• Thu
  • Oct 23, 2014
  • Updated: 5:23pm
NewsHong Kong

Survey reveals extent of abuse of foreign maids in Hong Kong

But aid group believes figures are tip of iceberg with many victims too scared to lodge complaints

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 August, 2013, 9:43am

The first time "Maria" was raped, she didn't tell anybody. "The first thing that came to my mind was that I didn't want to lose my job."

The 25-year old domestic worker from the Philippines was just a month into her job with a family in Kowloon City when the first attack happened. A second attack forced her to flee.

"I left at midnight, without anything. I just had a small bag. I was still in my pyjamas," she recalled.

Maria's ordeal - which ended recently when her case collapsed due to the deterioration of evidence because she was too late going to a doctor - is at the extreme end of what new figures reveal is the widespread abuse facing the city's tens of thousands of domestic workers.

Data gathered by the Mission for Migrant Workers, which surveyed more than 3,000 women last year, found 58 per cent had faced verbal abuse, 18 per cent physical abuse and 6 per cent sexual abuse. Experts believe the figures represent only the tip of the iceberg as many victims are too scared or ill-informed to lodge complaints.

"The number of unreported cases is obviously unknown," said Cynthia Dacanay, a case worker at the mission, adding: "Some consider abuse a normal thing for maids to experience.''

After a night wandering the streets, Maria's friends took her to the mission in the grounds of St John's Cathedral in Central, which has been providing resources and legal aid for domestic workers since 1981. "I was empowered when I came here. I became stronger," she said.

Dacanay said the Philippine consulate advised Maria to return to the Philippines and not pursue legal action, a charge the consulate vehemently denies.

Hong Kong's often-criticised employment laws for domestic helpers compounded Maria's situation. When a contract ends, a foreign worker has only 14 days to find a new employer, which many say is not enough time. If unsuccessful, a worker must return home or face prosecution.

Maria was granted several visa extensions as her case went through the legal system but she was forbidden by law from working and had to rely on charity. For more than a year she has been living at the Bethune House shelter in Jordan in a cramped dormitory with other women.

Sri, 40, from Indonesia, did not know her employer was supposed to provide medical treatment. "I just signed the contract without reading it because I don't know English," she said.

She said that when she became ill with a throat ailment, her employer of six years tried to trick her into going back to Indonesia. Sri now also lives at Bethune.

For many women, violations are a way of life. Reports of no food or food allowance, delayed pay, working on holidays and not being provided reasonable privacy are common. As with Maria, job security is the main reason most choose to remain silent.

Another source of exploitation can be the agencies that place most foreign workers, with many charging exorbitant commissions despite the law.

In the Philippines, many agencies also insist on a steep upfront fee as a condition for placement in Hong Kong, even though this violates Philippine law.

Despite losing her legal battle, Maria recently filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunities Commission, which she hopes will launch a further investigation, but she is also looking to move on. "I plan to look for another employer," she said. "I have to work for my kids."


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This article is now closed to comments

With due respect
I would deem proportionality and contextual relevance
necessary to avoid being
"intellectually weak and childish"
Let’s come down from high moral ground
and work on simple legal basics
that simplify crime as mind and act
As you dwelled on superficial acts, such as
mismatching Hitler and Mao in an absolutist argument
you missed the real lessons
that could help us make this a better world
“In between those extremes,
there will be abuses like improper …”
Apart from abuses, there’re …
or are there?
Yes we shouldn’t compare with the worse
What about some positive examples
here or elsewhere to follow
or positive goals to work for?
In the absence of positive examples
or the impracticability of realistic goals
should we abolish the scheme?

In a more economically advanced society, middle class hardly is in financial position to hire domestic helpers. Hong Kong middle class nevertheless must do so. A two-income with a child family has no option. The mortgage payment makes everyone to keep a pay job. The irony is it still doesn’t qualify most of the middle class to have domestic helpers properly. Domestic helpers are paid little and long working hours and poor accommodation conditions just can’t justify the little pay even though claiming the contrary by employers. A shoebox or two-shoebox size flat is really shouldn’t have a third grownup who is unrelated. God bless all those domestic helpers in Hong Kong who are in fact are the true pillar that holding up the property and banking economy which all will collapse without them. With less than equitable treatment of domestic helpers, middle class struggles and survives.
Domestic helper policy is why people actually need maids. If the government offered after school child care where parents could pick up their children at 6 pm and thus not need a maid then you would see the number of maids be cut by 80%. This would bring Hong Kong in line with other developed countries like US / Canada / UK. But if the government did this the domestic helpers would all go crazzy because they would loose their jobs.
Everyone should just face the fact. Domestic helpers love living in Hong Kong because they earn good salaries, build great friendships and 99% of them have a great life.
I am not saying a small minority are not mistreated. Just like in every country and every company there will be some bad apples. But generally Hong Kong treats them like family. (Anyway they are treated better here than in Philippines or Indonesia - which is why they all come here - land of opportunity and laws).
Please mention working conditions in the Middle East for helpers from Philippines or Thailand. How many helpers gets rape every year in the Middle East?
Dai Muff
Dream on IRDHK. Too many middle class HK people are just too d**n lazy to do their own cleaning and cooking. It already kills them to give the helpers Sunday off.
According to my wife (who used to be a helper) and her friends, the Westerners are the worst when it comes to Sunday off and holidays. She had had her ex-employers who are French complaining "why thee are so many holidays in Hong Kong". She also had an Australian famuily who disappeared on a Saturday and comes back on Sunday night leaving the children behind with her so she could not even take her Sundays off. By the way those are here on expatriate terms and living in decent size apartments over in Repulse Bay.
Hong Kong treats them like family? Are you saying this with a straight face?
Yes there are bad employers who abuse helpers, and unfortunately there always will be. However, I think it is true that on the whole, helpers have it pretty good here. Statutory holidays, a day off per week, medical coverage, annual leave etc. Talk to anyone knowledgeable in this area and they will tell you that HK and Taiwan are generally the most preferred places for maids to work. Also ask yourself this: how many employees in HK don't need to serve a probationary period and are thus entitled to a full months' salary compensation as soon as they start work? Yep, you guessed it! And as for things like privacy concerns and lack of living space, how many people in HK live in 2,000 sq ft apartments? So when even employers and their families don't have enough space, how can we expect their maid to? To ask otherwise is just being unrealistic.
People who don't have enough space for their own families shouldn't be allowed to hire a maid in the first place.
"People who don't have enough space for their own families shouldn't be allowed to hire a maid in the first place."
Well that maybe easy for you to say, but don't forget that many so called middle-class families rely on dual incomes which is only possible if they have cheap domestic help. Obviously it's not an ideal arrangement, but many of these families have no other choice. On balance, the more well off people (that live in comparably larger homes) probably have less of a need to hire helpers in the first place. I'd agree with you 100% if we were living in an ideal world.




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