Maids get raw deal in labour tribunal
Domestic helpers who have been abused or ill-treated by their employers are also being cheated by Hong Kong's justice system.
Lawyers and advocates say the Labour Tribunal favours employers and needs a complete overhaul.
A Sunday Morning Post investigation found that helpers were often denied the chance to speak in court, were supplied with substandard translation services and were forced to rely on charity while they waited years to have their cases heard.
'Everything is stacked against them,' said human rights lawyer Michael Vidler, who has been advising foreign domestic helpers on a pro bono basis for the past 10 years.
'They are expected to be able to pursue cases in a country whose legal system they aren't familiar with, they have no access to publically funded legal advice, and they are expected to conduct their own cross-examination of employers, some of whom have abused them physically or mentally,' he said.
While they wait for legal proceedings to end, helpers are not allowed to work in Hong Kong. This discouraged helpers from reporting crimes committed against them by their employers, said Eni Lestari, a domestic worker and spokeswoman for the Asian Migrants Co-ordinating Body.
Increasingly, employers are lodging false allegations of theft against their helpers to pre-empt complaints against them or to avoid having to pay their salaries.
As a result, legal proceedings can take up to two years and a third of helpers drop their cases because they can't afford to live in Hong Kong without a job, according to Christian Action, a charity that has provided free counselling to 10,462 helpers over the past three years.
Christian Action has advised on 2,477 cases where helpers have tried to recover wages from employers, but only 549 of them have been settled in the past three years.
Helpers have also complained of interpreters who provide incorrect translations or offer unsolicited legal advice, such as advising them to drop their cases. The Labour Tribunal interpreters are all volunteers who provide part-time services.
At the end of last year the Law Society of Hong Kong launched an investigation into the quality, accuracy and training needs of interpreters in the court system, with a special emphasis on tribunals, which Vidler says need better quality workers as there are no lawyers in the court. The investigation team is to make recommendations to the government.
A Labour Tribunal representative said that when the accuracy of any translation made during a hearing was disputed, it could be drawn to the attention of the presiding officer hearing the case. Alternatively, if a hearing is over an application could be made to the tribunal for a transcript or an audio record of proceedings for the necessary checks.
Vidler also said that as no lawyers were present in tribunals, the amount of irrelevant information and testimony added to the workload of the presiding officers prolonged cases and increased the chances that justice would not be served.
But according to the tribunal representative, the tribunal is intended to be an informal forum for resolving employment disputes. 'Hearings are characterised by informality in the procedure and flexibility in the handling of evidence,' he said.
The proportion of back-pay cases settled in the past three years - 549 out of 2,477 - which Christian Action has advised on