Domestic workers in Hong Kong get short end of the stick

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 July, 2013, 2:43pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 4:13am

Canada affirmed its commitment to ending human trafficking at the weekend as British Columbia saw its first conviction for the crime. Although the full details of the trial have yet to be disclosed, what has been released is a common tale here in Hong Kong.

To recap, domestic worker Leticia Sarmiento, 40, moved to Canada with Franco Orr Yiu-kwan and Nicole Huen Oi-ling in 2008, having had a previous good working relationship with them in Hong Kong. But things turned sour upon their arrival. Sarmiento’s movements were restricted, and she worked 16 hours daily, with barely a day off in 21 months. Her passport had also been taken away from her, and her visa had already expired after six months. She was finally able to reach out to police in June 2010, and the Canadian court charged her employers with human trafficking.

While the charge is debatable (some observers suggest “forced labour” is a more appropriate label for the case), this by no means is an issue that should be ignored.

In Hong Kong, scores of foreign domestic workers tell similar stories. Some experience worse conditions: physical and sexual abuse, and verbal intimidation, among others. Most common are reports of being locked up in homes and not being able to leave, passport and documents taken away, and debt bondage.

But behind these masses is a woman, each with her own story. Most leave their homes in search of a better future for their families, parting with their mothers, fathers, siblings, children. In one word, sacrifice.

In cases of abuse, the women are exploited because they are vulnerable in their sacrifice. Unwilling to lose their income or – at the extreme – their lives, they will do anything to keep their jobs, including being silent.

In my interviews with many of these workers in Hong Kong, I am told they are condemned because “they should have known better”, “they should have known to run for help” or “they should have known that what was done to them was illegal”. Or, worse yet, some are pressed with criminal charges and watch as their abusers walk scot-free.

And yes, perhaps they should have. They should have learned all the rules before entering the game. But what if they hadn’t even known the existence of the game in the first place?

But this begs the question: shouldn’t the perpetrators be held responsible for the ills done to victims?

Why are we re-victimising victims in Hong Kong?

Each person deserves respect, to be treated well, no matter their occupation, race or skin colour.

The responsibility for ending injustice should not be placed on the victim, but rather on those who know that what has been done to them is injustice.

This chapter of Letiticia Sarmiento’s life ends well, in large part because there are people who are willing to speak out against injustice, and work towards changing societal perceptions and laws. It’s time Hong Kong spoke out.

Hong Kong remains in Tier 2 in the United States Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report this year. Last year, there were only four recorded cases of human trafficking in Hong Kong, none of which were labour trafficking.