Shelters for distressed domestic helpers in Hong Kong face closure over lack of funds
City’s vulnerable migrant women seek refuge at Bethune House, which offers lodging and other services at two centres it runs, but the charity only has funds until June
For four years and 10 months, Surati, an Indonesian domestic helper in Hong Kong, had no mobile phone, could not visit her family back home, and was required to remain in her employer’s house unless she had to run errands.
“My son has forgotten me, because I could not call or see him,” she said.
The pain of fading from her child’s memory was even more unbearable than the abuse she had to endure in the city. “When ‘mam was upset, she would slap me,” Surati, 28, said of her former employer.
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“I accepted all of this because I was afraid. She told me that if I returned to Indonesia, I could not come back and work here again.”
Surati – who did not want to disclose her surname – arrived in Hong Kong in 2012 leaving her 1½-year-old son behind in hopes of earning enough abroad to support her family back home.
She found work in the city, but lived with an employer whose temper would one day lead to an iron being thrown at the domestic helper. Surati claimed she was also beaten up in the incident.
She was left with a swollen and bruised eye and other injuries all over her body.
The following day the helper plucked up enough courage to leave her employer’s home, heading to the nearest police station where she finally disclose details of the alleged abuse to officers. She had kept silent for almost five years.
Surati is now waiting for a case at the Labour Tribunal to be concluded, after which she expects to receive more than HK$100,000 (US$12,700) that had been illegally deducted from her salary.
She is one of the 29 migrant women currently staying at two centres run by Bethune House, which has sheltered mostly vulnerable domestic helpers and children over the past 30 years. The centres, however, now face closure because of a lack of funding.
If they shut down, thousands of workers, Surati among them, may be left with no support.
There are only about 10 of such shelters in Hong Kong, a city with more than 380,000 domestic helpers, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia. The need for such workers is expected to increase in the coming decades amid a greying population and demand for care services.
Last year, Bethune House provided support for about 700 migrant women. But with the withdrawal of a major donor, the two shelters – which are completely reliant on private donations – now only have enough funds to last until the end of June.
According to Cynthia Abdon-Tellez, board member and co-founder of the Bethune House, the charity needs about HK$120,000 a month to pay for rent, bills and food.
They have been organising small fundraising initiatives in recent months, but have so far only raised about 30 per cent of the budget needed for the year.
“This is something we cannot go without,” Abdon-Tellez said, noting there were daily cases of domestic helpers having their contracts terminated, with the women at risk of becoming homeless.
The Bethune House, which provides shelter, food, welfare, case guidance and training, also runs a hotline and conducts rescue operations.
Surati said if she had not found safety and care at the charity, she would not have had the strength or means to pursue her case.
“I could not even eat,” she recalled. “At Bethune House, I made friends, learned handicrafts and was able to video call my son.”
The Hong Kong government does not allow domestic helpers with pending criminal or civil cases to work, leaving them dependent on charity-run shelters.
According to experts, such limitations dissuade workers from coming forward and force many to drop their cases or settle out of court.
“It disempowers them a lot. These are already very hard decisions to make and they always have their families in the back of their minds,” said Abdon-Tellez, who is also general manager of the Mission for Migrant Workers, an NGO. “If they think they can bear the abuse, they usually continue working.”
Taking a case to court could mean several months of unemployment for a domestic helper, a risk most of them are unwilling to take as such migrant women are often the only source of income for their families back home.
Ariane Dimacali, 29, a single mother from the Philippines who is also staying at Bethune House, moved to Hong Kong to put her two children – a son 13, and a daughter, 10 – through school.
But a criminal case and a labour dispute that stretched for about seven months left her with no salary and her kids had to stop taking classes. “This breaks my heart. I came here to make sure they could go to school. I was not able to finish my schooling so I want them to do it,” she said.
Life for Dimacali, who arrived in Hong Kong in 2015 after working in the Middle East, became a nightmare once she took up her second job in the city. Most days, she would have to get up at 6am and would only be allowed to go to bed at 3am.
She alleged verbal abuse and illegal deductions of her salary.
If she overcooked her employer’s food, a certain amount would be deducted from her salary. When fruits went rotten, she would have to pay for them. If the meat did not defrost quickly enough, she had to sit and do it by the swimming pool. She was also blamed if she did not brush the family cat’s fur meticulously every day.
“I could not survive like that,” she said.
When she tried to quit, she ended up being arrested. “I was accused of stealing a necklace … I was in prison for a day but later the case was dropped because of lack of evidence,” she said.
She filed a claim with the Labour Department over illegal deductions of her salary and this week finally received more than HK$20,000.
At Bethune House, Dimacali started putting on the pounds she had lost at her former employer’s home eating leftovers. What she gained back most, however, was her self-esteem.
“[My employer’s daughter] used to call me a dog. She would say I was not a person. She would call me an idiot and other things in Cantonese,” Dimacali said. “This really hurt me,” she said, crying at the memory. “At some point I wanted to kill myself. I was so stressed.”
“Now I just want to return to the Philippines. See my children and recover. And then start working again to send them back to school,” Dimacali said.
In the meantime, she said she hoped other migrant women could receive the help they needed in Hong Kong. “I hope that there are kind-hearted people willing to support this shelter … I don’t know what I would have done without it.”