany her to the bank to open an account.”

There are also simple things you can do at home, Anna Maria explains: “For example, ask your helper to manage your grocery money. This gives her the opportunity to learn about money management without you encroaching on her private life. You can also encourage your helper to think long- term, several years in advance. Ask what her goals are for the future, and how she plans to achieve them.”

While Anna Maria admits that even nowadays it is common for migrant workers to come to Hong Kong with some level of debt, there are measures employers can take to see that it isn’t compounded. “You can help her keep track of her income by giving her monthly pay slips and paying her salary into a bank account rather than in cash,” she says. “Transfer her salary on the last day of the month and don’t delay payments.”

It is important to understand that some level of debt is to be expected, particularly if your helper is new to Hong Kong and will likely still b  repaying her employment agency fees. “Where possible, hire a helper using a direct-hiring platform or use a reputable and ethical employment agency that does not charge the helper,” Anna Maria advises.

Should you suspect your helper is facing unmanageable debt, Anna Maria says it is important to discuss possible solutions in a calm and non- intimidating manner. “If she has taken out a loan, you may be willing to consider taking over the loan so that she pays you back,” she says. “This can save her, and you, from getting harassed by loan agencies and from paying exorbitant interest rates. If you feel your helper needs more support, Enrich offers a confidential one-to-one financial counselling service where we will help calculate how much is owed and develop a realistic repayment plan.”

Support Super Aunties Inspired by the financial advice given to her own helper, South Lantau’s Shirley Johnson is raising funds to help Enrich provide domestic workers with 10,000 hours of financial education this year. To get on board, check out the special edition ‘Super Aunty’ T-shirt and other items in Lantau Ren’s T-shirts for Good collection. HK$40 from every shirt sold is being donated to Enrich. To purchase a T-shirt, head to www.lantauren.com.



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