Domestic helpers take a rest in Hong Kong. Higher salaries are tempting them into illegal work on the mainland © Alamy

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Mainland Chinese demand for English-speaking nannies has spawned a black market of almost 200,000 Filipino domestic workers, many brought across from Hong Kong by unscrupulous agents tapping into a lucrative business.

Filipino “helpers” are prized overseas but visa restrictions mean most work in Hong Kong, Singapore or the Middle East where their salaries, while far more modest than those on offer in London or New York, contribute to the Philippines’ $25.8bn of annual remittances.

Now China’s new rich, having made waves buying luxury watches, holidays and art, are looking to upgrade their domestic staff from ayi, the local nannies and cleaners, to the educated Filipino helpers.

Apart from bestowing prestige for employing foreign maids at home, Filipinos often teach the children better English. However, unlike Hong Kong and Singapore, China bans the hiring of overseas nationals for private domestic service.

That has spawned a growing underground trade in big mainland cities. Almost 200,000 undocumented Filipinos are working as maids in China, according to latest estimates by the Philippine consulate-general in Hong Kong. More than 100 agencies are listed on the website of the China Filipino DH Association, which says it helps find Filipino helpers across the country.

Shanghai Boni Housekeeping, one agency on the list, boasts that “Filipino maids are the most professional nannies in the world”. A man answering its hotline offered to arrange a helper in two days for an agent fee of Rmb8,000 ($1,200). When asked about the legality of the service, he said his company had been doing this for three years without punishment.

When this conversation was flagged to a Shanghai Boni Housekeeping representative for comment, the company did not respond.

The growing number of undocumented Filipino workers in China has attracted the attention of the Philippine government. Last year the Overseas Employment Administration, a government body, warned that underground recruiters were luring helpers to work for mainland families using business or tourist visas, which do not give them the right to work and expose them to potential legal penalties.

200,000

Undocumented Filipinos are working as maids in China

During a visit to Hong Kong on Sunday, Silvestre Bello III, the Philippines’ new labour and employment secretary, said the situation was “alarming”. Mr Bello said he intended to talk to Beijing about “how to legitimise the state of our overseas workers”, possibly as soon as October.

Foreigners overstaying their Chinese visa and working illegally can be jailed for up to 15 days and fined up to Rmb20,000. Those who unlawfully employ foreigners can face penalties of up to Rmb100,000.

“I was so scared all the time,” said LJ, a 45-year-old Filipino helper who has been in China for 10 years and did not want to use her real name. Much of her time was spent hiding from the police until she found a rare opportunity to work for a foreign diplomat’s family, granting her legal working status.

LJ said that because of their undocumented status, Filipinos were unable to seek legal redress in cases where they faced physical abuse. Domestic helpers in Hong Kong and Singapore are official employees so have access to the legal system.

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Mainland demand

© Alamy

200,000 The number of undocumented Filipinos working as maids in China, according to the Philippine consulate-general in Hong Kong
US$1,050 Monthly wage of Filipinos working in Beijing households, according to one helper. That compares with $543 for overseas domestic helpers in Hong Kong
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Asia Pacific Mission of Migrants, a Hong Kong-based advocacy group, has been receiving inquiries from Filipino maids about mainland job opportunities since 2013 and advises them against moving because of safety concerns.

“The helpers want to go to somewhere with better prospects,” said Rey Asis, its programme co-ordinator. “They are looking for higher wages in China.”

LJ said overstaying Filipinos could earn about Rmb7,000 (US$1,050) a month working for Beijing households. That compares with a minimum salary of HK$4,210 (US$543) for overseas domestic helpers in Hong Kong and a minimum equivalent to US$400 for Filipino domestic workers in Singapore.

The website of China Filipino DH Association claims it has official ties with the Philippine Consulate General in Hong Kong. But the consulate told the Financial Times there is no link.

The association also features a blacklist of “runaway maids” on the website, where names, photos and passport scans of nearly a hundred maids are on display. The list is meant to warn employers off maids who steal or run away after the agent fee was paid. Agencies also instruct employers to confiscate the passports of their foreign helpers to prevent them from fleeing.

J Dela Torre, labour attaché at the Philippines consulate in Hong Kong, said the blacklist showed the company was involved in “illegal employment”.

When contacted for comments, the association admitted it had no connection with the consulate and said of the fake affiliation that “other agencies do that too”. It refused to comment on the attaché’s point about unlawful employment.

Mr Dela Torre said the problem was “very difficult to monitor”, noting some helpers went to China “ostensibly for vacation but actually work there for months”.

Wu Jian, a delegate to the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament, has been advocating opening up the Shanghai market for foreign housekeepers. He believes if the ban is lifted, demand could easily be bigger than in Hong Kong, where 340,000 overseas domestic workers are employed.

Mr Dela Torre said he was recently asked by the Philippine government to explore opportunities for Filipino workers in China, at a pivotal time for relations between the two nations following the installation of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte.

“I hope the relations of China with the Philippines would improve later on,” he said, “so it will allow us to make this possible.”

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