Westerners were drawn in droves to banking jobs in Singapore and Hong Kong in the wake of the financial crisis and despite recent efforts to employ more locals in the two cities many of them have chosen to stay on.
What’s keeping them from going home now that job markets in Western financial centres like London and New York are picking up? Expats we spoke with in Singapore and Hong Kong cite a variety of different professional (they’ve developed strong Asian networks, for example) and personal (exotic holidays, great food) motivations.
But one reason really stood out: their working lives have be made immeasurably easier by the wide availability and affordability of live-in maids. Commonly called ‘helpers’ and typically hailing from Indonesia and the Philippines, they number about 330,000 in Hong Kong alone, and earn about US$350 a month in Singapore and at least US$540 in Hong Kong. Despite additional costs such as insurance and agency fees, most expats – in particular those with young children – say they quickly overcame their initial scepticism about employing a helper and now can’t live without her (helpers are almost invariably women).
“While the prospect of having a helper doesn’t attract finance professionals to Hong Kong in the first place, they are delighted with having one once they’re here,” says Henry Chamberlain, a Hong Kong management consultant and former head of selection at Standard Chartered. “There are many stories of couples staying much longer than anticipated because of their helper.”
A Hong Kong finance professional, who asked not to be named, added: “Before I moved here I didn’t think home help would be a deal breaker in taking a new international assignment, but now I’d think twice about moving without one, especially while our daughter is small.”
Expats at banks in Singapore and Hong Kong tend to be in stressful senior management jobs that demand long hours – and helpers make this kind of existence more bearable. “Since I get home from work late most nights, having a cooked meal on the table allows us time to relax together as a family,” says the finance professional.
Having a domestic worker to man the fort at home – or even travel with the family – also helps expats better fulfil regional roles. The Hong Kong financier says that since he’s employed a helper his wife and children now accompany him during his regular stints abroad. “As a family it allows us to travel a lot while knowing the cat’s still being fed and the house is still being looked after.”
Singapore and Hong Kong expats say they started to perform better in their jobs after taking on a helper. “My very good helper makes me healthier, happier and more productive at work. That’s because my stress is reduced due to her assistance in my day-to-day living,” says another Hong Kong banking professional.
After experiencing the joys of home help for a while Westerners in Asia start to make unflattering comparisons with the work-life balance on offer in their home countries. “In the UK you plan an evening out months in advance – arrange a babysitter, pay for super expensive taxis and make sure you’re back on time,” says Kyle Blockley, managing partner of recruitment firm KS Consulting in Singapore. “Once you have a helper you suddenly have time to enjoy life again and spend more time with your kids without worrying about cleaning the house.”
Having a helper is a particular boon for working mothers, says Emma Boyd, a former director at EY and board member of the Financial Women's Association Singapore, now MD of data company Bright Tiger in Singapore. “I knew a couple of senior bankers who would have their helper bring their baby to work so they could breast feed and collect pumped milk,” she adds. “It also means there’s no anxiety over collecting children from school or over multiple bath and bed times. Plus play-dates can be arranged without need of a parent and you can take impromptu evenings out with co-workers without a second thought.”
Helper-employer relations are not always straight forward, however. A minority of domestic workers suffer from horrific verbal and even physical abuse – as graphically highlighted earlier this year when a Hong Kong court jailed a local women for six years for assaulting her maid.
Away from these extreme cases there are still challenges. “Help is great, but it’s useful if you have management skills,” says Boyd. “Helpers will need management and direction so those who haven’t managed people before should read up on this before employing a helper.”