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Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong

The plight of domestic helpers falsely accused of crimes by unscrupulous employers

While some foreign domestic helpers do commit crimes, others who unaware of their rights in the countries where they work can be tricked into incriminating themselves, say NGOs helping workers charged with offences

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 December, 2017, 8:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 December, 2017, 8:03am

When Lifi Nurfitriyah was sentenced to nine months in a Singapore jail, after admitting to six counts of theft, she became the latest in a string of overseas domestic workers to make headlines this year.

Lifi, 26, was found guilty in September of withdrawing S$9,400 (US$6,970) from her employer’s bank account using a stolen ATM card.

A month earlier attention fell on Siti Nur Sopiyati, another Indonesian helper in the city state, who was handed a jail sentence of 12 months for stealing more than S$50,000 worth of luxury goods from her boss, Lisa Lee. Siti Nur was arrested after posing on Instagram with the stolen items, including a Chopard watch and an Hermès wallet.

This year alone, there have been more than a dozen newspaper reports of theft cases involving Indonesian domestic workers abroad.

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In a high-profile Hong Kong case, 30-year-old Rospeni, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, pleaded guilty in January to stealing luxury handbags and jewellery worth more than HK$500,000 (US$64,000) from singer and actress Cecilia Cheung Pak-chi.

However, not every theft allegation levelled at a domestic worker is quite what it seems, and because the accused are often unaware of their rights and ignorant of the legal system in the countries where they are working, they can find themselves at risk of being wrong-footed and even wrongly convicted.

In April this year, a Filipino helper was accused of stealing a watch worth HK$8,600 from her Hong Kong employer. The helper had only been working in Hong Kong for two months, after a six-year, problem-free stint in Dubai.

Her employer reportedly found the watch among her belongings, but the circumstances behind her search remain unknown. After being reported to police and having her contract terminated, the helper reported her employer for withholding her previous month’s salary – which is also illegal, even if a helper has been charged with a criminal offence.

Edwina Antonio, a board member of Hong Kong-based Mission for Migrant Workers, says the NGO has seen a number of cases in which helpers are falsely accused of theft for dubious reasons. For example, under Hong Kong law, employers are required to pay a long-service payment to helpers once they have been in their service for five years.

Employers have been known to try to avoid making the long-service payment by filing criminal charges against their helper, Antonio says. Although in some cases innocent workers have been acquitted, others are intimidated into pleading guilty and end up in prison, she adds.

“They were found guilty only because of how they responded to the police. I think culture plays a role such cases as well; the workers are afraid of the authorities and the court. Some even believe their wealthy employer can get away with anything.”

“As of October 2017, we have dealt with 17 cases of theft” so far this year, Antonio says. The majority of the cases involved workers from the Philippines and Indonesia.

According to Hong Kong Labour Department statistics, there are more than 350,000 foreign domestic workers in the city – about 10 per cent of the region’s workforce. A total of 49 per cent are from Indonesia, 48 per cent from the Philippines, and the rest from various other countries.

Antonio says the NGO helps migrant workers examine statements taken from them by the police and apply for a lawyer to assist them with legal proceedings.

“Sometimes they are not aware [of the implications] of the statements they give. Or that whatever they say can be used as evidence,” she says.

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Jakarta-based Roma Hidayat, founder of the Advocacy for Indonesian Migrant Workers Agency (ADBMI), says the agency thoroughly investigates allegations of theft involving Indonesian workers. The first step is to check with police in the worker’s hometown to determine whether they already have a criminal record. He says the agency has received 17 complaints this year from migrant workers accused of theft and robbery.

Roma argues that a domestic helper with a clean record back home is less likely to become involved in criminal activity.

“We investigate the case and talk to their family and friends about their reputation. This is important so they don’t become a victim of fraudulent charges,” he says.

During investigations, he adds, the agency often bypasses the Indonesian Foreign Ministry and coordinates with a network of other civil society organisations, because the Indonesian government often tends to lay blame on the workers.

“We compare the official information from the consulate with the worker’s statement and other information we receive from our network,” he says.

Lalu Muhammad Iqbal, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry’s director for protection of its citizens, insists that the government does its best to assist domestic workers abroad who have landed themselves in trouble.

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“I think the legal system works in Hong Kong, and [criminal charges] can be processed fairly. Even though there have been criminal cases filed against our workers there, the number is relatively small,” says Lalu.

According to Lalu, the highest number of theft reports against domestic workers is made in Malaysia. There are currently 2.5 million Indonesians working in the country. That’s followed by Saudi Arabia, where 24 Indonesian workers are currently on death row in the city of Jeddah alone. The penalty for theft under Islamic law in Saudi Arabia can be harsh, involving severing one of the convicted person’s hands, although such extreme punishment is rare.

Lalu says the Indonesian authorities are quick to step in when one of its nationals overseas is accused of a criminal offence. “It is the government’s duty to ensure its citizens’ legal rights are upheld in the process. But we don’t have the obligation to exonerate someone from their criminal charge,” he says. “If they are guilty then they must accept the consequences.”

To help prevent migrant workers becoming victims in criminal cases, Roma says his agency conducts training for women applying for jobs overseas, explaining how the law works in the countries they will be travelling to, what their rights are, and how they can defend themselves.

The agency holds workshops in villages in West Nusa Tenggara and East Java, areas that send the highest number of migrant workers abroad. Roma believes, however, that more still needs to be done to protect migrant workers. Unfortunately, due to the large number of job applicants and limited resources, the agency cannot cater to everyone.

The majority of domestic helpers working overseas originate from Southeast Asian countries, with the highest numbers being citizens of Indonesia and the Philippines. The two countries are home to a migrant domestic workforce of an estimated 6.7 million people – 4.5 million Indonesians and 2.2 million Filipinos.

They were found guilty only because of how they responded to the police. I think culture plays a role such cases as well; the workers are afraid of the authorities and the court. Some even believe their wealthy employer can get away with anything
Edwina Antonio

Roma lauds a renewed regional effort to protect overseas domestic workers. At the 31st Asean Summit in Manila in November, leaders of member states signed the Asean Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers.

The last time the regional grouping made a breakthrough on the issue was through the Asean Declaration on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers, which was signed in January 2007.

“One of the key features of the consensus is for all countries in Southeast Asia to afford the same level of protection to migrant workers as they do to their own citizens in terms of labour contracts, standards and access to legal representation, and especially access to consular representation,” Robespierre Bolivar, Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman, told Philippine media.

The consensus may be a welcome stepping stone to more equitable rights, because Asean countries have different perceptions of migrant workers, according to Jose Tavares, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry’s director general of Asean cooperation.

Tavares says countries from which migrant workers originate, such as the Philippines and Indonesia, and countries where they go to work, such as Malaysia and Singapore, typically have difficulty working out their differences on the issue.

“A [regional] instrument is necessary to protect them,” he tells the South China Morning Post.