Shocking extent of maid abuse in Hong Kong laid bare
Marginalised by Hong Kong society and its laws, domestic helpers are left vulnerable to horrific abuse, writes Simon Parry, and a newly compiled body of research suggests the problem is far more extensive than has been previously reported
After the interrogation, the police officer led his suspect into a room. He drew the blinds and closed the door. Then, using his fists and a coat hanger, he delivered a beating that left her with dark bruises on her arms and back. When the attack was over, the officer walked calmly out of the room, leaving the 34-year-old mother-of-three sobbing, reeling in shock and pain, and shared the details of the vicious punishment he had meted out with his fellow interrogator.
It sounds like a scene from a 1970s Hong Kong cop movie.
But the real-life scene, according to the victim’s testimony, was a Hong Kong police officer’s home, the fellow interrogator was his wife, and the suspect he assaulted was the couple’s domestic helper.
Her crime, the latest of many misdemeanours allegedly punished by brutal attacks by the officer and his wife, was leaving a window open at their home when the air-conditioning was on.
Distraught at her latest painful humiliation, the helper fled and filed a criminal complaint against the policeman and then sought refuge in one of the city’s charity-run shelters for abused domestic helpers.
Her testimony, supported by pictures of her injuries and evidence of past beatings, seemed compelling. But a few days after filing her complaint, the helper suddenly announced to her friends and supporters that she was dropping the case and returning to the Philippines. The reason she gave was even more startling than the assault itself.
“Her female employer turned up at the shelter and threatened her and said, ‘If you pursue this, my husband will make sure you spend the rest of your life in jail,’” says Professor Hans Ladegaard, who investigated the case. “She said, ‘I am dropping the case.’ She just said, ‘It’s because of my kids – I can’t do it. What happens if what she says is true? I just have to get out of here.’ She disappeared. She left Hong Kong the next day.”
The 2010 case is one of 300 concerning domestic-helper abuse documented by Ladegaard, head of English at Baptist University, over a four-year period in which he interviewed victims at Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge, where 1,000 helpers a year seek shelter.
Ladegaard volunteered at the refuge, advising helpers in disputes with employers, and while doing so decided to make a research project of the abuse he was being told about. Bethune House is one of nine shelters for domestic helpers in Hong Kong.
The disturbing testimony he collected between 2008 and 2012 has been released in a series of articles that have appeared in academic journals and is being compiled into a book.
Its publication will further fuel the debate on Hong Kong’s treatment of its foreign domestic helpers following the case of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, 23, who claims to have endured months of abuse at the hands of her employer. The reaction of officials to Erwiana’s claims – which made headlines worldwide as images emerged of her injuries as she lay in a hospital bed back home in Indonesia – demonstrated that Hong Kong is in denial about the scale of abuse, Ladegaard believes.
“What really upset me is when you have someone like the chief of police, Andy Tsang [Wai-hung], saying abuse of domestic helpers in Hong Kong is rare and suggesting it is really nothing to be concerned about. That is rubbish,” Ladegaard says.
At the height of the furore, Tsang told reporters abuse cases were “very rare” and that in recent years there had been only 30 to 40 cases a year of wounding and serious assault between employers and foreign domestic helpers.
However, says Ladegaard, “What the chief of police should know is that only a fraction of abuse cases get reported. Most cases don’t go anywhere. The cases that are reported to police are just the tip of the iceberg.
“I have interviewed maids who have had burning irons put on their arms, where I could see burns and where I could see photos of maids being beaten up, but in most cases they are caught between a rock and a hard place. If you file a complaint against an abusive employer, it means you cannot work for at best six to eight months, and at worst a year and a half, if the employer appeals the case, which has happened. So who is going to support their families during that time? Who is going to provide for their kids? “The Hong Kong government allows them to stay in Hong Kong if they have a pending court case but they don’t provide anything for them, so they can’t work. It is only because we have church shelters that they can get food and shelter. Otherwise they would have nowhere to go.
“Most of these women are so traumatised they just want out,” says Ladegaard. “They can’t take it any more. I’ve spoken to maids who have been beaten every day for six, eight or 10 months, or abused in other ways.
When they come to the shelter they are usually so traumatised all they can think about is getting on a plane.
“I am not saying this is how the majority of maids are treated, but what I am saying is it is way too many.”
Ladegaard’s research is the most comprehensive yet into patterns of abuse affecting some of the 300,000 mostly Filipino and Indonesian domestic helpers in Hong Kong. It includes testimony such as that of 38- year-old Filipino Melanie, who was made to kneel in front of her female employer and eat rice off the floor. Melanie, who had worked in Singapore and Taiwan before coming to Hong Kong, said she was beaten by her employer, who taunted her and told her to kill herself.
“I was tortured but I never gave up because I was always thinking how to give money to my sons,” she said.
In another case, a 27-year-old helper from Indonesia was made to stand in the kitchen for two nights without sleep.
“I was told to stay in the standing position and in the morning, my madam hit me, cut my hair and poured bleach on me,” she said.
Even though few cases ever make it to court, the weight of potential evidence against abusive employers in Hong Kong has grown in recent years, with maids able to photograph their wounds and make audio recordings of the attacks using their mobile phones.
Violence is only one of the forms of abuse meted out to unfortunate helpers. Ladegaard’s research found patterns of abuse in which helpers were depersonalised and dehumanised in the employers’ eyes by being denied the right to talk to other helpers, deprived of food, made to stand when they ate and made to work 16 hours a day or more.
“Physical assault is horrible but the constant day-by-day humiliation can be worse – the fact that you are deprived of conversation with other people. They are always under surveillance. They don’t get enough to eat,” he says. “Isolated, lonely individuals are easier to control.”
In most cases, the attackers are female Chinese employers but, Ladegaard stresses, this is only because the overwhelming majority of helpers in Hong Kong work for Chinese families.
“Abusive employers come from all ethnic groups,” he says. “I have come across abusive employers who are Australian, South African, British, American, Pakistani, Indian – even Filipina. There are cases where a Filipino helper comes to Hong Kong, marries a Hong Kong Chinese man and she becomes an abusive employer. So it’s not about ethnicity.
“The typical abusive employer is a woman who doesn’t work outside the home and there is an issue that the status she used to enjoy in relation to the children, in relation to her husband perhaps, in relation to being in charge of the household, she has lost that now because the work is being done by the maid and maybe the kids relate to the maid more than they relate to the mother.
“It is noticeable that, in many cases, the maids will say, ‘I think she is unhappy.’ “It’s not about race,” Ladegaard argues, “it is about the fact that you can abuse another human being and most likely no one will find out about it. Power corrupts, especially when there are no consequences.
Class is part of it as well. The employers feel very much they are a member of a superior class that entitles them to exploit or take advantage of a maid who is poor. A way of demeaning a helper would also be to refer to them as poor and dirty.”
Neither do abusive employers come from one class in society, says the professor.
“Abusive employers come from all walks of life. In my material there are abusive employers who are CEOs, police officers, lawyers, even university professors,” he says. “It’s a universal problem. It’s not just a problem in Hong Kong. We have colleagues [other academics] researching the issue in Taiwan and Singapore and the Middle East and other places, and they have found exactly the same problems.
“Give people complete power over another human being and they will exploit it.”
The testimony collected by Ladegaard is supported by an as yet unpublished survey of 700 domestic helpers in Hong Kong by media studies students at the University of Hong Kong, which found a majority had been verbally or physically treated by past or current employers in a way that made them fear for their safety.
Associate professor Kevin Sites, who has led the Domestic Worker Project (www.domesticworkerproject.com) at HKU’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, says his students’ findings suggest officials need to do more to protect helpers.
“The Hong Kong government attitude is that domestic helpers’ problems are primarily the responsibility of their own country, not Hong Kong’s, although it might happen on Hong Kong soil,” says Sites. “When you look at the current laws – the forced [live-in] residency, the two-week notice [giving helpers just 14 days in the city to find a new employer after finishing with an old one], the minimum wage lower than that of the average worker and the denial of permanent residency for this class of worker only – it does seem, in some ways, that discrimination has been codified within Hong Kong against them, and that is a sad state of affairs.”
The slow initial uptake of Erwiana’s case was “typical of the police response towards these kind of [alleged] crimes”, says Sites. “I don’t know if it is cultural bias, but for people on the lower rungs of society, justice is a much harder battle,” he says. “I am glad this case has been exposed and hopefully some reform will come of it. The very least that needs to be done is for these [cases] to be better recorded by Hong Kong police.”
In response to the criticism levelled at the force, a police spokesman says, “In 2011, 2012 and 2013, the number of reported wounding and serious assault cases involving foreign domestic helpers as victims and their employers as suspects were 56, 40 and 37, respectively.
“As for Erwiana’s case, police received a report of suspected ill-treatment against Erwiana by a staff member of the agency on January 12. As Erwiana had already departed Hong Kong, police were not able to obtain comprehensive information from her at that time.
“When facts of the case were established, Erwiana’s employer was arrested on January 20” – 10 days after the domestic helper had departed Hong Kong.
Possible solutions to the issue of helper abuse, Ladegaard believes, include abolishing the rule requiring maids to live in with their employers, to address the problem of isolation. The lifting of the two-week rule would also help, giving abused helpers a better chance of finding another job in Hong Kong and bringing a legal case against their abuser.
Recruitment agencies, which often charge exorbitant fees for finding work for maids, should also be made to take a role in protecting their welfare and should even be made to pay home visits to ensure their clients are not being abused by employers, he suggests.
“Maids get no help and no support from the agencies,” he says. “The agencies rip them off for between HK$15,000 and HK$21,000 in placement fees, but when they approach them for help, I have not had one single case of the maid who got any support from the agency – not one. They have begged for help and nothing happened.”
“There are, of course, exceptions but they are very rare,” says Holly Carlos Allan, manager of the counselling/guidance service Helpers for Domestic Helpers. “Some of the biggest agencies in Hong Kong are the most notorious.”
When it comes to consular oversight, though, both the Indonesian and Philippine authorities claim to be aware of the issues where agencies are concerned. Sam Aryadi, vice-consul for public affairs at the Indonesian consulate in Hong Kong, says there is an annual evaluation and accreditation mechanism to gain and renew licences and there are currently 236 agencies accredited by his government.
The Philippine Overseas Labour Office (Polo) has the authority to “sanction registered employment agencies through suspension or revocation of registration should they be found culpable in abuse cases”, says acting consulate head Rosanna Villamor Voogel. “Likewise, Polo can also blacklist employers found guilty of abuse to ensure that they will no longer be able to procure the services of a Filipino worker in the future.”
Allan says: “The [Indonesian] mechanism is good and, in theory, it should work, but it’s a question of whether it is being used properly. It would be interesting to know how many of the accredited agencies have been dropped from the list after complaints have been made against them.”
Of the Polo powers, Allan points to the words “found culpable”. “This suggests that only agencies that have been convicted would have their accreditation revoked. This rarely happens as it is a long, complicated process and it is the Hong Kong government that is responsible for investigating and prosecuting them.”
Besides, she says, it is the Labour Department Employment Agencies Administration (EAA) that regulates the agencies in Hong Kong “and has the power to revoke their licences. An agency can continue to operate even without accreditation from the relevant consulates as long as it is licensed by the EAA” (see sidebar).
A cap on maximum working hours would help domestic workers in the city, too, Ladegaard suggests. He found that the average working day for 100 maids he interviewed at Bethune House was 16 hours, which, at the legal minimum rate for domestic helpers, worked out at a rate of HK$7 an hour.
“That’s not against the law. The law is just not good enough,” he says.
“There is no maximum working-hours limit, so there is nothing in the law to say they can’t work 16 hours a day.”
Exposure of abuse and the arrest of suspected perpetrators will have a gradual effect, he believes.
“Every employer who is found guilty of abusing their maid, it makes a difference,” Ladegaard says. “It means people can’t deny that this happens and that is a common strategy for some people in Hong Kong.”
In most of the cases Ladegaard handled, however, the outcome was disappointing.
“You can’t blame the maid for deciding not to file a complaint against an abusive employer because, if it’s not certain she will win, it’s very risky. Their main concern will always be, ‘Who will look after my children while I do this?’ It is better to move on and … hope and pray they get a good employer.
“In some cases we have done everything we can to persuade them to file a complaint but in nine out of 10 cases they decide not to.”
The Indonesian consulate says it has a complaint-handling service for migrant workers.
“Physical abuse cases are criminal cases where we have special procedures to follow up, which include reports to the police, thorough physical and medical examination in hospital and legal arrangement to be brought to criminal court,” says Aryadi. “We are very concerned about incidents [of serious abuse]. However, we fully respect the law and regulations imposed by the Hong Kong government. We have strong confidence that the government will bring to justice whoever is involved in these cases.”
But is that confidence justified?
The greatest single challenge, Ladegaard argues, is for Hong Kong people to face up to the issue.
“We are obliged to treat helpers with dignity and respect just like we treat everyone else with dignity and respect,” he says. “They don’t want miracles.
They want to be treated like human beings.
“When the chief of police says we only have a few cases and it isn’t a problem, it is a way to keep these problems at bay. It is a way to live with the inconvenient truth that there are people in this city who are being exploited and abused every day – and we aren’t doing anything about it.”
Red Door News Hong Kong