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Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong

Bethune House, the shelter for Hong Kong’s distressed domestic helpers, has won a reprieve from threat of closure – for now

Chairwoman Doris Lee urged the government to provide charity with permanent premises

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 July, 2018, 9:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 July, 2018, 9:01am

A shelter for Hong Kong’s distressed foreign domestic workers facing the threat of closure has been given a reprieve – until September at least.

The future of Bethune House, which was set up in 1986, was temporarily secured after schools, churches and individuals all chipped in to raise about 65 per cent of its HK$1 million (US$127,000) survival target. However, it still needed to raise the remainder of its target to keep going after that.

Bethune chairwoman Doris Lee wrote to Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, appealing for the government to provide a permanent shelter for domestic workers who had been abused or evicted from the home or workplace of their bosses.

Lee said providing the charity with a home of its own would send a “strong signal” about the government’s respect and concern for the well-being of about 380,000 helpers in Hong Kong, mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines.

Bethune relies mainly on donations for the upkeep of its two shelters on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, which last year served about 700 foreign domestic workers. It rents the two shelters for a total of HK$27,000 a month.

Its overseas church funding dried up after they focused on less developed territories.

The Post revealed Bethune House’s dire financial straits in May, prompting donors to come forward with about HK$650,000 raised so far.

The shelter has also twice benefited from Operation Santa Claus, an annual charity campaign jointly run by the South China Morning Post and RTHK since 1988. In 2013, it received HK$1 million for a 36-month project and in 2017, it received HK$750,000. Executive director Edwina Antonio-Santoyo said it had applied again. The OSC selection committee will decide on the 2018 beneficiaries in August.

Can stories from these domestic helpers keep care shelter afloat? 

In the meantime, local fundraising projects have helped keep the shelter afloat.

West Island School raised more than HK$24,000 from a coin collecting challenge while Bradbury School raised more than HK$16,000 from a no-uniform day.

Churches such as St Joseph’s, Methodist and St Stephen’s also donated cash, while three individuals each gave HK$100,000 after visiting the shelter in Sheung Wan.

The shelter, lined with metal bunk beds can fit 13 women and has a collapsible dining table, several plastic chairs and a small kitchen. The windowless flat is stuffy with the air conditioning switched on for short periods only when necessary at night.

Shelters are important because if you don’t have anywhere to live, your tendency is not to pursue your case
Edwina Antonio-Santoyo, Bethune House

Bethune’s two full-time members of staff take care of all the needs of distressed workers, from taking statements, listing out claims or escorting them to Immigration and Labour department offices for visa extensions as they wait for the resolution of cases that could take up to three months.

“If it is a police case, it can take six months to a year,” Santoyo said. “During that period [helpers] are not allowed to work.”

Santoyo said a network of volunteers rescued workers forced from their employers’ homes at dawn, some left in the middle of the street with nothing but the clothes they are wearing.

“Shelters are important because if you don’t have anywhere to live, your tendency is not to pursue your case,” Santoyo said.

Marites Canacio, who spent 40 days in jail and waited five months before her June 15 acquittal, said from her home in Manila on Monday: “It was good I was able to seek advice from [Santoyo]”.

The mother of a teenage daughter hoped domestic workers in the same predicament would know where to seek help.

Jackelyn Cornejo, a mother of two from Isabela in northern Philippines, also spent 40 days in jail before Bethune bailed her out and took her in.

She was acquitted of theft of her boss’s rings on June 21 and is awaiting a Labour Tribunal hearing next week to claim HK$10,000 against the employer in Tuen Mun.