What is a Foreign Domestic Helper and Why do I need one?
There is a secret recipe to my life that not everyone knows about. It’s something that people around the world know about but is considered completely foreign to most Americans. My secret to making my life work? My foreign domestic helper.
This is part 1 of a 3 part series all about finding and hiring a foreign domestic helper in Hong Kong. Part 2 and 3 will be coming soon!
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What is a foreign domestic helper?
While I’m sure you can guess the basics of what a foreign domestic helper is, if you grew up like me you’re also probably confused as to exactly what that term means.
Basically, this term describes a person from outside the country (so someone not from Hong Kong in this case) who comes to live and work for us here. While mostly women, there are some men employed as domestic helpers as well, but more often you find men in the role of driver or gardener. Unironically, those positions can demand more money. So for ease, I’ll be using ‘she’ here on out (I feel like I’m writing a contract or something with that line lol!).
A domestic helper lives with you, cleans your house and car (if you have one), cooks, shops for groceries, and helps take care of your kids. She’s basically a paid wife and mom, and I couldn’t love her more for it.
Where do helper’s come from?
Many people often don’t realize how many places domestic helpers actually come from. The most prevalent is the Philippines, then Indonesia. But you’ll find helpers from Sri Lanka, India, Fiji, Malaysia, and more.
Why do you need a helper?
After having experienced a helper, I think every family needs at least a part-time helper. At least while your kids are young. I can’t even begin to describe to you how much of a mental relief it is for someone to do those tasks that never seem to end, but typically bring you no enjoyment. Imagine how much energy and time you could put into a business or your kids if you didn’t have to do those daily activities. Not only that but having her decide what’s for dinner gets rid of all indecision and keeps my diet on track.
Typically though, you get a helper because you and your spouse both work and you have small children. You see there are almost no daycares available in Hong Kong. And the few that do exist are hard to get to for most people, have limited hours that don’t fit all schedules (like my odd teacher schedule), and are government owned for those families that can’t afford a helper. So your options are to either hire a helper or have family watch your child (in-home daycares don’t seem to be an option either, maybe because helpers are so prevalent). And when you’re an expat family like us, well the family option isn’t an option either lol.
How much does a domestic helper cost?
You might want to sit down for this. I mean I’m not sure you’re prepared for this number. And please do realize that this is just a minimum, some helpers require more, and most deserve far more. Also, these are the costs as of writing this post, so make sure to verify with government websites first.
$4520 hkd/ mo
Yup, that’s the equivalent of about $570/ mo USD for someone to make your life easier and more enjoyable. For your child to have consistent, and possibly one-on-one, care. And for you to be able to focus more on your family and career versus making sure everyone has clean clothes. That’s cheaper than most daycares back home!
Are there any other expenses for hiring a helper?
Yes. In addition to their wages you either need to let them eat with you (so your grocery budget would need to increase) or you need to give them $1075 hkd for them to buy their own food. Both our helpers have chosen the latter option as they like a different diet than us, like to have lots of potlucks with friends, and have had bad experiences with previous employers not giving them enough food.
You will also need to pay for their medical expenses, maternity leave (rare, but does happen), Visa processing fees, agency fees if you use one (well you should at least, otherwise these women go into debt to pay for it), consulate fees, and transport from the helper’s home country to Hong Kong and return to the home country on termination or expiry of the contract.. Most of these are ‘one-time’ or annual fees though and so incredibly inexpensive compared to what you would probably pay back in the USA. I’ll go into these more later when we cover those specific topics.
Who can hire a foreign domestic helper in Hong Kong?
Anyone with a Hong Kong ID (So anyone with the right to live in Hong Kong because of citizenship or work) can hire a helper as long as they have a household income of at least $15,000 hkd. And honestly, as an expat, you should be making at least $22,000… And honestly, only if you are young and newly graduated.
Typically, people tend to hire part-time helpers if they have no kids or older kids. This is technically illegal though unless you hire a local, but everyone knows it happens. Even a part-time helper at $70-120/ hr once a week can ease your stress levels considerably though.
Parents of young children of families where both parents work (or not) and those who are taking care of their aging parents have the biggest need for a domestic helper though. Nursing homes and daycares aren’t very accessible. Just remember that you need to provide a space, hopefully, a private room, for your helper.
How to find a foreign domestic helper:
There are many different ways you can go about finding the helper that best fits your family.
- Use an agency like Fair Agency. Make sure you’re using a reputable agency that doesn’t charge the helper. At least make sure they don’t charge the helper more than they charge you. There is a lot of shady business going on in the world of agencies, so make sure you do your homework in researching them. Asking on the Hong Kong Moms Facebook group is a great first step.
- Find a helper through a referral. This is like the holy grail of finding a helper. It’s not a guarantee of finding someone amazing, but it does increase your chances. My first helper Theresa, who we still love and talk to, was a sort of referral. Someone else had interviewed her and wanted to hire her, but the timing didn’t line up so she recommended her to others. And I was lucky enough to scoop her up.
- Search the classifieds. This takes a long time and isn’t the most productive method, but it does sometimes yield results. That’s actually how my last helper kinda got poached from us lol. Her new employer found her profile and contacted her directly. I didn’t have much luck. Most never got back to me and another blew me off.
- Post your own add. Beware, this will get you all sorts of people wanting to apply. Even if they don’t fit what you specified your needs were. But it will give you lots of choices in a short amount of time. There are free facebook groups designed just for employers to post their needs, as well as some paid options. We ended up posting in the classified of Geo-expat, but there is also Asia-expat and Helper’s Choice. With Helper’s Choice, you can create a profile for free, but you need to pay in order to contact the profiles you’re interested in.
What to look for in a foreign domestic helper?
This is going to vary widely! Every family, situation, and personalities are different. Even how fast you need someone or your budget is going to affect what nationality you look for.
What we looked for:
So while I can’t answer for you specifically on what is best for your family, I can tell you what was important to ours.
Terminated or Finished Contract?
While Hong Kong itself doesn’t have many restrictions, the home countries of the domestic helpers do. It can get confusing so be sure to enlist a reputable agent for the latest information. But in general, if you need someone without using an agent and quickly, you want a helper who is from the Philippines and is here in Hong Kong. They need to be a finished contract or terminated due to finances (very rare that this is actually documented), death, or relocation. However, if you have the time and the money, don’t be scared to hire a terminated contract if you hit it off with them.
There is a horrible stigma against those who are terminated contracts, and some of it is warranted, but often it’s a bad mix of expectations and personalities. Or they can no longer afford their helper, but to admit to the government they’re terminating for financial reasons means they can’t hire another helper for a long period of time, limiting their future options. So if you have the option, at least interview a couple.
We needed someone who could read, write and speak English relatively well. It’s still their second, third, or fourth language so I don’t expect fluency. But enough that we can all communicate well. And after our first helper, we were also keen on hiring someone that spoke Basaya to continue speaking it with our son. Some Cantonese was helpful for where we live, but not vital.
Interest in children and pets.
We wanted someone who loved young children and dogs. Some helpers are great with the elderly, but not so much rambunctious kids. Some love cats, but hate dogs… you get the point.
Love of the outside and energetic.
She needed to be active outside because Boogie loves to spend hours a day outdoors.
The culture surrounding kids in Asia is VERY different from what I grew up with in the USA. To the point that when people stare or try to correct my son touching dirt, I just say “It’s ok, I’m an American.” and it seems to clear up all confusion.
As an educator and a life long learner, I know that independent play, falling down, getting dirty, and testing physical boundaries are all a part of their development. An extremely important and vital part of development. Unfortunately, that is not the widely held believe here and helpers would often get in trouble if the child got even a tiny scratch. To the point where one helper said she had to take the 6m old baby to the bathroom with her just to pee just in case.
So we specifically looked for someone who didn’t constantly try to hold him so he wouldn’t step in puddles, for someone who would engage him with nature and his surroundings, and for someone who wouldn’t always try and stop him from climbing or running. I knew that some could be fixed with confidence, but too much would hinder his development.
We needed her to be independent. I have enough on my plate to have to give her a schedule and tell her every little thing that needs to be done. Some people want that, but not me. I leave the schedule, the food, all of it up to her and just communicate any changes I want with her as needed.
We needed someone that liked living outside of the city as we live far away from the main attractions.
It was important that I find someone that was gentle and respectful of my son. Someone who didn’t yell or hit, but also doesn’t just give in because he’s crying… We’re still working on that last bit lol.
We actively searched for someone who had outside interests. Everyone wants an employee who loves their job, but they also need to refill their own emotional cups!
And most importantly…
We wanted someone with a growth mindset. It didn’t matter to me if they had ever cooked western or keto food as long as they had some skills in the kitchen and were willing to try and practice. It didn’t matter if they had ever washed cloth diapers, as long as they were willing to learn. A growth mindset and a willingness to learn are the most vital of traits in a helper.
Items that weren’t of much importance to us, but sometimes are to other people:
How old someone is doesn’t tell me much about them. I was babysitting on my own by the time I was 12 so age is really just a number. Some like to get new and young helpers so you can “mold” them into what you want, others like to get older helpers because of their experience. For us, it was more about their attitude and willingness to learn.
Some people are concerned that if a woman is married she might get pregnant and leave. Others are concerned that if she’s single she’ll be promiscuous or again leave them to get married… I find it to be discrimination either way, so I only asked to get to know them and where they were coming from better. Plus in the Philippines they can’t get divorced, so they could be technically married, but not in a relationship anymore anyway.
Some people are really funny about this. Both for and against. Some people believe that being a parent means you’re a better caretaker of other people’s children. And I guess that could be up for debate. Truth be told we’ve had both, one with and one without, and the care and love they’ve provided my son with hasn’t been more or less because of it.
Years of experience.
This could be important because more experience usually means more wisdom. It can also come with more arrogance sometimes too. And I don’t just mean only with helpers… but in all professions. So while we wanted at least 2 years in Hong Kong, that was more for visa and timing purposes. I would have hired someone with 20 years if they had been a good fit or someone new to Hong Kong if we’d had the time. Some experience is needed, but I’m not going to dictate the value of someone off of that number.
Many expats prefer to find a helper that is already used to working with other expats. Either because then they already know how to cook certain dishes, or because of the cultural expectations of children, or many other reasons. To us, if they had a growth mindset and were eager to learn, this was way more important. Just be aware if this is important to you, you should expect to pay well above minimum wage.
I thought this was going to be non-negotiable. But the truth is the people that apply for our location typically are coming from local families and are really nervous to tell their bosses they’re signing with another family. I can understand that. It was difficult for me at my last school too. I do strongly advise you to ask for them, but in the end, we have trusted our gut twice and have not been disappointed.
While technically you can’t discriminate based on religion or nationality, it does happen. Some things I’ve often heard are “Indonesian women (mostly Muslim) are not as sassy and follow directions better.” or “I have dogs and Muslims consider them to be dirty so I don’t want to put them in that position.” And many other comments both for and against different cultures. I wish I could say I was joking, but racism is pretty prevalent here. That’s a whole other discussion though.
CPR/ First Aid Training.
So every helper before coming to Hong Kong has to take a basic first aid course… But after going through the hiring process twice now I can assure it’s a miserable excuse for a course. So while it would be amazing to find someone with the additional certification for real, it’s not a requirement. We instead just teach our helper what we want her to do in case of emergencies or injuries.
A few more questions you can ask in order to find the perfect fit:
- When do you need someone by?
- Where will their room be?
- How much can you afford?
- Do they smoke?
- What about their personality? Do you want someone outgoing and assertive or someone who will look to you for every problem?
- Do you want to share your food or give the allowance?
- Will you give paid holidays every year or just per the contract?
- How many helpers will you have and will they have to share a room? Is she ok with that? Or are you looking for a married couple?
- Should they know some Cantonese or another language?
- What kinds of activities do they like to do with kids?
- If they have a degree and what they studied.
- If they weren’t a helper, what would they choose to be?
- What they like to do on their day off- Not because we are discriminating, but because it shows us if they have outside interests, friends, and if our location would be right for them.
- In their job as a helper, what’s the most enjoyable part?
- What they dislike about being a helper. These two questions help you to see if A- they can be honest, and B- if your priorities match up.