Helpers are treated like slaves, UN told

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 August, 2006, 12:00am

Modern-day slavery is rife in Hong Kong where foreign domestic helpers are held in 'debt bondage' by employers and recruitment agencies in severe violation of their human rights, a report to be released today at a UN hearing says.

A coalition of 11 domestic helpers' groups will release a report at the hearing under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) in New York.

An official Hong Kong government report will be presented by a 10-member delegation, led by the Permanent Secretary for Health and Welfare Sandra Lee Suk-yee.

However, a 'shadow report' by the workers' coalition will point to research by the University of Hong Kong's Centre for Comparative and Public Law indicating 'systematic practices of forced labour and debt bondage'.

Peggy Lee Woon-yee, the co-author of the research for HKU, said: 'The government has not actually prevented forced labour and debt bondage because these are going on all the time. They have failed to do any effective action to curb it.'

Her research with Carole Petersen was based on in-depth interviews with 22 foreign helpers and four resource persons. The coalition's report will be represented in the New York hearing by Cynthia Tellez, director of the Mission for Filipino Migrant Workers. It urged the Hong Kong government to enact legislation against forced labour and all forms of slavery and to amend laws to define and prohibit debt bondage.

'Given the special vulnerability of [foreign domestic helpers], it should be a criminal offence for an employer to pay any portion of the worker's salary to a third party,' their shadow report said.

The Asian Migrants Co-ordinating Body said Indonesians had been 'compelled to pay placement fees ranging from HK$6,000 to HK$21,000 ... employment agencies often disguise them as loans and then instruct employers to divert most of the monthly salary to a finance company or agent.'

As the Indonesians were already being paid below the mandatory minimum wage of $3,400 a month, some were left 'with little or no salary for three to seven months'.

Migrant workers said the government Cedaw report devoted just 11 lines to the 227,700 foreign domestic workers.

The government said in its report: 'Imported workers and FDHs enjoy the same rights and protection as their local counterparts under the labour legislation.'