By Marion Déchy

Chinese New Year is approaching and you are probably thinking of giving a red pocket to your domestic worker.  Do you know what she will do with it? Will she save it or is she going to spend it right away?

13 years ago, I arrived in Hong Kong from London, never had a domestic worker before and the concept of ‘maids’ was only a vague memory from my grandparents during the war! I was one of these young mothers thinking ‘I can do it all by myself, don’t need a domestic worker!’. Quicker than you can guess I came to realize that I could not avoid hiring a domestic worker to help me out with just about everything! We hired a domestic worker who stayed with us for 12 years. I learnt so much with her.

She was a great domestic worker but still, it took time to adjust, to “teach” her, to show how we were living which was different from previous families she’d worked for. She learnt how to cook and she became a great cook, an independent meal planner, and the best help when we had guests at home. She was a meticulous cleaner and home organizer, she was incredibly loving and patient with my kids. Oh well, I could go on and on. 

But even with the best domestic worker, you can’t avoid turmoil, that’s for sure.

When a loan shark calls you every day

We have had a couple of phone calls from money lenders after a couple of years. Then our domestic worker asked us for help when one of her ‘friend’ made her sign a guarantee letter for her loan and suddenly disappeared, leaving her to repay some crazy amounts. Then it was the friend she was sharing a SIM card with who disappeared leaving her to pay a 1,000 HK$ bill. We’ve always backed her up (not always happily though) since as her employers we were legally responsible for these misfortunes. A few years later we had even decided to change our phone number as a loan shark kept calling every day but our domestic worker was telling us it was a mistake. We’ve had a conversation at this time with her about this issue and we were quite firm on the fact that even though we loved her, we could not keep her if another situation like this was to be repeated. She confessed it was really difficult for her to say ‘no’ to her friends asking her help in making a loan. Sometime later when we spoke again about miscellaneous things, I asked her how she was doing with her friends, she told me she was no longer seeing any friends because she was too scared to be involved in another money issue. And believe me, I was under the impression that she was respected by other domestic workers, she was above 45 years old and had a lot of experience. I could not have imagined for one minute how tough peer pressure can be in the domestic workers’ community but it is a reality.

What my job taught me about domestic workers

Working in a recruitment domestic workers’ agency helped me understand a lot about domestic workers. I saw how incredibly grateful domestic workers were when I was giving them very simple tips for their interviews or trying to boost their confidence or just simply by listening to them.

How tough it is for them to have to deal with a different world far away from their families and outside of their comfort zone and how helpful you can be by just simply sharing tips with them.

In fact, I realized how we underestimate the needs of domestic workers on so many levels.

I have joined the non-profit organisation Uplifters last September. It’s a new non-profit in Hong Kong founded by Marie Kretz Di Meglio. They provide a free online money management course to domestic workers.

They learn how to prepare for the future, how to save money, how to avoid being ripped off by some malevolent people taking advantage and even how to say ‘no’ to unnecessary financial requests from their own family back home. In other words, all they need to know to break the cycle of poverty and build sustainable futures for themselves and their families.

We do learn about those tools in the ‘modern world’ and we decide to use them (or not). Domestic workers don’t have access to those tools and arrive unprepared in our cities to work for us. How can they possibly manage? Something’s not quite right!

Why employers should care?

As Uplifters is self-funded we started a crowdfunding campaign in January and this has probably been the most interesting journey of my years working in Hong Kong.

Recently and because of our communication about our crowdfunding campaign, I have been asked very interestingly and rightly so “why as an employer should I get involved about my domestic workers’ financial education, why should I sponsor it, why should I care at all? She is working for me and she is very busy, I don’t want to distract her, it’s already difficult enough sometimes to be on the same page so I’d rather not disturb our routine”.

So many employers naturally feel that way I thought I needed to write about this.

First of all as an employer, wouldn’t you want her to be concentrated on her job and doing it well rather than being stressed out and worried about money issues? Whatever your relationship with her, you would see on her face or her attitude when something is wrong with her, right? As an employer, you trust your domestic worker with your household and loved ones. So yes you do want your domestic worker to be responsible, reliable and be good at what she does! You do want her to succeed and reach her dreams. You do want her to be happy, pleasant and do a good job for you. As a mother, I think you do worry about your domestic worker taking care of your children when she is not feeling well, whether she is physically sick or mentally not there or depressed. 

It is proven that the helpers that are going through financial literacy programs get a better understanding of what is ahead of them and better plan for their future. That gives them confidence, a more positive mindset and give them a better way to cope with uncertainty and difficulties. It helps them defines their goals in life. Not only they dare speaking about their dreams but they also realize they can actually reach those dreams. As a result, they become more positive, motivated and happier and they find a better balance in their life in general.

How would you feel if one of these loan sharks come knocking at your door asking to repay the loan your domestic worker made a few months back, leaving you distressed, leaving her depressed and your relationship damaged?  

Aren’t we a lot of employers experiencing the bad surprise to have to repay the loan of their domestic worker? My domestic worker made a loan of 1,000 HKD and ‘forgot’ about it. A few years later, we had to repay 6,000 HKD. This is a common story that unfortunately puts a lot of strain on the relationship.

If the domestic worker learns the pros and cons of loans, how interest rate works, how to budget and control her transfer of money to her family, they would have fewer risks to get into these delirious situations.

Secondly, it’s an opportunity to improve your relationship with her.

We asked students from the Uplifters course how did the course impact their relationship with their employer”. Here are a few replies:

Janelyn : “Now that I am more driven to my passion to learn and earn, I am more dedicated to my work, I am giving all of my efforts to learn new things and impress my employers. Now we have better communications.”

Rubi : “With my employer, it’s changed a lot of things as I am more confident when I speak English and I am more humble”

Cristina: “There was a great impact on how I managed my communication skills to understand each other’s.”

Maylin: “After my employer discovered that I took the Uplifters’ course, they did not worry that I would spend my money in unimportant ways and we started to build trust.”

Joan (I love her testimony!): “I believe that when your employers know that you are learning something to improve yourself you gain respect from them. It’s good that you let them know as well that you are productive in terms of learning new things as they won’t look down on you”

Finally, as a responsible employer, wouldn’t you want to provide your employee with these crucial life skills? I would say on a personal note that I would find it normal to care for people that work for you and are taking care of your home, your kids and is a part of your family life. Isn’t it the basics of management: care and consideration for your employees? Should it be different for domestic workers? As an employer, I would also want to know that the salary I give my domestic worker will contribute to retirement or part of an investment that will help her build a business when she decides to go back home for good.

Knowing her daughters will come to Hong Kong to work as domestic workers strangely does not have the same rewarding feeling, don’t you think? Don’t we all strive for the same achievement in life? Why would domestic workers not have the same dreams nor the same chances in life? They work all these years for us away from their family and their own children, don’t they deserve a little bit of our help to achieve their goals?

Not only employers should care but I do feel it is their duty to help their domestic workers get access to basic financial knowledge that will prevent them to fall into destructive traps.

·  In Hong Kong Enrich is the leading charity for domestic workers’ economic empowerment. They offer face to face sessions on Sundays as well as one to one financial counselling services for emergency cases. 

·  Uplifters offers a 3-weeks free online course. It is flexible, they can participate when they have time and it won’t disturb their day of work. Students are enrolled in group chats so they get important peer support. 

Overall those courses offer them a chance to learn important life skills, improve their chances in life and also build up healthy friendships. This is basically a win-win for them and for employers, that’s the beauty of it!