HelperChoice: Changing lives through ethical business

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Business and ethics don’t always go hand in hand. But HelperChoice proves that a company can achieve great success based on a desire for social good.

I met with Julie Delignon, Managing Director of the company, to learn about their work and the social impact they have. And, of course, to welcome them to their new office at theDesk in Sai Ying Pun.

theDesk Sai Wan
HelperChoice prove that business and ethics can go hand in hand

Social impact

Julie arrived in Hong Kong from France in July 2017. What brought her here was the chance to experience the city and its vibrant culture.

But more than that, it was a desire to lead a local company that is having a significant impact on the lives of domestic workers and employers.

Breaking the mould

HelperChoice is an online platform, created in 2012. Through the platform, foreign domestic workers can connect with employers, no matter whether the helper is in Hong Kong or their home country.

Whether we like it or not, helpers may suffer bad experiences in Hong Kong. You have probably seen stories in the press highlighting the darker underbelly of the industry. HelperChoice set out to change this.

As an ethical business, they wanted to cut out the middleman and create a place where people can just talk to each and find the perfect match.

Read more: Recent Hong Kong survey shows family and work commitments continue to hold women back

The catalyst for change

The company was founded in Hong Kong by an investment banker, Laurence Fauchon and her husband. Expecting their first child, Laurence wondered who could help take care of her newborn. With her own family back in France, she did what many Hong Kong families do and turned to a domestic worker agency.

Laurence found it challenging to meet the right person. She thought the issue was that the agency had not done an excellent job of matching her with the right person.

She was dismayed to find the women lined up in the corridors. Like many of us, Laurence was unaware of the way that many companies operate and saddened by the unfair and, often, painful treatment domestic workers received.

Paying to work

After eventually finding a person she could trust and rely on, Laurence learned that her educated and hard-working helper had paid huge placement fees. Typically, the helper pays around 10% of the first month’s salary. But the sad reality is that many are forced to pay up to 13 times that amount. In effect, the helper is paying to get her job.

Often loans carry high interest rates, up to 40%. With no other option, the domestic worker needs to pay off her loan. It may cost her a month’s salary. In some cases, it can take a whole year of work to pay back the money.of work to pay back the money.

“Laurence was shocked,” says Julie. “It’s something that many people overlook or don’t know about. At the same time, it lowers the cost for the employer because she’s covering her work costs.”

Read more: The new normal: theDesk’s quick guide to the who, how, when and why of co-working

Opening a new market

HelperChoice hit the target by offering ethical treatment of foreign domestic workers. They soon realised that many employers, particularly expat families, are unaware of the situation.

“We are proud because after only five years we have more than 130,000 people registered on the platform,” Julie tells me. And their more than 450,000 Facebook followers show the service has struck a nerve with helpers and employers.

The perfect match

One of the main advantages of HelperChoice is that through their website, helpers can talk to prospective employers.

Usually, an agency directly matches people with domestic staff. “They will propose several options and then conduct a short interview. The employer has to make up their mind. I think many people find this process unneccesarily complicated.”

“If the helper is genuinely happy to work with you, she’s going to give a lot more and enjoy the opportunity.”

With HelperChoice, the two parties can meet online, discuss the job requirements and share other information before they meet.

“In a sense, it gives the helper some right to choose who she wants to work with,” Julie explains. “It’s a win-win situation.”

“If she can choose a suitable employer, it’s more likely to work out for everyone. After all, she may work for a family for years. Up to 10 years or more, sometimes.”

Read more: Women at work: US data suggests workplace equality has hit a roadblock

Reaching out

HelperChoice provides its services online. “Most people find us through Facebook. Twitter and Instagram are also active channels,” Julie tells me.

“We hold events from time to time so people can join and discover our company. Recently, we held a contest so Helpers could win coupons. We partner with groups and organisations. For example, many people like hiking or running.”

“These types of events are great for promoting our business, but also to meet with helpers and find out how they feel,” Julie explains.

After arriving in Hong Kong, Julie arranged open meetups called “Share your experience’. Dozens of helpers met at a beach to talk and share experiences, what to do and not to do.

“What attracted us was the spirit at theDesk,” she immediately replied. “We wanted a co-working space that shares our philosophy. A place to form connections, and build our network with other companies and individuals.”

Passion and purpose

Julie arriving in Hong Kong from Paris, Julie was similar to many expats. She didn’t know a great deal about the way domestic workers are employed or treated. “This type of business doesn’t really exist the same way in France.” she explains.

What led her to take on a leading role in this established company? “I had worked for five years in a strategy consulting company. I was lucky because the company set up a foundation. They developed a programme to help NGOs and social enterprises to grow.”

“I participated in a project for six months. After that, I found a new client and helped him to develop a business model for funding startups. That was the trigger for me.”

Thanks to that experience, Julie realised she could have a positive social impact. “I wanted to go abroad to discover a new culture. I wasn’t interested in doing the normal things. I just wanted to live my life.”

“I’m doing this job because I think we have the power to turn things around.”

Julie reflects on how privileged she has been. “Many people work hard to earn a low wage, I was lucky to be able to have a good education and earn a good wage. I wanted to give back,” she says.

She found an online platform which posted jobs with a strong focus on social and environmental issues. “I saw this job in Hong Kong. And I thought ‘This can’t be a coincidence’. I had always wanted to come to the city and I wanted to do this kind of work. So, I applied and only three weeks later I was offered the job.”

Changing mindsets

The company wants to change people’s minds about helpers. “We don’t want people to see the women as second-class citizens. Through business, we can provide top class employment services, promote meaningful events, and help the women develop through teaching and learning. It’s valuable, but we need to change the mind of society.”

“These are women who often come from developing countries. They left their homes and families to earn a better wage. Many are highly educated, with university degrees. Sometimes, more educated than their employers.”

“The women have to support their own families. They want to start a business. They don’t want to work only to  pay off a loan shark.”

Opening a new space

When it launched, HelperChoice was unique. Since then, others have entered the market. Julie tells me, “We have competitors but their business models and services are different.”

HelperChoice stands out not only through their commitment to ethical employment but also through the broad range of services they provide.

Some companies are not so honest about their intentions. In particular, Julie is concerned by apps and sites offering employment and working visas for countries like Canada and the USA.

She tells me that some companies even attract employers to their websites by creating fake profiles of helpers. “I’m truly bothered by this. It’s not fair.”

“You can’t let people dream of going abroad and then make them pay ten months salary for the opportunity. You can’t play on people’s hopes and dreams. I’m quite upset because this is not the spirit.”

360 service and support

HelperChoice is primarily a company that aims to find a perfect helper for employers. Families and individuals can filter helper’s profiles and get in touch with them.

On the flip side, helpers can browse hundreds of job adverts and search for a family with the best match their needs and expectations.

“When they meet, we process the paperwork for them. We work with ethical agencies who charge a low amount of money for essential services.”

Under Hong Kong law, there are different amounts to pay depending on the worker’s country of origin and according to the status of the contract.

“There are different administration tasks. It depends on whether she is already in Hong Kong or her own country, or if she has terminated her contract by herself.”

The company works hard to improve fees. “Most employers choose the lowest cost. We understand this but we can be competitive and still be ethical,” Julie smiles.

Since September HelperChoice have entered into a partnership with major insurance company, AXA.The partnership enables the company to offer substantial discounts to helpers.

“This is something we wanted to do because it’s often the case that employers don’t know they need to take out insurance. They may choose one that is simply too expensive for a helper to pay.”

In addition to recruitment, matching and administration, HelperChoice stands out by offering professional training. “In Hong Kong, there are lots of courses available for domestic workers. But the women have to spend time searching.”

So, the platform curates some of the best training events, for example, cooking classes and first aid. “It’s interesting for people. It makes things easier that everything is in one place.”

The road ahead

For now, Hong Kong remains the primary focus of operations for HelperChoice. But, as an online service provider, the website is available everywhere.

“Actually, we are in 20 countries. Hong Kong is our biggest market. Right now, we’re reviewing our platform so we can offer a wider range of services.”

The company plans to roll out some new features on its platform. Also on the cards is extending their range of professional services to other countries.

“Until now, we’ve grown organically. In the future, we will widen our focus to establish our business model in other places.”

“At theDesk, you can connect. I love the space. You don’t find that in some other co-working spaces I visited. In many, you get your desk with some seats, But at theDesk, you get so much more.”

Elderly care

Julie and her team are aware that in the longer term care for the elderly is likely to become a more significant focus for employers and helpers. “With an ageing population, we need to ensure the women are well-prepared and confident to meet the challenges.”

“Currently, the women work mostly with kids. But this is a different kind of care. There are specific needs and issues, such as dementia and mobility, which may be difficult to manage. We aim to offer training to helpers upfront. The goal now is to think more about the future and how we can upskill people during their careers.”

“We have to keep in mind that domestic workers are people first. They are not only domestic servants who live in our homes. They have the right to grow and face the future.”

Moving to theDesk

I asked Julie why she had chosen theDesk, after visiting many workspaces across the city.

“What attracted us was the spirit at theDesk,” she immediately replied. “We wanted a co-working space that shares our philosophy. A place to form connections, and build our network with other companies and individuals.”

HelperChoice has worked in an office centre for some years. One thing many companies find is that these centres are not designed to promote interaction and a sense of community among members. Did Julie have this experience?

“It’s nice but it’s not as lively,” Julie laughs. “At theDesk, you can connect. I love the space. You don’t find that in some other co-working spaces I visited. In many, you get your desk with some seats, But at theDesk, you get so much more.”

“Another feature that attracted us is that not all co-working spaces are as bright as theDesk. I don’t want to be in the dark all day!”

Value for money is one of the key factors people consider when finding a suitable co-working space. “Some places offer you private rooms or an office. But when you work out the price, it’s just crazy,” Julie smiles. “OK, the coffee is free but it’s not worth such a high price.”

For theDesk, we’re very proud that HelperChoice selected us for their new office. With our broad local connections and a commitment to building inclusive communities, we’re delighted to know that innovative, ethical and successful businesses such as HelperChoice, share our vision.

Building inclusive communities at theDesk

Discover us in Causeway Bay and Sai Ying Pun. Let’s make it happen. Together.

Contact today. Discover how our inclusive community, flexible plans and pricing can help start and grow your business.

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