Foreign domestic workers last year contributed US$12.6 billion to Hong Kong’s economy, partly by freeing up more women to join the workforce, a new study has found. The city gets more economic benefit from imported labor than either Singapore or Malaysia.

The report, The Value of Care: Key Contributions of Migrant Domestic Workers to Economic Growth and Family Wellbeing in Asia, calculated that the economic benefit from foreign workers amounted to 3.6% of Hong Kong’s gross domestic product in 2018, compared with 2.4% of GDP in Singapore and 0.3% in Malaysia. Singapore derived $8.2 billion from these workers and Malaysia $900 million.

Compiled by Hong Kong-based charity Enrich and global information services company Experian, the study estimated there were currently more than 21 million domestic workers in Asia and Pacific. It assessed their economic worth by looking at the cost of domestic work if paid at local rates, the value of their own personal spending and the value of freed-up time.

Freed-up value includes the benefits from having two incomes once women in households are able to rejoin the workforce.

In Hong Kong, only 49% of women with children in the prime working ages of 25-54 would be able to work if they did not employ a domestic worker. When they are able to do so, their labour force participation increases to 78%.

By enabling more women to join the labour force, migrant domestic workers indirectly add $2.6 billion to Hong Kong’s economy, $2.6 billion to Singapore’s economy and $230 million to Malaysia’s economy. The Hong Kong government has forecast that as many as 600,000 domestic workers will be needed by 2047, partly because of an ageing population and a shortage of local care workers.

Lucinda Pike, executive director of Enrich, said that “domestic work is, in many ways, invisible and undervalued work that disproportionately falls on women, often migrants”.

But despite their important contribution, the research also showed a significant lack of access to economic services for migrants. For example, only 18% had bank accounts, either because they lacked funds or financial knowledge and awareness, or because of strict bank regulations.

The report also noted an alarmingly high level of debt among migrants in Hong Kong, with 83% reporting they had liabilities.

Migrant workers find it easier elsewhere, with 51% in Singapore and 86% in Malaysia using bank accounts. Debt levels were also lower, at 34% and 65% or workers, respectively.