Survey reveals extent of abuse of foreign maids in Hong Kong

But aid group believes figures are tip of iceberg with many victims too scared to lodge complaints

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 August, 2013, 9:43am

The first time "Maria" was raped, she didn't tell anybody. "The first thing that came to my mind was that I didn't want to lose my job."

The 25-year old domestic worker from the Philippines was just a month into her job with a family in Kowloon City when the first attack happened. A second attack forced her to flee.

"I left at midnight, without anything. I just had a small bag. I was still in my pyjamas," she recalled.

Maria's ordeal - which ended recently when her case collapsed due to the deterioration of evidence because she was too late going to a doctor - is at the extreme end of what new figures reveal is the widespread abuse facing the city's tens of thousands of domestic workers.

Data gathered by the Mission for Migrant Workers, which surveyed more than 3,000 women last year, found 58 per cent had faced verbal abuse, 18 per cent physical abuse and 6 per cent sexual abuse. Experts believe the figures represent only the tip of the iceberg as many victims are too scared or ill-informed to lodge complaints.

"The number of unreported cases is obviously unknown," said Cynthia Dacanay, a case worker at the mission, adding: "Some consider abuse a normal thing for maids to experience.''

After a night wandering the streets, Maria's friends took her to the mission in the grounds of St John's Cathedral in Central, which has been providing resources and legal aid for domestic workers since 1981. "I was empowered when I came here. I became stronger," she said.

Dacanay said the Philippine consulate advised Maria to return to the Philippines and not pursue legal action, a charge the consulate vehemently denies.

Hong Kong's often-criticised employment laws for domestic helpers compounded Maria's situation. When a contract ends, a foreign worker has only 14 days to find a new employer, which many say is not enough time. If unsuccessful, a worker must return home or face prosecution.

Maria was granted several visa extensions as her case went through the legal system but she was forbidden by law from working and had to rely on charity. For more than a year she has been living at the Bethune House shelter in Jordan in a cramped dormitory with other women.

Sri, 40, from Indonesia, did not know her employer was supposed to provide medical treatment. "I just signed the contract without reading it because I don't know English," she said.

She said that when she became ill with a throat ailment, her employer of six years tried to trick her into going back to Indonesia. Sri now also lives at Bethune.

For many women, violations are a way of life. Reports of no food or food allowance, delayed pay, working on holidays and not being provided reasonable privacy are common. As with Maria, job security is the main reason most choose to remain silent.

Another source of exploitation can be the agencies that place most foreign workers, with many charging exorbitant commissions despite the law.

In the Philippines, many agencies also insist on a steep upfront fee as a condition for placement in Hong Kong, even though this violates Philippine law.

Despite losing her legal battle, Maria recently filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunities Commission, which she hopes will launch a further investigation, but she is also looking to move on. "I plan to look for another employer," she said. "I have to work for my kids."