Hong Kong's laws are supposed to protect maids against abuse. Consulate-generals are required to help their nationals in times of need. Domestic helper employment agencies should offer an extra layer of support. How, then, could Indonesian Erwiana Sulistyaningsih have been so badly abused, allegedly by her employer? The answer is simple enough: the system failed the 23-year-old woman, who remains in an Indonesian hospital with horrific injuries.
That her employer faces seven charges involving Erwiana and two other maids and police are investigating shows we are alert to the need to uphold laws and sensitive to international scrutiny. The employer's guilt or innocence is a matter for the court to decide; however, the case raises broader issues.
Two matters long raised by migrant workers' groups are government requirements that maids live in their employers' homes and that they have just 14 days to find a new job should they be sacked. The former leads to a lack of privacy and the possibility of abuse, while the latter makes it difficult for a maid to fight a case should she allege mistreatment. Authorities should explore options and ways for improvement. But there also has to be better oversight of employment agencies.
New maids coming to Hong Kong from Indonesia have to pay their home agencies HK$15,550 in government-stipulated fees. That is frequently paid with borrowed money, an amount approaching four months' salary - assuming they get paid the full amount, which is not always the case. Agencies in Hong Kong are not supposed to charge more than one-tenth of the HK$4,010 monthly salary in fees under government rules, yet the amount is more often between HK$5,000 and HK$20,000. More loans, at annual interest rates as high as 60 per cent, are often needed. The amounts involved are so daunting that some domestic helpers are willing to endure abuse without complaint.
While Indonesian officials should better protect their citizens' interests and rights, those in Hong Kong can also make improvements. When it comes to agencies, they can more proactively enforce rules on fees and charges and check records and documents. Perhaps penalties are too low and should be reviewed. Maids also should be better educated about their rights. The vast majority of employers treat their maids well, but boundaries and obligations have to be clearly set through strong protections and enforcement.