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City Weekend

‘Little progress since Erwiana’: activists slam lack of government action over poor sleeping conditions for domestic workers

Study by Mission for Migrant Workers suggests three in 10 helpers forced to sleep in store rooms, kitchens and even toilets

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 June, 2017, 8:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 June, 2017, 5:42pm

Thousands of Hong Kong’s foreign domestic workers continue to sleep in appalling conditions leaving them vulnerable to abuse, according to activists, who lament that the government continues to turn a “blind eye” to the problem.

In early 2014, the torture of Indonesian domestic worker Erwiana Sulistyaningsih by her employer Law Wan-tung was exposed. The helper was constantly beaten and lived in appalling conditions, including being forced to sleep on the floor.

More than three years on, the latest study by concern group Mission for Migrant Workers suggests that up to three in every 10 of Hong Kong’s 330,000 foreign domestic workers are made to sleep in storerooms, balconies, kitchens and even toilets, while the rest are offered only shared bedrooms, often with their employers’ children.

Watch: What is it like to sleep like some of the foreign domestic workers

This week, a Post reporter spent a night in a similarly cramped spaced in an attempt to understand and highlight the poor living conditions domestic helpers face after a hard day’s work.

Holly Allan, director of campaign group HELP for Domestic Workers said such an experiment could help more Hongkongers understand the plight of these workers.

“I think it is a very useful thing to do,” she said. “Everyone should do it – everyone should put themselves in the shoes of these foreign domestic workers. There has not been much progress in terms of accommodation since the Erwiana case.”

Everyone should do it – everyone should put themselves in the shoes of these foreign domestic workers.
Holly Allan, director of HELP for Domestic Workers

Allan added that Hong Kong’s live-in rule for foreign domestic workers was resulting in many of them being forced to endure inhumane living conditions and leaving them more vulnerable to abuse.

She said the trend towards increasingly small flats meant families were facing more and more challenging living conditions, but this did not excuse forcing foreign domestic workers to live in tiny spaces.

Allan repeated calls for the government to abolish the law and give workers the freedom to choose where they lived, even if some did eventually decide that their employer’s home was more comfortable than renting privately.

“[This situation] cannot be improved if the live-in law is still in place,” she said.

“A lot of them complain they are tired because they cannot sleep well in these places. I hear of them sleeping in bathtubs, next to toilets and on the kitchen floor.

“This situation manifests itself later when the employer might complain the worker has forgotten something or made a mistake. It is not safe, particularly if they are looking after children.”

Study finds Hong Kong domestic helpers subjected to employment terms abuse by more than 70 per cent of agencies

Hong Kong Polytechnic University head and professor Hans Ladegaard, who has written extensively about the plight of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, expressed support for the Post’s experiment, saying it would help others relate to the hardships workers face.

“This is so far away from the life most of us would live. If we are expatriate professionals in Hong Kong, particularly, then often accommodation is being provided for us, and without that, we might not be able to afford to live here in the present housing situation.”

Ladegaard said that his research supports the findings of NGOs, which suggest that thousands of domestic workers are not given their own room when they arrive in Hong Kong despite it being part of their contract.

He said these workers were afraid to complain about substandard accommodation because they desperately needed work to pay off their debts to their employment agency and to eventually send money home.

Ladegaard, who also supports abolishing the live-in rule, added that he was encouraged by the growing awareness of the suffering of foreign domestic workers since Erwiana’s 2014 court case, but remained concerned about the government’s failure to take action against abuse.

“The Labour Department do not necessarily think [the workers] are in a vulnerable position,” he said. “Or they know it’s happening, and they are turning a blind eye. I am not content with what we have achieved so far.”

Last year, the Global Slavery Index suggested that Hong Kong had one of the highest proportions of people enslaved across Asia, a large proportion of whom were foreign domestic workers.

According to the charitable organisation Walk Free Foundation, at least 29,500 people out of a population of more than seven million are trapped in modern slavery in one of the 10 richest cities in the world.

On Saturday, Hong Kong University will screen Gabriel McKail’s 2016 documentary Erwiana: Justice for All. The filmmaker said her case was still hugely relevant for understanding the problems faced by foreign domestic workers.

“It keeps happening; this is not just a one-off thing,” he said. “I hear about similar situations all the time. It makes me sad that many of the cases are not reported to police, and when they are, it goes nowhere.”

McKail said he believed Erwiana, who revealed during her trial that she was allowed to sleep only about three hours per day between the hours of 10am and 1pm, thought sleeping on her employer’s floor was “a normal thing” because she was used to sleeping on mats in her village house in Indonesia.

He agreed that her employer, who was eventually jailed in 2015 for six years for the abuse, had exploited the helper’s low expectations in regards to accommodation, which marked the beginning of a cycle of violence.

“Her employer knew that sleeping on the floor was not acceptable,” he said. “In Hong Kong, most of us do not sleep on the floor. There was a sense that this is a person who is worse off than me, so I will just put her on the floor.”

He added that the live-in rule was “unfair”. “We all have our lives, and we should be able to leave work at a certain time and enjoy ourselves,” he said.

New window-cleaning rules for domestic workers apply to all flats above ground floor, Hong Kong minister insists

More than 3,000 Filipino and Indonesian domestic foreign workers were surveyed for the Mission For Migrant Workers study last year.

Norman Uy Carnay, programme officer at the mission and lead researcher for the report, subsequently called on the government to ban the worst accommodation conditions for workers, as he claims the current contract is too vague.

But the Labour Department has not yet indicated any plans to make contractual amendments. In January this year, it finally introduced a ban on window cleaning at high-rise apartments for workers, which prohibits them from cleaning external windows above the ground floor unless the window is fitted with a secure grille.

The department did not respond to requests for comment.