• Thu
  • Nov 20, 2014
  • Updated: 1:34am
Erwiana Sulistyaningsih
CommentInsight & Opinion

Hong Kong's misguided laws failing to halt abuse of foreign domestic helpers

Meredith McBride calls for changes to better safeguard their rights

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 January, 2014, 11:18am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 January, 2014, 10:37am

Stomach-churning images of 23-year-old Erwiana Sulistyaningsih surfaced on social media this week, once again shaming Hong Kong for condoning physical violence against migrant domestic workers. Erwiana was allegedly beaten, burned and tortured to such an extent that she was left in a critical condition.

What will it take for the Hong Kong government to finally act on such horrendous abuse? Clearly, the current system is not working. Only a few months ago, Kartika Puspitasari revealed in court how her employers forced her to wear a diaper and tied her to a chair for days while they left on vacation.

If employers are able to abuse their helpers for months and years on end without ramifications, the laws and policies that allow for this abuse must be changed.

Because of discriminatory legislation, migrant workers have limited options and rights. After leaving an employer for any reason, a domestic helper has 14 days to find alternative employment. To overstay this two-week provision is illegal. However, employment visas take four to six weeks to process. A one-day visa extension costs HK$160. So most have to leave Hong Kong then return once an employment visa has been processed.

Even if abuse has been established, justice is evasive. Cases within the labour tribunal take a minimum of two months to process; abuse cases often take years. This makes it virtually impossible for an abused worker to pursue action against her employer or agency.

A 2012 Mission for Migrant Workers study found that 18 per cent of domestic helpers suffered physical abuse at the hands of their employers. Currently, some 290,000 domestic migrant workers reside in Hong Kong. If this statistic rings true, it is possible that 52,000 women are currently being mistreated by their employers.

The "live-in" rule undermines workers' privacy, personal space and rest time. Videos on YouTube show how helpers live in closets, on floors or in bathrooms. Employment agents are often unsympathetic. Non-governmental organisations are flooded with cases of women seeking refuge, to such an extent that they cannot house all those who need help. Had Erwiana been living on her own, or with other helpers, it is likely that she, or someone she knew, would have reported the alleged abuse. Instead, it is claimed, she was tortured for eight months without any word from others.

The burden of responsibility falls on the government. Under Article 3 of the Bill of Rights, it has an obligation to protect workers within its borders from torture and other inhumane treatment. Hong Kong also has international obligations as it is party to the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Hong Kong has made so many strides - virtually ending police corruption, investing in health and encouraging foreign investment - so why have migrant workers fallen by the wayside? These workers have made an incalculable contribution to Hong Kong's economy by allowing households to have two working parents. The Philippines first allowed workers to come to Hong Kong in the late 1970s, coinciding with the city's economic boom.

Requiring workers of any sort to live with their employers is nothing short of slavery. Add misguided laws that try to prevent "job-hopping" and you have a situation that not only tolerates the exploitation of migrant workers, but actively ensures that this gross mistreatment will continue.

Meredith McBride advocates on behalf of the hkhelperscampaign.com

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This article is now closed to comments

mymak
I hardly think that your xenophobia is an effective riposte to the writer. Your type of argument is indicative of ill educated racists promoting stereotypical views of one race or another. You, for instance, seem to hold to the view that only people of Chinese ethnicity can be Hong Kongers and that only people of Chinese ethnicity can express their views and concerns about issues of public concern. Isn't there a more suitable publication for you to subscribe to? One with more pictures! Unfortunately the SCMP, being an English language publication, is likely to have many non-Chinese writers. Save your money. Go away!
If there is truly a problem with abuse of maids in Hong Kong, then we should be trying to deal with it and not go off on some racist chip-on-the-shoulder rant.
Dai Muff
Having seen the pictures of the abuse, these people are psychos. They should be locked up for the sake of the rest of us.
yscj
There are good and bad people in Hong Kong as in any other city or country. It's always the bad among us that give us a whole as bad name.
chaz_hen
ASIA'S WORLD CITY!!
IneedFreedom
Poor lady. Hope she will get well soon.:( Her employers are so horrible and disgusting. She is a person, a helper, not a slave. Most of the Hongkongers are actually slaves of the minority rich and Chinese communist. Long working hours, expensive basic needs, ethic cleansing,... but they should not release their pressure towards domestic workers. They should release their pressure towards the minority rich and Chinese communist directly. Hongkongers should fight for better working life, do the housework themselves and stop employing domestic workers.
tommygibbs.san
My wife is from Indonesia and had told me about many cases of abuse; so have her friends. For example, being kicked to wake up by the grandma at 4am to start work. My wife sometimes went to bed at 1am after cleaning up after the teenage son watching TV late at night. Having to sleep in the same bad as 14 year old boys, because they were scared. There are many more examples. So many domestic helpers have been abused. Maybe 10% are not true, but the other 90% of stories are.
The governments will not change the laws. The agents get richer and do not care. Let the helpers live out of the employers house and change jobs. Create a department for abuse claims. Every domestic helper on arrival at the airport should get a leaflet with contact numbers and email addresses. The leaflet should offer advice on what their rights are.
China sort it out, monks burning themselves alive in Tibet because of torture. Falun Gong (dafa) being beaten because they meditate. Domestic helpers being abused by mostly Chinese families. (Western employers are sometimes bad as well) Baby powder that kills children. Wake up- the government and the way too many Chinese people treat people is a disgrace. (If it is not my family or very close friends I do not care) I am sorry for speaking such strong words, but for too long we have watched human rights abuses against Chinese and non Chinese. Keep hiding and keeping quiet if u want. As you can see, I will not.
No country is perfect, but China and HK
Diomedea
Dear Tommy, the first half of your comment is both relevant and helpful to the debate. Your second half is a string of unconnected and probably irrelevant thoughts that reveal something about your own world view, but not much else. It is as if you had added a list of complaints about police abuses and other societal problems in the UK, USA, Canada and Australia to an article about domestic abuse in NZ. You could make comments about each of those issues under relevant articles. For now you just muddy the water.
jacobsfleung
Hong Kong employers may be the worst in the world.
tommygibbs.san
They are among the worst.
edbca
Some rather extreme comments. I would only suggest that guilt must be proven in court before the specific instance cited can be commented upon. On the matter of abuse generally and the undesirability of maids having to live in is hard to dispute.

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