Domestic workers complained of being treated like 'slaves' yesterday as they protested against a ban on living outside their employers' homes, and demanded that rules protecting their rights are enforced properly.
A group of about 40 women from the Philippines, Indonesia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand, along with half a dozen male workers and about 20 supporters chanted 'we are workers, we are not slaves' as they gathered outside Immigration Tower in Wan Chai.
The issue of workers' living conditions shot to prominence after a magazine published a picture purporting to show a helper's bed perched on top of a toilet in a tiny bathroom at the home of singer Purple Lee.
'When the government made live-in arrangements mandatory, they forced workers to put up with whatever conditions their employers offered them,' said Eni Lestari, a domestic worker and spokeswoman for the Asian Migrants Co-ordinating Body, which organised the protest.
Moving out of an employer's home is banned under a rule introduced in 2003 and designed to stop domestic workers taking on illegal work in the evenings. Last week, 25 domestic workers were arrested in Pok Fu Lam because they were not living with their employers.
'It is time to stop pretending that just because a worker does not speak out, that she doesn't mind,' said Doris Lee, 43, an employer of a domestic worker who took part in the protest. 'Toilets, the top of laundry machines and cupboards are not suitable places to sleep.'
Workers who took the day off to protest shared stories of mistreatment and poor living conditions.
Niki, a 25-year-old Indonesian woman, said she was forced to sleep outside next to her employers' bins. She showed scars on her wrists from where she had been bitten by dogs and said she was allowed only one meal a day.
Rainatul Jannah, 22, fled from her employers because she said she was beaten. 'I was sleeping on a couch in the living room,' said Rainatul, who lives in a women's shelter in Kowloon. 'My employer kept beating me, so I ran away.'
She lives with other migrants who can neither work legally nor leave Hong Kong because they are waiting for the completion of legal investigations into their cases of physical abuse, sexual assault, underpayment and illegal sacking.
Legal proceedings can take up to two years and half the women end up dropping their cases because they are unable to afford staying in the city, said Cynthia Abdon-Tellez, manager of the Mission for Migrant Workers.
A study by the mission last year found that 67 per cent of the 2,023 domestic workers surveyed did not have their own rooms and were forced to share with children or elderly family members. Others slept on the floor of the living room, kitchen, laundry or storage areas. Some were sent outdoors or on the balcony.
Some were forced to share rooms with men or older boys, increasing the risk of physical or sexual abuse.
The standard contract for domestic workers states that 'the employer should provide the helper with suitable accommodation and with reasonable privacy'.
But while the maximum penalty for misleading an immigration officer about a worker's living conditions is a HK$150,000 fine and a 14-year prison sentence, the Labour Department does not have a monitoring system in place.
That puts the impetus on employees to bring complaints but many fear losing their jobs. Under the Basic Law, those who quit must return home within two weeks and seek another job through an agency if they wish to return to the city, an expensive process for women typically paid HK$4,000 a month or less.
Joseph Law, co-ordinator of the Hong Kong Employers of Domestic Helpers Association, said he supported the ban on foreign domestic workers living outside the home because it discouraged moonlighting.
A spokesman for the Immigration Department said: 'Foreign domestic helpers who consider that they are abused or exploited by their employers, including not being provided with suitable accommodation, may lodge their complaint to the Immigration Department and/or the Labour Department.'
But for Lestari and the abused women, it is not enough.
'They see no point in reporting to the police. We don't know if our next employer will be better or worse, since there are no standards to protect us,' Lestari said. 'The justice in Hong Kong is injustice.'