• Fri
  • Aug 29, 2014
  • Updated: 5:22pm
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

village2206
Cannot understand how this individual managed to by pass all the authorities here and airline staff in the alleged condition without a murmur. Even since, it seems no one has actually come forward to acknowledge seeing or commenting upon her appearance and condition as she departed.
kingsleyhk
Further my earlier post - limited to 1500 characters - here are two comments on the laws as currently not enforced in Hong Kong.
1. The helper is entitled to her own space - in the contract. Now anyone with half a brain knows that this is impossible in most HK apartments, unless the family is limited to two or possibly three people. Nonetheless, the Immigration Department happily issues permits to such families who clearly cannot fulfil this law's requirements.
Solution: the Government has a record of the size of almost all apartments in Hong Kong and who lives there. Any doubt about the apartment's suitability, and the potential employer should be questioned.
2. Under the Labour laws, all employees in Hong Kong - and it's specifically in the helper's contract - are entitled to a full 24 hour rest day. Here's an experiment: go to Central, Wanchai or Causeway Bay MTR station at around 7:15 on a Sunday evening. Watch the passengers rushing by - mostly domestic helpers on their way home.
Why are they rushing? Curfew! They have to be home by (usually) 8 or 9 or they're in trouble. Engage a couple in conversation it's not hard - and confirm my assertion. Then ask what time they finished work that morning. Most will have not been allowed out until 8am or 9 - after they set the family up for the day. So they actually get 12 hours maximum rest.
Everybody knows this - nobody does anything.
Yknot
You are so right. And when they get home they are going to do some more work for the family before they can go to bed themselves.
kingsleyhk
The facts are that the Hong Kong laws governing domestic helpers are flawed and/or not enforced. That has nothing to do with race - it's simply so. There is not enough space here to discuss how but reading other posts/articles will clarify what I mean. They basically give the helper no chance when up against her employer, her agency and the indifference of police and Immigration.
Anyone who has had anything to do with domestic helpers other than as an employer will know that cases like the current cause celebre have been going on for years and the police and immigration have just not been interested. I went some years ago to Immigration with a list of eight grievances that a helper had against her employer. Result? - one day extension of the 14 day rule, but no interest in exploring further.
Letters to the newspapers - if published - simply result in a chorus from the "if they don't like it, let them try Malaysia/Saudi Arabia" morons. And they're correct in that Hong Kong is better than some other countries. But that excuses treatment like this?
The current case seems to be drawing international attention. Maybe something will be done - but I doubt it, since the HK Government has wilfully ignored both the UN and Amnesty International when those organisations have drawn attention to slavery - yes that's what they call it - in Hong Kong.
llauren.dawn
i have been a maid in hongkong for four years and ive seen all of these abuse from the employers. . . . i myself have been working minimun of 18 hours a day ....6 days a week. . . or even still working half day on my day off. . . hongkong government should let the maids have a 8 hours a day work. . . not abuse and treat them like slaves and like they own us. . . its too much ! ! ! im glad i got a nice employers when i was there. . . not hk employers are mean. . . but i can say most are. . . . hope this abuse will lead to change . . . a better change to maids working in hongkong. . . .
General Zod
A "flying squad" of labour inspectors are badly needed in HK
The should be able to inspect premises at anytime 24hr/7days a week, heavy fines and permanent blacklisting of employers and labour hire companies who do the wrong thing. Anonymous tip off line where suspected bad behavior occurs.
But maybe HK has something like the above already in place, but the people tasked with this job are asleep at their desks? And people high up in the Government don't want to do anything which makes hiring their servants more costly do they?
Reading this story makes me think, this sort of ill treatment must have gone on in the Southern States before the American civil war.
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.
HK_eh!
do you talk to your maids, singapore and middle east are worse, HK is better than both.

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