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Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong

How Hong Kong failed its domestic helpers

The ‘live-in’ rule and lack of mental wellness services contribute to immense stress on these workers, argue support groups after five reported deaths this year

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 August, 2016, 5:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 August, 2016, 7:55am

Advocates of migrant workers’ welfare are urging the Hong Kong government to set up mental wellness services and job safety guidelines for domestic helpers following at least the fifth reported death of a domestic helper in the city this year.

Little improvement has been seen in the livelihood of over 300,000 women, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia, since the abuse case of Indonesian domestic helper Erwiana Sulistyaningsih came to light about two years ago, they said.

Less than two weeks ago, a 35-year-old Filipino domestic helper fell to her death in Tseung Kwan O, as she was reportedly cleaning the windows of her employer’s flat. This marked at least the fifth domestic worker death in the city from a work mishap or suicide since January, according to news reports.

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Cynthia Abdon-Tellez, general manager of the Mission for Migrant Workers, an organisation that provides resources for Asian migrants, said: “The Labour Department should have a clear policy on what is expected of a domestic worker. There should be guidelines on how to deal with domestic helpers and what their role is.”

“When a woman is required to clean windows from the outside without safety gear, accidents might happen. Maybe the employer is not even aware of the danger,” she noted of the recent case.

Holly Allan, director of Helpers for Domestic Helpers, a non-profit organisation that offers assistance to domestic helpers in Hong Kong, agreed that guidelines would be helpful. “Domestic helpers shouldn’t be required to do certain things… For instance, some are asked to help in the renovation of their employer’s flat.”

A spokesman for the Labour Department told the Post it has promoted “awareness of [domestic helpers’] occupational safety and health through publicity and education.”

These include publications raising awareness for household hazards and regular courses organised for domestic helpers by the Occupational Safety and Health Council, he said.

Imagine living in someone’s house 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It creates a claustrophobic feeling
Cynthia Abdon-Tellez, Mission for Migrant Workers

However, it’s hard to establish how serious the situation is, as the Labour Department, the Immigration Department and the police don’t keep track of the number of domestic helpers who die – and the causes of their deaths – in Hong Kong.

A spokesman for the Philippine Consulate General in Hong Kong said 49 of its citizens died in Hong Kong from January to August this year.

Despite the lack of specific official statistics on domestic helpers, several cases had made the news.

In January, three domestic helpers died – two killed themselves and a third woman apparently lost her balance and fell while she was working on a balcony. Her body was found on Argyle Street, in Kowloon.

Three months later, a 27-year-old Filipino domestic worker jumped to her death in the atrium of the Hong Kong airport.

On August 9, a 35-year-old Filipino domestic helper reportedly fell while cleaning a window of a home in Lohas Park, Tseung Kwan O.

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Apart from the lack of guidelines on the safety of domestic helpers, the city also failed in providing psychological support for this group of people, advocates noted.

Abdon-Tellez pointed out helpers in Hong Kong face high levels of stress. “Imagine living in someone’s house 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It creates a claustrophobic feeling,” she said.

“Unlike other workers, who can go home after work, helpers don’t have a place or people around them to vent their frustrations [or to confide in]. The use of a phone is limited sometimes or even prohibited,” Abdon-Tellez added.

Domestic helpers in Hong Kong are obliged to live with their employers. “It was previously said that the ‘live-in’ rule is a cornerstone of having a domestic worker … The government should review their policy so situations like these ones can be prevented,” she said.

Advocates and domestic workers have long called for the end of the ‘live-in’ practice in Hong Kong’s tiny flats.

Migrant workers need protecting, but keeping them home is not the solution

A public debate on the living conditions of domestic helpers was sparked some two years ago, when Erwiana Sulistyaningsih’s case was heard in court and covered by the press.

In January 2014, she accused her local employer of subjecting her to several months of physical abuse. Images of her injuries shocked the public and her employer was eventually sentenced to six years in prison.

Despite the outrage, there had been little improvements since then, according to Abdon-Tellez.

She said domestic helpers who suffered abuse, or the families of those who had died, had to go through lengthy bureaucratic procedures for compensation.

She claimed she was aware of at least six cases, including Erwiana, in which victims or their families have waited for some two to three years.

“In terms of quality, not much has changed. But in terms of attitude, I think that more people have come forward,” Abdon-Tellez said.

Lawmaker Emily Lau Wai-hing was last year among a group of individuals and organisations who proposed a “multi-lateral forum” to discuss matters related to domestic helpers. But their suggestion was rejected by the Hong Kong government.

“I don’t have the full picture, because we have so many of them here … All I know is that some of the helpers do not know their rights and some of the employers complain. So I think the system needs to be improved,” she said.