Lia ran away from home more than a decade ago, fleeing three elder half-brothers whose physical and emotional abuse had made a misery of her life in Surabaya, Indonesia.

So when she found an employment agency in Jakarta that specialised in recruiting women for jobs abroad, she had little to lose. “I was in a broken family. That’s why I left. I wasn’t scared of anything because of the trauma I faced at home,” Lia recalled.

Lia’s troubled circumstances – and bravery – were far from unique among the many women who arrived at the agency seeking work as domestic helpers. But there was a detail that made her stick out: she was only 14.

That was a minor hurdle for the agency, which stood to gain much from Lia and the chain of fees for health checks, application fees, training and flights abroad that would leave her in debt long after she arrived in Macau to be a maid. The fix was simple: it forged Lia’s date of birth to make her four years older. Even then, “18-year-old” Lia was not old enough to work abroad as a domestic helper – Indonesian law requires nationals to be at least 21 for this form of work – but she was old enough for a tourist visa that her agency used instead. Keeping cool at Macau customs with a fake passport wasn’t as hard as it might sound. “I was a big kid,” said Lia.

Campaigners say that every year there are hundreds of girls like Lia trafficked into child labour as domestic helpers in Hong Kong, Singapore and other Asian markets by predatory agencies that forge dates of birth on passports. Lia herself says she “knows more than 200 [maids] who are underage in Hong Kong”.

The International Labour Organisation defines child trafficking as the movement of a child with the purpose of labour exploitation – and says that migration-related cases are the “worst form of child labour”.

What makes the plight of girls such as Lia even worse, campaigners say, is they are often victimised a second time by the laws in the countries employing them. It is not uncommon to see workers punished for using a passport forged by their agency – an offence that carries a maximum of 14 years in jail, yet Hong Kong’s Labour Department has reported no prosecutions regarding the forced labour of underage foreign domestic helpers in the past 5 years.

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Fear of being punished makes underage workers too scared to complain when they suffer the sort of abuse meted out to Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, an Indonesian maid who became a cause celebre after her Hong Kong employer was jailed for six years for abuse. Erwiana’s willingness to speak out about what was until then a rarely discussed subject helped propel her to Time magazine’s list of most powerful people in 2014.

But campaigners say that unless places such as Hong Kong and Singapore tighten human trafficking legislation to protect underage victims from prosecution, maids much younger than Erwiana, who was in her 20s, will continue to suffer in silence.

Lia was among those too scared to speak. When she arrived in Macau, her employer forced her to work from dawn to the middle of every night cleaning a three-storey salon and a home, cooking, doing laundry and massaging her female employer. The work was exhausting; the abuse was worse. “I didn’t understand the language and the employer was always screaming at me,” she recalled in a soft voice, eyes downcast.

She ran away once more after her employer locked her in the bathroom overnight for failing to feed the five dogs fast enough. She reached out to her agency, but it refused to help. “The agency said my passport belonged to them because I hadn’t finished my contract,” she said.

On the streets, vulnerable and still just 14, Lia found a job washing dishes at a restaurant. Two years later, she was discovered by immigration authorities and imprisoned for not having the proper documents. Fearing the worst, she kept her true age a secret and was deported to Indonesia. Unable to return to her family, she found another agency that promised to send her to Hong Kong as soon as she got a new passport.

In the interim eight months, she worked in their office processing the travel documents of other applicants. “I had to sign fake signatures on different documents,” said Lia, who described a “well-oiled system” for processing forged passports for underage girls.

She arrived in Hong Kong in 2010, a veteran of the world of work at the tender age of 17.

“I was still young. [Like others my age] I could not fend for myself or deal with problems. I felt pain. Pain from everyone. Scared of getting beaten,” she said.

Cynthia Abdon-Tellez, general manager of the Mission For Migrant Workers in Hong Kong, said: “I would say there are hundreds of Indonesian domestic helpers who are underage... and a few Filipinos [we know of]. It is child trafficking. It is evil. It damages the child.”

The International Labour Organisation said in 2013 that at least 15.5 million children aged between 5 and 17 were engaged in domestic work globally and 7.4 million of these were between 5 and 14. It was unequivocal about what should be done: “All domestic work by children is a form of child labour to be abolished,” it said.

But the laws regarding domestic workers leave multiple loopholes to be exploited, say campaigners.

Hong Kong’s Immigration Department has no legal age requirement for foreign domestic helpers, though each applicant is supposed to have two years’ experience. It prohibits children under 13 from all forms of work, while children under 15 cannot work in production, factories or heavy industries.

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Even then, cases slip through. In a rare documented case, the Hong Kong Medical Journal in April 2005 reported an 11-year-old girl from Guangdong, mainland China, had been admitted to a hospital in Tuen Mun with multiple injuries. The girl had been working as a helper for her aunt for one year in return for a HK$1,000 payment made to her parents.

Authorities likened her suffering to that of a 19th century “Mui Tsai” slave – referring to a system of child slavery once common in Hong Kong and Macau. Mui Tsai (‘little sisters’) were sold by poor families at a young age to work as domestic servants or in brothels under the condition they be freed through marriage when older.

The Mui Tsai system was phased out in Hong Kong in the years leading up to 1930, but the region’s reliance on domestic workers has never really gone away. Since 1974, Hong Kong has allowed foreign migrant domestic live-in helpers to work full-time for families, freeing up local women to work outside the home. Employers must provide a monthly wage of at least HK$4,310 along with food and board, travel costs and one day off a week.

The system has brought much needed employment to people in many of the region’s poorest nations and provided those countries with key sources of foreign exchange in the form of the workers’ remittances home.

There are over 340,000 foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong, mostly from the region’s poorer nations such as the Philippines (177,619 according to the 2016 Census), Indonesia (154,073 according to the consulate), Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia operate similar systems to Hong Kong.

Apart from the workers and their national economies, the system has also proved lucrative for a legion of middle men – the recruitment agencies – the more unscrupulous of whom have embraced child trafficking to boost their bottom lines.

Eni Lestari, chairperson of International Migrants Alliance, said there had been a boom in the number of child migrants sent out from Indonesia in the 1980s and that the numbers had peaked during the Asian financial crisis. “No one is giving attention to this. No NGO yet has done an in-depth study on underage women among overseas migrants,” said Lestari.

Around the same time as the boom in Indonesian child migrants, the Philippine government recognised the problem when it changed the legal age for women working abroad from 21 to 25 years.

But unscrupulous agencies had found those restrictions easy to dodge especially when some forgeries were “connected to government departments” and there was “a whole lot of corruption going on”, said Abdon-Tellez of HK’s Mission For Migrant Workers.

Patrick Chan, the general manager of Hong Kong’s Wellmark employment services consultancy, said agencies in Indonesia hired middle men or brokers, sometimes called sponsors, to recruit women from villages, and that some of these lured teenagers by promising them “fast money”.

“It’s a rotten story. It is child trafficking and child labour,” said Chan, though he added there was little Hong Kong agencies could do. “As an agency in Hong Kong, we trust the document that is issued by the government of Indonesia.”

TWICE THE VICTIM

It’s the victims of this “rotten story” who are most likely to feel the force of the law.

While agents can be prosecuted under human trafficking aspects of Hong Kong law, Sandy Wong, chairwoman of the Anti-Human-Trafficking Committee of the Hong Kong Federation of Women Lawyers, said the easiest crime to prove was forgery.

It’s hard to prove local agencies are aware of forgeries and hard to prosecute agencies in other countries. That leaves just one scapegoat. “The workers, unfortunately, as they are the holders of such forged documents…criminality is hard to deny,” said Wong.

In Hong Kong, using a forged travel document or making a false representation to an Immigration officer can both lead to imprisonment for 14 years or a fine of HK$150,000. Aiders and abettors are liable to the same penalties, but in practice the workers bear the brunt.

Abdon-Tellez said that within the past few years her organisation had helped 14 Indonesians jailed for having forged passports and 10 who were able to avoid arrest.

Consul General Tri Tharyat, at the Indonesian consulate in Hong Kong, said he was monitoring the cases of 41 domestic workers suspected of using forged passports. Of these, four people had been sentenced to jail, two released from jail and deported and 23 given new visas. Thirteen were waiting to hear their fate. The consulate had discovered 30 cases of false passports while transferring to a new biometric system.

He said the problem was not unique to Hong Kong and blamed employment agencies in Indonesia.“The women [often] don’t have a choice. Some of them were given a passport on the day of departure,” he said.

The Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), an NGO in Singapore, said the number of underage domestic workers coming forward had risen in the past two years.

Jolovan Wham, acting executive director of HOME, said it had helped 10 children with forged passports – from Myanmar, Indonesia and India.

“They are immature and not prepared for life as live-in domestic workers, which can be very stressful. They are also vulnerable to sexual abuse,” Wham said.

These girls had reached out because of physical, verbal and sexual abuse. “These women are unwilling to disclose their age out of fear of being penalised. Singapore doesn’t have any laws [that would protect child trafficking victims from prosecution],” said Wham.

At around the same time Lia was in Macau, Siti, 14, was sent by a different agency from East Java, Indonesia, to Singapore. The agent promised a good life with a high salary and her impoverished parents agreed. She handed her passport over and it was returned with a date of birth that made her 23. “They plucked my eyebrows and shaped them to make me look older. They used a random woman’s photo,” she said.

Siti signed a contract in English , but had no idea what it said. “I didn’t understand and I didn’t ask. They trained me to lie about my age and to keep repeating, ‘I am 23’. We are all scared that’s why no one talks about changing ages. I’m scared whenever we deal with government.”

For the next 14 months, Siti worked for a Swiss family, surviving on the one cup of noodles her employer’s mother gave her every day. “The grandma thought I was dirty and full of germs. She controlled me. I cried everyday. I was hungry.”

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Siti received only S$20 (HK$111) for 14 months of toil, so she ran away. “I wanted to go home but I felt shame. I had no money,” she said. She found another family but left that one too, after her employer refused to pay a medical bill when she broke her hand working. She returned to Indonesia before finding work in Hong Kong, arriving there in 2011 – like Lia, a veteran of domestic work at 17.

Siti is still haunted by what happened. “It has been hard. I’ve been abused. I lost my childhood. I lost everything. I only knew hard work,” Siti said.

Life’s better now; Siti earns HK$5,000 a month, above the minimum wage and dreams of going into business to give jobs to the unemployed men in her village.

VOICES BEING HEARD

Campaigners like Lestari want authorities to see helpers with forged passports as the victims of exploitation. They want a comprehensive anti-trafficking law to shield them from jail. “[Governments] have to see it from the angle of human trafficking,” Lestari said.

There are signs their voices are being heard. Sources said the Indonesian consulate had spoken to Hong Kong’s Immigration Department regarding the issue.

Meanwhile, Tharyat’s government is taking a hardline stance on employment agencies. “There will be more crackdowns on agencies in Indonesia. Mainly to look for bad agencies that change the passports of prospective workers,” he said. Two months ago, Jakarta suspended 190 agencies for using illegal procedures in sending workers in various sectors overseas.

Such measures come too late for Lia. Now 26, she tears up when reflecting on her life. “I never thought I would become a domestic helper. What I really wanted to do was study. I would have liked to work at a bank.”