Powerless minority afraid to speak out against exploitation
A short time after I arrived in Hong Kong, I had the chance to hear a group of expatriate women talking about the appalling treatment of Indonesian maids living and working in the SAR.
I asked who was guilty of this mistreatment and they said that most Indonesian helpers were employed by local Chinese.
I was curious and asked my helper who is Indonesian if these comments were true. She described how her Indonesian friends are treated. Many have to endure poor living conditions, sometimes because their employers do not want to 'waste' living space on them. They work long hours without even being allowed a short break at midday. They are not paid for their rest day and are refused statutory public holidays.
The isolation they suffer because of their lack of English or Cantonese and the minimal opportunities they are given to leave the workplace and socialise with other Indonesians, sometimes makes their suffering unbearable. Some have attempted suicide, while others have either found an expatriate employer or simply decided to return home.
Unscrupulous recruitment agencies take a large slice of the maids' hard-earned wages and do little to help when job-related problems arise. According to helpers I spoke to, a common response from the agent is, 'If you make trouble I will send you back to your village straight away.' The agencies believe it is more important to keep the client happy than help the domestics with their painful experiences.
Thanks to the media, the plight of the Indonesian domestic helpers is now in the open. It has also made me appreciate the paradoxes within Hong Kong society.
I read about the proud history of the Chinese people and how much they have contributed to Hong Kong. I admire the way in which so many struggled to gain a good education in universities in England, North America and Australia, and how they had to put up with racial discrimination. Many of these people now occupy important positions in Hong Kong. So why do some of these same educated people exploit their Indonesian helpers? Are they exacting some sort of revenge for the treatment meted out to them when they were abroad?
I urge the Commissioner for Labour to make a serious effort to improve the working conditions of this powerless minority of helpers.