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Food Allowance vs. Free Food for Domestic Helpers: How to Decide?

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What is it about?

By law, employers of foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong are responsible for their workers’ welfare and must guarantee their well-being at all times during their employment i.e. they must ensure that they eat and sleep well and enough, and have access to adequate medical care when necessary. Those are key aspects if they are to perform well especially as they tend to work long hours.

As such, domestic workers in Hong Kong are entitled to either getting a food allowance or free food, instead, from their employers. The amount of the food allowance foreign domestic workers receive from their employers, along with their salary, is legally set at a minimum level – currently at not less than $1,121 per month for contracts signed on or after 28 September 2019 – and is updated on a regular basis.

Whether your helper should receive a food allowance or free food in lieu is yours and your helper’s choice. Whatever alternative you opt for should be convenient for both of you and agreed upon before the employment period starts. Ideally, the subject matter not only should be mentioned in the job description so applicants know what they are in for, but it also should be brought up and discussed at the interview stage. You might also want to bring up any ground rules right from the start to avoid any tension that may arise at a later point.

Opting for a food allowance

Domestic helpers are entitled to receiving a food allowance to cover their food-related costs. The amount you give should enable them to meet their dietary needs. Thus, it excludes non-food items such as detergent, soap, toiletries etc.

Why you should opt for this

Providing your domestic helper with a food allowance probably is the best alternative if your helper has different food choices. Their dietary habit may based on their religion, culture, or even due to diet-related issues e.g. some Indonesian helpers do not eat pork, some Sri Lankan helpers are fully vegetarian, and domestic helpers with diabetes must control their sugar intake, etc. By providing her with a food allowance, your helper will be able to buy whatever food she prefers and meets her needs and habits.

What to keep in mind before settling on this alternative

Make sure that your helper has enough clarity as to the exact date and amount she will be getting e.g. weekly, fortnightly, monthly, at the same time or independently of her salary etc. Ideally, mention it in the Standard Employment Contract to avoid any potential disputes later.

Keep tabs on how much and when the allowance is paid, by issuing receipts – for greater clarity, it is advised to issue one for her salary and one for her food allowance – and have your helper sign a slip to acknowledge that she was given the allowance in full and in due time. Receipts can be useful should you ever be subjected to investigation by officials from the Immigration Department or the Labour Department, and can guarantee your protection should you prematurely terminate your helper. For greater transparency and traceability, you might want to encourage your helper to open a bank account if she hasn’t already done so.

The amount of the food allowance set by the government is a minimum. Employers are free to raise the amount of the allowance if they deem it necessary for their domestic helper to meet their dietary needs and enjoy a healthy and balanced diet. In many cases, given the high living costs in Hong Kong, it is hardly possible for domestic helpers to afford healthy and balanced eating on a minimum food allowance budget – that is averaging on about $12.5 per meal.

Employers should not ask their domestic helpers for receipts and track how they spend their allowance. Domestic helpers are free to spend their food allowance as they please. It is understandable that their well-being might be a cause for concern to employers – in such cases, employers should rather encourage them to prepare balanced and healthier meals to eat well and put the emphasis on teaching them the benefits of good nutrition instead of monitoring their expenses. You might also want to dedicate a corner in the pantry and/or a separate shelf in your fridge for your domestic helper to store her items.

Should you come to notice that in spite of your agreement regarding the amount of the food allowance, your helper is helping herself to your food, do not overreact or get angry. Instead, try to understand first whether she is having a hard time making both ends meet on her allowance.

Providing your helper with free food

Why you should opt for this

This alternative surely is the most convenient if your domestic worker is the one who prepares most of the meals in your household and doesn’t mind eating the same as you do. Eating the same as the rest of the family will avoid having to prepare 2 sets of different meals. It also greatly simplifies logistics. Sticking with one grocery list and limiting to having a single or few errands to the market save travel costs, time and energy for grocery shopping.

What to keep in mind before settling on this alternative

Be clear on certain key information that your domestic helper-to-be should possess if she is to make an informed decision before signing a Standard Employment Contract with you:

  • Let her know what happens when you are not home and the arrangement on her rest days. Will she be allowed to cook only for herself? If not, will she be getting an allowance to spend on her meals?
  • Is she allowed to help herself to any item in the pantry and/or fridge or are certain items off-limits to her? Should that be the case, let her know which ones are so there is no confusion or disputes over this – if necessary, make a detailed list.

Should you decide to provide your domestic worker with free food, ensure that it is actually nutritious and that you supply her with enough food to meet her needs and dietary requirements. While there is nothing wrong with eating leftovers, your helper should be entitled to eating whatever your family eats e.g. leftovers when everybody is having leftovers and freshly prepared meals when everyone is having them.

If – at times – the food you provide your helper does not suit her, or should she fancies something else, you might want to have her add the items she wants to the grocery list or allow her to get whatever she needs while shopping at your expenses as long as it is within reason. 

If none of those options satisfies you and your domestic helper entirely, you can try to find a middle ground and agree with her that you would be supplying her with the basics –such as coffee, tea, rice, oil, water, etc. – along with an allowance so she can procure her main staples and other food items – those that you may not commonly consume. In such a case, work out together and agree on an amount that seems fair to you both.

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