My Take

Domestic helpers in Hong Kong must be protected from abuse

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 January, 2014, 2:41am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 January, 2014, 10:38am

You will hear all kinds of excuses and defences about how Hong Kong has better legal protection for foreign maids than most other jurisdictions. Officials, agents and bosses will circle their wagons, insisting what happened was an isolated incident rather than something widespread.

But like many people, I have seen photos of abused Indonesian domestic worker Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, 23, on the internet. And I am ashamed - as a Hongkonger. Now recovering in Indonesia, she has been beaten, with her body covered with cuts and burns; her feet have open sores and turned black from being scalded by boiling water. A second maid has come forward, claiming she had endured similar physical abuse for months from the same woman employer. Police are investigating, but no arrest has been made. Erwiana's lawyers hope to help her launch a lawsuit.

No doubt the alleged abuse here was extreme. But read enough about abuse cases in court and you must conclude they are not uncommon - cases like that of Kartika Puspitasari, who was chained to a chair and made to wear adult diapers while her boss's family went on a vacation. I won't go so far as Time magazine to call exploited Indonesian maids "modern-day slaves". But however you describe their conditions, it's exploitation.

We have more than 300,000 foreign domestic helpers, who form an integral part of our society. So things cannot change overnight. But some legal rules that have been in place have encouraged their exploitation and made it difficult, if not impossible, for abused maids to seek redress. They can and must be changed. Foreign maids have only two weeks to stay in Hong Kong without employment after they are sacked for whatever reason. This puts them at the mercy of agencies, as they must go back to them to find a new contract quickly. They must also live with their employers. In an abuse situation, this makes it difficult to escape; rather, they become captives. Both the two-week and live-in rules should be amended to allow for greater flexibility and protection.

Hong Kong would be a better place with far fewer maids. But that's unlikely to happen anytime soon. So we must protect them better if we are to look ourselves in the mirror.